Roger Corman and the Art of Film Making

Roger CormanListen up everyone! It is Roger Corman‘s 88th birthday today. And you should care, because he is an amazing guy. He made all those great early-1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Vincent Price that Richard Matheson wrote. And he did so much more. He is the very definition of an exploitation filmmaker. He did a great deal with very little.

I especially like Corman because he shines a very bright light on what a film director really is. This is illustrated best by Corman’s commentary on the film The Pit and the Pendulum. It mostly consists of him talking about how they reused things from House of Usher. And you can see this in his films: they tend to look the same. I’m sure that he had the scripts tailored to fit with the resources his company already had. And this is why so many of his films are set in castles, even though it doesn’t make any sense.

In some circles Roger Corman is held up as a visionary director. I don’t think this is true at all. He was just a guy trying to get films made that people would enjoy. And he was very successful. But he didn’t have a “vision,” and I doubt that any other director does either. If you look at the late films he produced, you see some the same tricks, even though they are directed by a number of other people. It’s still the same formula: make the most of what you have. And it is amazing how effective it is. I doubt that most people watching the newer films even realize just how claustrophobic they are. A bit of money spent for context goes a long way to making a small set interesting.

I wish Hollywood would learn what Corman perfected. Most films anymore have huge canvases on which they paint, but I don’t think anyone really cares. The fight scenes in The Matrix Reloaded were interesting, but it was the straight dialog scenes where the drama was. And that’s true of just about any action film you can think of. Corman understands that and so his films always look better than they cost. And that is a remarkable thing in the film industry.

Here is a scene from one of my favorites, The Raven:

Happy birthday Roger Corman!

The Guard Is Fun but Shallow

The Guard - FilmAfter gushing a bit about Brendan Gleeson, JMF recommended that I watch The Guard. And so I did. It is an amusing and interesting film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. It is hard not to compare the film to the work of his brother, Martin McDonagh. And it makes me wonder if I hadn’t read too much into In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Because despite all of its charm and intelligence, The Guard is something of a muddle.

The film tells the story of Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), a police officer in Ireland who is difficult in that way that the Irish can be. He’s always funny and honest and offensive, but inside beats the heart of a romantic hero. When a major cocaine deal is going to go down in the area, he’s the one guard who isn’t paid off because he’s thought to be too unpredictable. Meanwhile, FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) has come to the area in search of the drug dealers. Everett is probably a good portrait of how the Irish see Americans. He’s smart and committed and even maybe heroic. But he’s also something of a stuffed shirt with no sense of humor.

In the hands of Hollywood, this film would take a very tired course. Think The Heat. (See my review, Thematic Problems in The Heat.) Here, the film is mostly a character sketch. It wanders around without much point until an event at end of the second act that pushes Boyle into action. And the third act is then very much a Spaghetti Western parody, but more A Fistful of Dynamite than A Fistful of Dollars.

The first two acts remind me rather a lot of Bill Forsyth, who is essentially a character driven storyteller. McDonagh adds to that a genre element that both provides dramatic momentum and more thematic depth. But I don’t think it fully works here. Because ultimately, the film gets too involved in its plot and it never resolves what exactly it is trying to say about Boyle. To me, the character is a lost soul. So the heroic denouement seems forced. Comic book characters go from lost to hero; real characters go from lost to less lost.

Another problem is that Everett isn’t a very effective character. He seems to have been thrown into the narrative for the purpose of making the third act work. There is only one sequence until the end where he is not paired with Boyle. And although it is amusing, it sticks out as a distracting subplot. Most of the lesser characters have far more to them. Everett is almost entirely functional.

The film is at its best when Boyle and Everett are at each other. Boyle is never so funny as when he’s winding up Everett. And Everett’s mystified reactions to Boyle are some of the best things in the film. Because of this, it is quite an enjoyable experience. And the ending is playful meta fun. But under the surface, there isn’t much to get. And I think McDonagh means for there to be. I will be keen to see what he offers up in the future.


I hate ratings like “Four Stars!” But I can see their uses. When I write things like this, most people will think that I didn’t like this film, even though I very clearly say that I did like it. But because I focused on the problems in the film, many people will get the idea that I didn’t. That gets to the problem with ratings. How do you rate a film that works but has problems. And what does it really matter if I like a film? I try to give an idea of what a film is about and if it works. Taste is, well, taste. So unless its Netflix, which combines my simplistic ratings with what other people who tend to like the kind of films I like, what is the point?

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John Roberts’ Balls and Strikes

John RobertsBalls and Strikes. That’s what John Roberts said about being a judge. During his confirmation hearing, he said, “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” At the time, I was appalled. Never in my life had I ever heard someone say such a nakedly dishonest thing during a confirmation hearing. It was pure rhetoric of the conservative variety. What he meant was, “I’m not like those liberal activist judges, I just apply the law.” The only thing that could be worse than Roberts lying about this is if he is so delusional as to actually believe it.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks. And this week’s Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon vs FEC was the worst of it. You can read my thoughts on the case in, Supreme Court Strikes Blow for Oligarchy. It isn’t so much what it means on a practical level, because the truth is that our political system was already a mess. It’s owned by the wealthy. If you have any question, just look at what happened to Proposition 37 in 2012. But the truth is that the Supreme Court could have decided to make a stand for democracy, but the conservatives rushed to the conclusion that the best thing is for us to have an oligarchy.

What the Supreme Court is really doing is deciding between competing interests. This is what the court should be doing. And McCutcheon provided an amazingly clear choice. On the one side, there are several hundred extremely rich people who already have undemocratic levels of political power. On the other side, you have well over 300 million people who have an interest in not having their democracy manipulated. Five of the justices felt the interests of the few hundred were most important. Four of the justices felt the interests of the entire nation were most important.

I’m not saying that the interests of the majority always trump the interests of the minority. Not at all! That’s why we have a constitution and the rule of law. But this case seems pretty clear. It reminds me very much of Bush vs Gore where the conservatives on the court were so very concerned that the trust fund millionaire Bush would lose out on any possible rights. In this case, the court is very worried about the rights of an Alabama millionaire to grease the wheels of democracy. It would seem that the conservatives on the court are only really interested in individual rights when it comes to people who already have a hell of a lot more rights than most.

But the baseball analogy really bugs me. I’m always impressed with baseball umpires. Things happen fast and they very rarely blow a call. I’m sure if you had nine umpires behind home plate when a curve ball skimmed the edge of the plate, at least eight of them would agree on the call. The reason that the justices didn’t agree on the call in McCutcheon is that it is nothing at all like calling balls and strikes. And with the conservative majority on the court, just like with conservatives throughout the political system, it is all about ideology. I can live with that, but it is galling when they claim they are just objective arbiters of truth.

“If I Only Had a Brain” and Political Smarts

Lincoln 2012My favorite song is “If I Only Had a Brain.” Or at least it is if you go by the song that I sing most often. Following from my mom, I am always singing bits of songs that comment about what is going on in my life. And given that I find myself often doing very stupid things, singing “If I Only Had a Brain” is appropriate. It’s also a hell of a song with a catchy melody and clever lyrics. It is also wry and plaintive, which rather well captures the duality of my personality.

The part I most sing is actually done by Judy Garland. “With the thoughts you’d be thinkin’, you could be another Lincoln.” First: wow. I love that kind of smart and corny line. And there are others, like when “riddle” is rhymed with “individal,” a silly truncation of “individual.” Or rhyming “merry” with “dingaderry,” which may or may not be a word. And that’s the first part of the song:

What hit me this morning was what the lines imply: President Lincoln was a great man because he was smart—because of the thoughts that thought. This was an idea that I dimly remember from my childhood: that the president was smart. This idea has died, especially as of Reagan—but not because Reagan wasn’t smart. It is all part of the Republican Party’s push to authoritarianism.

If you push all the racism aside with the Nazis, what you are left with is a violent authoritarian movement. It mythologized violent, unthinking youths. And we see this everywhere in the modern conservative movement. Look at all the love that Putin is getting these days. Or look at how the religious right has turned Jesus into a muscle bound Rambo character who is coming back (Soon!) and taking names. But most of all you see it in the conservative faith that government is something that is best done by uneducated novices. (For a counter to that, see, Jerry Brown’s Liberal Bona Fides.)

The issue is not about being smart, however, but about valuing intelligence. The whole thing goes back to Paul Krugman’s line that reality has a well known liberal bias. This wasn’t true 50 years ago. But the conservatives have moved the country so far to the right that there really are very few policies they support that make any sense. So it isn’t surprising that they would start pushing the idea that stupid politicians are better than smart ones. They really don’t have many smart politicians who are willing to support their bad ideas.

Stephen Colbert mocks this rather well by talking about thinking with his gut. But it is a widely held belief. At least on the right. The last three Democratic presidents (Obama, Clinton, Carter) were, regardless of their other failings, very intelligent men. The last three Republicans presidents (Bush the Younger, Bush the Elder, and Reagan) were, while certainly not dumb, not known for their intelligence brilliance. If anyone were going to mention one of them in a song, it will be like this, “Complexity won’t trouble you; you’ll act just like ol’ W; before you get a brain!”

The Global Cooling Myth

Global Cooling - Media Matters

This info graphic is from Media Matters, The Junk Science of Fox News’ Favorite “Global Cooling” Myth. It is a very useful push back against global warming deniers who say that we can’t believe the scientific consensus about global warming today just as we couldn’t believe the consensus about global cooling then. As you can see, there was no consensus about global cooling. In fact, then as now, there was a consensus on global warming.

The mechanism for global cooling was not wrong, however. Part of the pollution humans create is particulate—primarily SO2. By putting this in the air, we block out solar insolation. And the surface of the earth cools. There are two reasons why this isn’t a big deal. First, we pollute less—especially here in the United States, which is the biggest problem. Second, the effect is dwarfed by the heating effects of greenhouse gases.

What’s more, particulate-based solar forcing is included in the climate models. So the work on global cooling is included in today’s work on global warming. So the idea that scientists are just running around yelling about this or that issue is just untrue. The work is all part of the same process. The cooling and warming people are all one now: the warming people. That’s how science works.

If broadly applied, the argument we get from Fox News and other climate change deniers would stop us from ever accepting science. After all, how can we know that the earth orbits the sun? Only 500 years ago, scientists all said the sun went around the earth. That may seem fanciful, but I really don’t see any difference. The nature of science is that it is self-correcting, not that it is always right. And that self-correcting aspect of science has led us to today where we know that the earth is warming because of human activities. The climate change deniers are not involved in science, they simply want to believe that nothing is wrong, and nothing will convince them otherwise.

What is especially annoying about the global cooling claim is that it was always a short term phenomenon. Particulate matter doesn’t stay in the atmosphere very long. So if humans had wanted to, they could have reversed global cooling within months if not weeks. Global warming, on the other hand, cannot be reversed for decades at least.

I get asked a fair amount why I don’t write more about global warming, given my background. I suppose there are two reasons. First, it isn’t that interesting. The science is clear, and it is basically the same as the simple radiative-convective models predicted decades ago. Second, it’s frustrating. We aren’t having a debate. The deniers are just people who refuse to accept the science. It’s like so much else in the modern world where we know what to do to relieve suffering, but we do nothing because some small group has a vested interest in not doing it.

At one time, many conservatives accepted global warming and at least talked about doing something. But the oil companies started pushing their interests over those of the entire world. And the conservatives jumped on board their bandwagon, and now we can’t do anything. And I fear it will continue on like this until it gets very bad. At that point, the oil companies will have diversified. And all the deniers will say, “Oops.” There will be widespread suffering. But those who profited from the delay will not suffer the least consequences.

So what is the global cooling meme all about? It’s just one of many tactics that the denial community uses to avoid talking about the science—to avoid doing anything. There will be hell to pay. But not by those who are most responsible.