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“The Roger Corman Collection,” “Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Roger Corman’s “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” part of “The Roger Corman Collection,” MGM]

One of American film’s most famous producers, Roger Corman is also a thoroughly maligned figure, critically speaking. No one has yet made a thoroughgoing case for Corman as an auteur, and it’s easy to see why: Corman himself has never professed to be anything but a money-monger, and his boasts over more than a half-century of prolific culture-making have always been about how cheaply and quickly his movies were made. (His merciless thrift is also what allowed him to become something of a film school brat intern factory, giving low-paying first jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, George Armitage, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, et al.) But even the most profit-minded producer/director, if he personally churns out an average of seven films a year for more than a half-century, stands a good chance at stumbling into disarming originality and resonance on occasion, and Corman’s own hunger to capitalize on social trends brought him to many rich arenas. As it is, his famous Poe films, despite the weaning presence of Vincent Price, are marvelously inspired wonder cabinets of gothic cardboard and smoke-machine artifice. But there are finds elsewhere in Corman’s prodigious filmography — the new eight-film DVD box set of film from Corman’s prime era, while being helplessly filthy with mid-century kitsch, is rich in universal anxieties. Along with youthquake hilarities like “The Young Racers” (1963), “The Wild Angels” (1966), featuring real Hell’s Angels alongside Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, and “The Trip” (1967), there lies “The Premature Burial” (1962) and “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963), two claustrophobic nightmares making full use of Ray Milland’s late-in-life self-disgust. “X,” in fact, is one of the period’s cruelest and most eloquent pulpworks, an existential odyssey in which Milland’s super-vision-enabled hero receives his gift like a curse that gets cosmically worse the stronger his eyes grow.

But let’s consider “Gas! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It” (1971), an oddly ambitious venture for Corman and an outrageously loopy Cold War-hippie-apocalypse farce (written by a 28-year-old Armitage) that plays like a serious of amphetamine-driven blackout skits set in the southwestern deserts and garnished with theatrical surrealisms. After a cartoon credit sequence making royal, contemporary-sounding sport of John Wayne military-conservatism, civilization is essentially destroyed by a leaked gas that kills everyone over 25, a development revealed narratively in a press conference and in impish joke exchanges. This is no Doomsday: our anarchist-free-love hero and heroine (Robert Corff and Elaine Giftos) are so high on life-love they practically romp, exiting Dallas (by way, ominously, of Dealey Plaza) for a legended commune in the barren west. They attract a few stragglers (Bud Cort, Talia Shire, Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams), and drive, encountering one absurd lawless-society parody scenario after another; a town is overtaken by the high school football jocks, mixing proto-Nazism and rape-happy barbarism with Gipper-style gung-ho, while the Hell’s Angels rule over a golf course with a Socialist bureaucrats’ obsession with rules of order. Meanwhile, Edgar Allen Poe, complete with raven, issues warnings from atop a Harley, psychedelic orgies break out and God dialogues from the sky in a Borscht Belt accent.

Armitage’s script is fiercely inventive and witty, and the cast largely bristles with comic conviction — giving the lie to any supposition that Corman didn’t know how to, or care to, direct actors. Finally, “Gas!” is only intermittently funny ha ha, but is rather adroit in its tossing of satiric hand grenades and seductive in its post-adolescent energy. It’s also a whip-smart window on the ‘Nam era in America, in ways that most of the films of that era that strived to be simply weren’t.

Also from the vaults: the third elaborate storehouse of cultural memories from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the non-profit supported by the Library of Congress that’s largely responsible for the nation’s rejuvenated efforts at rescuing the country’s cinematic heritage — not Hollywood classics, which preserve themselves, but “orphans,” historical shorts, newsreels, forgotten features, two-reelers, promotional films, ad infinitum, which would otherwise deteriorate into nitrate goo. Each four-disc, 12-plus-hour set has arrived as a rocket from the forgotten past, with a library’s worth of annotation and historical context for each film, which vary in length from seconds to over two full hours long. The new box comes with a theme: the portrayal, exploration and exploitation of social issues in American cinema, from 1900’s one-shot crime-&-corruption short “How They Rob Men in Chicago,” to Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishingly nitwitted and astonishingly visual feature “The Godless Girl” (1928), a morality play about religious extremism that poses atheistic propaganda as a huge problem among American students, but which also spatially out-amazes all of DeMille’s subsequent output, particularly in a fascinating, death-dealing riot scene taking place entirely in an elaborate apartment building stairwell.

The historical frisson here comes with the passionate take on sociopolitical issues which are no longer issues — anti-Bolshevism is hot, as are prohibition, WWI-era pacifism, suffrage, the need for universal schooling and mail-order marriage. But of course, the films feel remarkably timeless in their arguments for or against humanism, war, poverty, capitalism, social control, social freedom and equality. “Ramona,” a one-reeler by D.W. Griffith and starring Marty Pickford, adapts a popular novel about the injustices perpetrated upon Native Americans — in 1910. The labor films may be the most revealing today, because in the first quarter of the 20th century the labor movement in this country was ferocious, strong and influential in ways it isn’t today; whether made by U.S. Steel or the American Federation of Labor, these glimpses of a huge cultural argument long since lost are startling in their passionate proto-Socialism. All told, “Treasures III” is not merely a record of cinema history, but a frozen-in-amber block of America itself.

“The Roger Corman Collection” (MGM) is now available on DVD; “Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934” (Image Entertainment) will be available on October 16th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.