Tag Archives: Bruce Dern

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Corman's World poster

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 26 March 2012

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Director: Alex Stapleton

USA 2011

95 mins

Some years ago, I was invited to write a piece on a cinematic cult hero. I chose Roger Corman without hesitation. This was doubly fortuitous as I had just been lucky enough to have interviewed the misnamed ‘King of the B’s’. He was gracious, savvy, witty, charming, informed and possessed amazing recall of many of the characters who had graduated from the so-called Corman School. This was all the more noteworthy as he was already 81 and still had seven or so film projects on the go. Corman proved to be a gentleman and an inspiration, and so it is only fair to paraphrase - in this season of Shakespeare - the following line: ‘I come to praise Corman, not to bury him’. That is my caveat to readers of this review of Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a long-overdue documentary on this unique (now 86-year-old) maverick producer/director now released on DVD, as this is a film for savouring, leaving all critical baggage in the hallway.

This documentary’s tone is by turns witty and irreverent while keeping a proper historical and biographical eye on things. It is as controlled a piece of presentation as one could desire given the breadth - not always depth - of the Corman oeuvre. Director Alex Stapleton has come up with an exemplary documentary that respects and plays with conventions and tropes of Corman’s style - and cheesiness - in a fascinating piece of ‘other’ Hollywood history. And what a history! You want to give a first chance to young directors? How about the following list, whose sophomore efforts were overseen by Corman: Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Robert Altman, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Robert Towne, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Anderson, Paul Bartel and Richard Rush - to name a few. Young actors to play the parts? Pam Grier, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson (who breaks down and cries with his reflections), Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, Talia Shire, Sandra Bullock and Robert De Niro - not a bad list. Many of the above still hold Corman in great esteem and offer fine insights into the man during the course of the documentary.

As part of the legendary American International Pictures, Corman directed and/or produced the terrific Edgar Allan Poe cycle and dozens of low-budget drive-in ‘classics’ with titles like The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Caged Heat, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. When he struck out on his own with New World Pictures he not only continued to make delicious drive-in fodder but commenced distribution of foreign language films that no one else would touch. It was due to Corman’s work in this field that American audiences were introduced to, among other films, Fellini’s Amarcord, Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Corman seemed to move seamlessly from drive-in classic to art-house classic with an unerring sense of both. Who else can compare? Corman is a one-off, and although Hollywood ignored him - though studios were happy to poach his subject matter - they eventually saw the light and honoured him (thankfully not posthumously) with an Honorary Academy Award, which is the touching ‘money shot’ of the film.

Almost worth the price of admission alone though, are the end credits that have a high-octane, spirit-raising rendition of ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ by the Ramones from Rock and Roll High School while clips from various films and decades - he made hundreds: 10 films in 1957 alone - literally explode onto the screen. Clips which highlight the maestro’s instinctive understanding of the cultural zeitgeist and the genres he developed for a growing baby boom audience: monster movies, sci-fi, horror (especially his apogee with the Poe cycle), beach party frolics, bikers, rock n’ roll sagas, speeding car spectaculars, gritty blacksploitation flicks, counter-culture tales - you name your sub-culture and Roger Corman was there, well before Time magazine could do a cover story on it. And all on miniscule budgets and legendary production miserliness - as he himself observes: ‘You can make Lawrence of Arabia for half a million dollars - you just don’t leave the tent’.

Thankfully there has been no ‘Premature Burial’ of either Corman or his cinematic products - as his co-producer wife of many years states when commenting on Corman’s attitude to on-set or professional set-backs, ‘the dogs bark but the caravan moves on’. My only real disappointment with this DVD is that it only lasts for a mere 95 minutes (which rush by) and not for at least 180!

James B. Evans

Silent Running

Silent Running

Format: Cinema

Screening dates: 21-27 October 2011

Venue: ICA, London

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 14 November 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Writers: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco

Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin

USA 1971

90 mins

The future. Earth is defoliated, the last remaining plant life confined to geodesic domes floating in deep space. When the order is given to destroy the gardens, the botanist rebels, murders his crewmates and sails one garden off through Saturn’s rings.

Silent Running is a film to see when you’re young, if you can arrange it that way. Revisiting it, decades after a BBC2 screening in the 70s, I was struck by how curiously illogical it all is, full of plot contrivances that don’t make any sense except as stepping stones to the next emotional moment. You can see it’s a director’s film, and the services of three writers, including Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) and Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), haven’t tamed the unruly vision into something narratively coherent.

The director in question is Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special effects on 2001, and here used his expertise to create a visually impressive science fiction epic on a budget of a million dollars. The excellent extras on Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray fill in the details of how he managed this (with great ingenuity and skill, is the short answer).

One budgetary saving was made by having actor Bruce Dern alone on screen for much of the movie, a Robinson Crusoe figure slowly deteriorating mentally through guilt and loneliness, with only his robot servants for company. If you’re going to make a naí¯ve, didactic eco-fable, Dern’s casting is very smart: since the other astronauts are interchangeable louts and the scales are heavily weighted in favour of the eco-conscious space hippy, it helps that Dern makes him shrill, manic, passive-aggressive and obnoxious from time to time. Without altogether losing our sympathy, he gives the thing an edge. With his narrow, vaguely rodent-like face, blazing blue irises and tiny, pin-prick pupils, Dern stops Freeman Lowell becoming some sort of tree-hugging Jesus. The fact that the script makes him a murderer also helps, and the film pulls towards an exploration of guilt, an all-consuming torment that consumes the character even as he tries to create a new Eden.

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The science is notably weak, to the point where the film seems to be more allegory than speculative fiction, and the strange and potent image of a child’s watering can in space suggests that Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may have more to do with this movie than 2001. Indeed, even the ecological message may be a red herring. We’re told that everywhere on Earth is 75 degrees: an air-conditioned, sterile paradise has been created, rather than the uninhabitable, polluted wasteland of global warming prophecy. Lowell’s objection to that is more aesthetic or spiritual than pragmatic, ‘the simple beauty of a leaf’ being something a child should experience for the good of the soul. So while the Peter Schikele/Joan Baez songs insist on the vitality of nature, from a nostalgic point of view where all that is to perish, the film’s real interests may actually be more elusive.

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, made at a far lower cost than Silent Running‘s tight one million, is likely to remain for most the space hippy movie of choice, but Trumbull has an ace up his tie-dyed sleeve. His last image, of a lonely robot drifting away from us in a floating garden, is the seed from which the whole of Wall-E grew, as well as providing Spielberg with his closing credits for Close Encounters. And while Carpenter’s country song accompaniment to space travel is irresistibly comic, and Spielberg’s use of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ inescapably kitsch, I find the combination of deep space and folk music peculiarly moving here.

Silent Running screens at the ICA, London, from Oct 21 to 27.

David Cairns