Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Johnny California: Hail to the King: A Celebration of Roger Corman

 by JB

JB and Jan pre-gamed SMM with a four-movie Corman Fest at the Aero Theatre. Join us, won't you?

My lovely wife and I are quickly becoming fervid, fevered fans of Beyond Fest, which is sponsored by the American Cinematheque and held every fall at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA and the Los Feliz in... well, Los Feliz. Last year, as you may remember, we attended the Beyond Fest “Shatner-thon,” consisting of three movies and A Q & A with Captain Kirk himself. You can read about that adventure here

This year, Beyond Fest upped the ante, presenting a four-screening overview of Roger Corman’s work, and an impossible-to-beat panel discussion featuring filmmakers he mentored and the man himself. It was quite a day.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: I gleefully jumped on the Internet machine the moment Beyond Fest tickets went up for grabs and was wholly surprised when I was able to snag some. Yet, when the day arrived, I was feeling a bit under the weather. Surely, we need some sort of F This Movie slang term for a filmic event that one eagerly looks forward to... until the fateful day arrives, when you're overwhelmed with the desire to bail. (“PSA: Pre-Screening Anxiety, "Last-Minute Mope," “Anticipa-SHUN”? Which one of these?)

Suffice it to say that I almost missed this, but am SO glad that I went. When it comes to movies, always go. Never bail. EVEN IF YOUR LEFT ARM IS HANGING BY A SINGLE TENDON, GO TO THE GODDAMN SCREENING. Movies are life-giving; YOU CAN BLEED LATER.

That is my advice to you, the reader.

Accompanied by my lovely wife and the scrumptious lunch she packed, (We were going to be in the theater for more than eight hours, for God’s sake.) we hopped on the 101, then the 405, then arrived at the Aero, Santa Monica’s answer to Chicago's Music Box Theater. I've begged her to stop doing Halloween crafts long enough to help me paint you a picture of our afternoon with King Corman.

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)
JOHN: The day began with director Allen Arkush giving a lively introduction to his Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. Funny and rambling and in-your-face, Arkush’s intro was a lot like the film and the man himself. Until the screening, I had no idea that Arkush had also directed the 1998 made-for-TV miniseries The Temptations, which cable stations still delight in showing with too many commercials. Every time it’s on, I feel compelled to watch. I believe I have seen Allen Arkush’s The Temptations over 7,000 times.

JAN: All the afternoon's film prints looked great; plus, the Aero's audiences are always positive and invested. This made for a high-energy, super-fun first screening of the day. P.J. Soles was born to play Riff Randell, and she's incredibly appealing and genuine here as a girl passionately devoted to what she loves. If you like the Ramones, high school movies, P.J. Soles, or fun, but you have NOT seen Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, why are you even reading this? You should be watching Rock ‘N’ Roll High School with people who also like those exact things.

JOHN: I had not seen this film for a dog’s age, and I was reminded last Saturday of its original, crazy energy. In what would prove to be true for all the screenings at the Fest, seeing these crowd-pleasers with an actual CROWD was essential. Say what you wish about Corman, he knew what people liked. I was impressed by how many of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’s jokes still landed 44 years later. As a former high-school teacher, some of my favorites were Principal Togar’s constant threats about “your permanent record,” that would “follow you for the rest of your life.” I remember that great lie from my former career.

What a load of horse shit.

Grand Theft Auto (1977)
JOHN: This film is two tons of fun, but even more fun was Ron Howard’s amazing introduction to the film. (As a former actor, Howard can REALLY tell a story!) Everyone back in the 1970s thought “Opie wants to be a director” was simply cute; only Corman took him seriously. Dismissing the character-driven script Howard had written with his father (“I don’t make those kinds of movies,” Corman explained), Corman convinced Howard to star in Eat My Dust! instead, and when that was a hit, offered to let him write and direct Grand Theft Auto. Howard describes it as a family DIY project: he co-wrote it with his father, his father and brother Clint appear in it, and at one point his wife and his grandparents handled crew catering. Howard even convinced Happy Days co-star Marion Ross to appear in the film in a most “un-Cunningham” role!

People who buy a ticket to Grand Theft Auto in order to see car crashes and car stunts gets their money’s worth.

JAN: First watch for me, and I had a great time with it! It had the kind of frantic energy I often associate with Corman films and a lot of things going smash—at one point, a fruit cart is blown up while someone off-screen yells "FRICKIN' FRUIT CART!"

Despite the familiar tropes, the script makes us care about its two young protagonists and there are plenty of truly impressive stunts and surprises along the way. Nothing looks cheap and nobody phones it in. This would be a super-fun drive-in watch.

Piranha (1978)
JAN: Did this fest turn me into a full-on Corman stan? I don't think I'd ever seen Piranha, but it was just plain FUN. This is part of Corman's genius: he instinctively knows what will look good on screen and play well for an audience. No slow spots and plenty of bloody, gurgling nom-noms. I loved the subplot involving an eight-year-old who fears the river but eventually gets her own little hero turn; the script was co-written by John Sayles and directed by an early-career Joe Dante and it shows. This is another part of Corman's genius: an eye for young talent and the guts to let them do their thing.

JOHN: I have seen this film SO MANY times. My most memorable screening (besides this one) was years ago at Wonderfest, with featured actor Kevin McCarthy in attendance. When the McCarthy character is (Spoiler alert for this 45-year-old film titled Piranha!) eaten by piranhas, some wag in the audience shouted, “I didn’t know piranhas ate ham!” The audience was aghast, but McCarthy took the jibe with good humor. He was the best!

Like many of Corman’s most popular films, this was made to capitalize on a successful previous release; in this case, the world-wide sensation that was Jaws, released only three years earlier. Joe Dante’s paean to hungry water monsters is not coy about its own status as a cash-in; it’s also a fun, well-made film in its own right. As Dante said later during the panel discussion, “Roger taught me that if you’re going to make a Women in Cages movie, make the best Women in Cages movie you can." This is clearly the best "killer fish" movie that Dante could make in 1978.

This comment reminded me of a conversation that Patrick and I often had in the early days of F This Movie. Friends and family members would upbraid him for criticizing movies like Transformers, saying, “It’s about talking killer robots, what do you expect?” Patrick always answered, “I expect a GREAT movie about talking killer robots.”

The Raven (1963)
JOHN: Although very entertaining, my one quibble with the film choices for this Corman Fest was choosing The Raven to represent his famous Poe cycle. The last film in the cycle directed by Corman, it seems conjured from thin air simply because Karloff still owed Corman a few days of shooting from another picture that wrapped early. The Raven has a snail’s pace and gets along on the charm of its actors alone. It seems like everyone is making it up as they go, which isn’t a bad thing, but this particular tale of mystery and imagination could have been told in thirty minutes or less. I wish the Beyond Fest programmers had chosen Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, or The Trip instead.

It was nice to hear the audience’s cries of recognition the first time Jack Nicholson appears on screen. Everybody always forgets that he’s in this one!

JAN: Full disclosure: I fell asleep. This movie is THIN and Peter Lorre weirds me out. The Raven would be better if Price simply read Poe's poem aloud for the first ten minutes, then spent the rest of the movie chatting about old Hollywood while whipping up a batch of Boris Karloff's potted shrimp.

(You can tell by the way he whisks his anti-bird potion early in the film that Price was a indeed a gourmet chef!)

Hail to the King: The Panel Discussion
JOHN: According to many people on the Twitter machine, the standing ovation afforded to Roger Corman was the longest in Beyond Fest history. Good. He deserves it.

JAN: The panel included Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Amy Holden Jones, and producer Jon Davison, as well as the man himself, Roger Corman. FFS, it was moderated by Mick Garris. I practically got a contact high from the creative talent, love, and professional respect flowing from the stage. Was it an amazing privilege to work with Corman? Maybe this quote from Amy Holden Jones will answer that question for you: "I passed on [editing] ET to make Slumber Party Massacre... and it was the best decision I ever made."

To echo JB's advice about not bailing on a movie, here's my favorite Corman quote of the afternoon: "No matter what happens—keep shooting. Keep shooting."

JOHN: The panel discussion was a love letter to Roger Corman, a studio head who actually knew how to make and market movies. (The subtitle of his autobiography reads, “How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.”) What the panelists kept emphasizing, beyond their love and appreciation for Corman, was how much they learned from a guy who knew filmmaking inside and out. Each panelists mentioned that studio heads now 1) DO NOT know how to make movies, 2) DO NOT know how to communicate what they want and, most ominously, 3) DO NOT know how to tell good from bad. Joe Dante got emotional explaining how important it is, when starting your career, to be nurtured by someone WHO ACTUALLY KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

Hail to the King, indeed.

1 comment:

  1. OMG! You both were there!?! AMAZING!!!!! I tweeted Mick about it just after, asking if there were plans to release the panel interview as a podcast or video..he replied "hope so".

    Corman rules!