By Michael Atkinson
[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.