Peter Bogdanovich on Roger Corman, favorite movie books, today’s auteurs*
Roger Corman, the legendary director and producer of such drive-in classics as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “House of Usher”--plus a slew of decidedly non-classics like “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent”--turns 86 next week, which seems an appropriate time to celebrate such a prolific, unique and fascinating life in American movies.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” an entertaining and informative new documentary arriving this week on DVD and Blu-ray, offers one way to appreciate Corman, not just for his movies but for the impressive roster of aspiring filmmakers who launched careers working for him: Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha”),
Francis Ford Coppola (“Dementia 13”), Robert De Niro (“Bloody Mama”), Ron Howard (“Grand Theft Auto”), Jack Nicholson (“The Cry Baby Killer”) Joe Dante (“Piranha”), Jonathan Demme (“Caged Heat”), and Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets”).
I recently caught up with Bogdanovich (whose other films include “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “Saint Jack, “ and “What’s Up, Doc?”), speaking to him from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he’s taught since 2010. Bogdanovich, 72, made his early mark programming films and writing about directors for the Museum of Modern Art, which led to pieces in Esquire and a column appropriately titled “Hollywood.” In addition to writing numerous books on film, Bogdanovich has acted in movies and TV, notably playing Elliot Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi’s shrink on “The Sopranos.”
(*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views)
Page Views: What would you tell a student who asked about Roger Corman?
PB: I’d tell them to look at the documentary. Roger was an extraordinary force in the so-called New Hollywood. You could say that the first really successful off-Hollywood picture was “The Wild Angels” in 1966. That was kind of a counter-culture cult movie. Roger had a tremendous impact of the New Hollywood because so many people who became important figures in the movement—like Coppola or Jonathan Demme or Scorsese or Jack Nicholson or me—all started with Roger. He had a tremendous eye for talent.
He was a good director, too, if the script was good . . . but I think he enjoyed producing more than directing.
Page Views: You and your first wife, Polly Platt, moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 60s. How did you meet Corman?
PB: [We] had moved to California with the intention of getting into pictures, [while] I kept writing for Esquire. One night we went to see a movie by Jacques Demy called “Bay of Angels.” We were with a friend, Paul Mayersberg, a critic and screenwriter. Sitting behind us were two people I didn’t know. But Paul knew Roger Corman and the person sitting with him, who I think was Bob Towne [future Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Chinatown”]. Paul introduced us, and Roger said, “I’ve read your stuff in Esquire, and are you interested in writing for the movies?” And I said, “Yeah.”
Page Views: Which led—before “Targets”—to working on “The Wild Angels.”
PB: I did a lot of work on “Wild Angels.” I only got credit as an assistant to the director [Corman], but in fact I rewrote eighty percent of the script for no credit and very little money, and found most of the locations and did many of the [camera] setups, then directed three weeks of the second unit.
Page Views: I read years ago that Corman also asked you and Polly Platt to write a World War ll movie, which was never made. What happened to the script?
PB: Funny you should ask. It was called “The Criminals,” and in the divorce it reverted to me, and for years I’ve had it. My older daughter, Antonia, just recently made a short film that she financed herself, [“My Left Hand Man] and it’s quite a brilliant piece of work. She was rummaging through some stuff that I’d left at her house [and] she found a copy of “The Criminals” that Polly and I had done in the 60s, and Antonia flipped for it and wants to make it, wants to direct it. It’s a good script.
Page Views: What’s it about?
PB: It’s based on an actual event—everything in the story happened. When the Nazis were invading Poland, the Polish underground went to the main prison near Warsaw and let all the criminals loose with the proviso that they please do what they were doing to get into jail, but do it against the Nazis. We focus on five criminals who were let out and what happens to them.
Page Views: What are your favorite Corman movies?
PB: I like “Masque of the Red Death,” and “House of Usher,” too.
Page Views: Since books are discussed around here, what are your favorite ones about movies? And you can’t mention any of your own.
PB: My favorite books about movies include “The Parade’s Gone By” by Kevin Brownlow, “The American Cinema” by Andrew Sarris, “Adventures with D.W. Griffith” by Karl Brown, and “Growing Up in Hollywood” by Robert Parrish.
Page Views: You’ve mentioned in the past that Andrew Sarris and the late Eugene Archer were early critical influences. I think most movie-savvy New Yorkers know about Sarris, but what about Archer?
PB: Gene was the fourth-string critic for The New York Times in the late 50s, early 60s. He left The Times to go to Europe to make films, which didn’t work out for him. He was a brilliant critic, brilliantly perceptive guy about movies. He and Andrew Sarris used to hang out together, and they’d come up to my little apartment and I’d screen a 16mm print. Gene was the more talkative of the two at that time. He was quite brilliant at analyzing movies and a great influence on films I should take a look at but hadn’t.
Page Views: Both Sarris and Archer embraced what came to be known as the auteur school of film criticism, which looked for a consistent directorial theme and personality. Do auteur directors exist these days in Hollywood?
PB: Auteurism today? Well, everybody thinks they’re an auteur. But nobody seems to understand what the whole auteur thing was. It wasn’t a theory as far as the French were concerned. It was a political statement called la politique des auteurs. Truffaut and Godard were attacking the old-fashioned, well-made film, Franch or American. They thought Howard Hawks was an infinitely better director than Fred Zinnemann. They thought Alfred Hitchcock was a greater director than David Lean. They were against Marcel Carné and for Jean Renoir. Personal films were what they looking for, where a director’s personality dominated despite who wrote it or who was in it or who photographed it.
Page Views: What relatively young directors fit that category today?
PB: There are some of them. Like Wes Anderson. Quentin Tarantino. Noah Baumbach. A few. But the whole idea of la politique des auteurs was to point out directors who worked within the Hollywood system but who transcended the system with their personalities—people like Ford, Lubitsch, Renoir, Hitchcock, Hawks.
We don’t have that kind of thing now—it’s a different world.
Page Views: Does Roger Corman qualify as an auteur?
PB: Yes, I think so. His films had a definite personality.
Page Views: At the end of the documentary, both you and Jack Nicholson lament the current state of big-budget, CGI-driven studio pictures. Nicholson calls them “circuses.” Do you think a case can be made these days that there are TV series superior to what Hollywood produces?
PB: Unquestionably. Look at “The Sopranos.” What movies are as good as ‘The Sopranos?” That was better than any movie. Now I’m watching “Breaking Bad”—it’s brilliant. I was watching with a friend, and I said, “Why don’t they make movies this good?”