Sunday, December 6, 2009

Much Ado About Roger Corman's Oscar

Roger Corman has been called a lot of things. Shrewd. Miserly. Maverick. He's been given titles like King of the Cult Film, King of the B-Movies, and the Pope of Pop Cinema. The last is probably the most appropriate and not just because it sounds cool and Corman says he likes it. Corman's particular breed of low-budget, action-oriented, socially conscious exploitation fare has, for over 50 years, graced the cinema, to the persistent delight of audiences and, in turn, to his significant profit. He's brought his talents to bear on every genre under the sun and has even invented a few of his own. He has a finely-tuned eye for talent--it's only a slight exaggeration to say it would be easier to list the big name Hollywood directors, writers, actors of recent decades who didn't get their start with Corman than those who did.

For a fellow from whom a lot of the present Hollywood Establishment sprang though, Corman has never been an Establishment kind of guy. Far from it. For all his money and all his concern about making more of it, he's always been anti-Establishment to the core. Critics higher of brow than of cinematic acumen look down upon Corman's little operation. It's the usual complaint from this quarter: budgets too small, goals insufficiently lofty, too much concern for commerce mixed with the art. A Corman film is far more often dismissed by such snoots as free of merit for what it is than for whatever merit it may actually possess. It was made to turn a profit--how could it be anything but terrible, right?

To put my cards on the table, it has always been my view that labeling as worthless such a perspective unfairly maligns the merely worthless by the association. I don't mind a little film snobbery. I've been accused of it myself. What I dislike is the sort of film snobbery born of this misplaced blend of ignorance and arrogance, wherein respectability can only be attained beyond a certain budget level and free from all but the mildest hint of commercial considerations and wherein things shot quickly, cheaply, and with a vigilant eye toward Mammon are reflexively looked upon with, at best, suspicion, and with, in general, contempt. Here are the facts of life: Film is an art; it's also commerce. Making movies involves both considerations to some extent. That's just the way it is. That's what movies are. If you don't like movies, you don't need to be watching movies.[1]

Not long ago, it was announced that Roger Corman would be receiving an honorary Academy Award for, in the words of the Academy, "his rich engendering of films and filmmakers." It was a token accolade for which a lot of his fans had been clamoring in recent years and it would be difficult for anyone with any knowledge of Corman's work and its impact on cinema to argue against the appropriateness of the award. That doesn't mean some didn't want to argue. When he picked up the trophy a few weeks ago, one of the snoots couldn't resist a snort at the very idea of bestowing such a vaunted prize upon such a lowly specimen:

"Corman, who has directed more than 50 films and produced nearly 400 (!), has never been nominated for an Oscar, probably because all of his movies are terrible. But apparently the Academy is rewarding quantity now, too. So don't give up, Uwe Boll! Just make another 300 movies!"

This snide remark by Eric D. Snider at Cinematical drew a mild retort from Scott Weinberg, a Cinematical colleague, who argued that Corman did indeed deserve that honorary Oscar. Snider couldn't leave bad enough alone and returned to the subject, his premise, stated flatly, that "Roger Corman doesn't deserve an Oscar."

Snider conceded Corman was "not the worst filmmaker of all time" and thus his initial Uwe Boll comparison "might have been an exaggeration" (wording that suggests allowances that Snider may have any insight into the subject might have been exaggerated). He admitted he didn't really have any basis for saying "all" of Corman's movies "are terrible"; he hadn't seen them "all," of course. How many of them has he seen? The reader is left to guess. And if Snider's generalizations about Corman's body of work more closely resemble the prejudices of the snoot than the observations of one with an intimate familiarity with any significant portion of that body of work, the reader can draw his own conclusion.

Snider's peripheral arguments are weak. He rejects the idea that Corman should get an Oscar because he nurtured the talents (and usually began the careers) of such a vast array of great filmmakers. "Giving Corman an Oscar for helping them learn the ropes is like giving a high school teacher an award because his students went on to graduate from the top of their college classes.... To me, that's a weak reason to give someone an Oscar." That is, of course, a judgment call but as Weinberg noted in his reply to Snider, the Academy has given out these sorts of honorary awards for decades and to recipients whose contribution to cinema was far less significant than Corman's. Snider offers a list of individuals he feels were more worthy of Academy Awards than Corman but that never received them. Even filtering through Snider's errors (some he lists actually did receive awards and some have been dead for decades) and his sometimes horrendous judgment[2], this argument, at best, amounts to past injustices being used to justify new ones.

Of course, Snider wouldn't see it that way, because he wouldn't see denying Corman an Oscar as an injustice. His central argument is his weakest one, hilariously outlined in sentences liberally laced with unintentional irony:

"If the Academy is giving out Oscars based on the production of quality work--which, last time I checked, was the basic idea behind the Oscars--then Roger Corman does not qualify. The vast majority of his output is mediocre at best. Some of it is downright awful. A few films are good enough on their own, but not to where any of them would deserve Oscars individually. Even as a body, those moderately good Corman movies don't outweigh the dozens--literally dozens and DOZENS--of cheap, forgettable clunkers. Producing a huge quantity of work whose overall entertainment or artistic value averages out to be somewhere between 'mediocre' and 'mediocre-plus' isn't worthy of Academy Award consideration.... Corman... never tried to make great films. He wanted to make cheap, profitable films, and to crank them out in a couple weeks. He's been extraordinarily successful at it, and there's definitely a place for that kind of product in moviedom. But again, that doesn't mesh with the philosophy of the Academy Awards, which is to reward artistic excellence."

To the snoot, it's a truism that "cheap, profitable films" could never be "great films," certainly never worthy of the notice of the Great And Powerful Academy, which prefers to honor such "artistic excellence" as was exhibited in the likes of GLADIATOR, BRAVEHEART, CRASH, FORREST GUMP and a mountain of other such worthless upbudget rubbish tall enough to blot out the sun. Snider asserts that none of Corman's films "would deserve Oscars individually." That just begs the question of what does win these awards, though. As I outlined in a piece last year (dealing with Best Picture awards), those in the Academy generally do a wretched job of picking winners. They tend to pass over the more deserving of their own nominees and the genuine best pictures from most years are never even nominated at all. A lot of the films honored by Oscar are so bad, they're almost entirely forgotten within a few short years (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, anyone? Anyone?).[3] Corman, on the other hand, could take the crew of his "quick-and-sloppy movie poop factory," as Snider calls it, put together some actors, a nothing budget and, in a few days time, create a movie that people are still watching and loving decades later and that even manages to acquire some degree of critical respectability. Are his films really so vastly outclassed by something like CRASH? The "artistic excellence" that allowed CRASH to win Best Picture consisted solely of a massively-financed lobbying campaign aimed at Academy voters. The movie itself was terrible, more closely resembling a bad made-for-television film (or After School Special) than anything that should ever be considered for any sort of award and the prize it did win was almost immediately recognized, widely and with little real dissent, as one of the all-time worst Best Picture decisions. Would anyone be willing to seriously argue that it was more deserving of being honored than, say, HOUSE OF USHER, Corman's first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation? Does the embarrassment that is GLADIATOR stand head-and-shoulders above DEATHRACE 2000? NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN tackled a theme Corman had handled decades earlier--and far better--in BLOODY MAMA. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar examples. In a head-to-head clash with a lot of the movies that have actually won Academy Awards, Corman's pictures would do just fine and all the harrumphing of all the Sniders of the world wouldn't make the former any better or the latter any worse by comparison.

Roger Corman has spent his long career crafting a wide array of entertainments of every conceivable variety and degree of quality. Admittedly, plenty of them were awful, some even as bad as a lot of Hollywood summer blockbusters, a few as bad as Eric D. Snider would have people believe. Plenty of them were great too, though, which is why they've endured. As a director, he was a proletarian gem. As a distributor, he brought to U.S. shores some of the best foreign films of the last few decades.[4] As a producer and mentor, he nurtured a lot of the best filmmakers we have. I have no position on the question of whether Roger Corman deserves an Academy Award. He is not of the Establishment. He doesn't need its praise. Told a few months ago he was under consideration, even he didn't think he'd get it. Given the Academy's history, I'm not convinced he won't be as tainted by it as honored. Still, if anyone in moviedom deserves some respectful recognition for their work, it's Corman. For anyone offering an award that symbolizes that, he's as good a recipient as they'll find.

Besides, he's always looking for ways to save a buck--the Oscar would probably make a great paper-weight.



[1] And my last card, if it isn't apparent, is the fact that I'm an unabashed Corman fan. I'm someone who, in high school, was waffling on the question of the feasibility of filmmaking as a career and finally committed to the notion after reading Corman's autobiography, which is still one of the best books about moviemaking ever written.

[2] Snider points out some legitimately glaring oversights by Oscar but cripples his case by heavily padding his list with numerous minor figures. And when you suggest it's a travesty that Corman has now been given an Oscar but that master thespian Marilyn Monroe hasn't, your case enters the realm of walking, talking, and sounding just like, well, what it is.

[3] With his snoot's view of Corman, Snider could say his award was par for the course but he's precluded by his snoot's view of the Oscars, that they "reward artistic excellence."

[4] He's been the American distributor for Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, and others.

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