To mark the BFI’s season ‘Dennis Hopper: Icon of Oblivion’ which celebrates the filmic work of the maverick actor, director and artist, who died in 2010, we take an illustrated look at his extensive career.
The season continues at BFI Southbank until the end of July 2014 and coincides with the photographic exhibition ‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, which runs until 19 October 2014.
More information on Chris Doherty can be found here.
The road movie genre and the vast geographical and often turbulent social landscape of the United States of America have, over the years, proved endlessly fertile territory for filmmakers, writers and actors alike. Counter-culture dropouts, anti-heroes (and heroines), warring families, dispossessed loners and happy-go-lucky friends have travelled the length and breadth of the US on journeys always as emotionally affecting as they are literal, whatever the destinations or eventual narrative resolutions. The late 1960s and early 1970s in particular saw a spate of such movies, an entirely understandable outcome given the radical social upheavals of the era, with the likes of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson,1970) rubbing contemporaneous shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971) and Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973).
Amid these releases, Jerry Schatzberg, fresh from directing a young Al Pacino as Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), gave audiences his own take on the genre in the shape of the Palme d’Or winning Scarecrow. Again featuring Pacino, this time as Francis Lionel ‘Lion’ Delbuchi, a good natured but emotionally immature ex-sailor, alongside Gene Hackman as volatile ex-convict Max Millan, Scarecrow ‘s narrative journey follows the path of those on the margins of society. Working-class drifters rather than counter-culture rebels, Lion and Max, one a bundle of naïvety, energy and humour, the other ill-tempered, uptight and world weary, are both searching for something, anything, to give their lives direction. Hoboing their way from California to Pittsburgh, where Max dreams of opening a car wash, the apposite personalities (exemplified by Pacino and Hackman’s contrasting acting styles) come to have a profound effect on each other during their sometimes comedic, other times brutal, experiences. Lion and Max’s adult coming-of-age journeys become inextricably linked as their buddy-movie partnership is tested both by outside forces and their own, very recognizable, human foibles.
Dust bowl landscapes, railroad sidings, flea-pit bars, roadside diners, correctional facilities and industrial wastelands on the outskirts of cities are the environments inhabited by Lion and Max, aptly mirroring their outsider status. The spaces and places traversed and visited are peopled by non-professional extras and stunningly captured in widescreen by Vilmos Zsigmond, who would later shoot Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) and Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981) among many others. Issues surrounding the American Dream, adult responsibilities, social status and masculinity are filtered through Lion and Max’s changing relationship, with Garry Michael White’s impressive debut screenplay giving Pacino and Hackman plenty of scope for impassioned monologues and quick-fire, semi-improvised dialogue interplay. Schatzberg directs in a loose-limbed fashion that fits the unsettled, scatter-shot lifestyles of his central protagonists. Short snappy vignettes flow into longer, sprawling sequences with overt comedy interrupted by outbursts of violence, reflective melancholy, casual cruelty and genuine tenderness.
Now forty years after its original release, Schatzberg’s sprawling drama has been fully digitally restored and plays for two weeks at the BFI during April and May. With its two peerless leads delivering riveting performances, this snapshot of the landscape of early 1970s America – external and internal – is a fine entry into the road movie canon.
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
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews