July 30, 2013

hollywood boulevard

Roger Corman’s career would be impossible today. There is no more infrastructure for low-budget genre experimentation, as filmmakers must increasingly rely on crowd-funding to get their modest projects off the ground (even Spike Lee took that route last week), with little hope of distribution. The only outfit as prolific as Corman’s New World Pictures is The Asylum, the mock-busters behind Sharknado, except their model doesn’t encourage the young but re-animates the old for a quick buck. Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix shares Corman’s huckster spirit and eye for talent, but only has the funds to make 2-3 films a year (New World could crank out 10). And while there is plenty of creativity on display in direct-to-video action movies (like Jesse V. Johnson and Isaac Florentine), they are totally isolated from Hollywood at-large, never graduating to larger productions like Corman alumni Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. What we are robbed of from this lack is gonzo oddities like Dante and Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a no-budget satire of an exploitation film production. Streaming on Netflix (cropped from 1.85 to 1.33, sadly), it’s a loving take-down of Corman’s shoestring flicks “shamelessly loaded with sex and violence”, per the tagline.


“This doesn’t have a lot of the conventional virtues of a movie.” -Joe Dante on Hollywood Boulevard

Joe Dante and Allan Arkush were trailer editors for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the early 70s, and eager to direct. Together with friend and producer Jon Davison, they approached Corman about helming their first feature. Davison bet Corman that they could make the cheapest film in New World history. Corman gave them 10 days and $60,000 ($246,225 in today’s dollars) to shoot Hollywood Boulevard. Another catch was that Corman still needed them to cut the trailers, so Dante recalled that they agreed to “make the movie in the daytime, if we did the trailers at night.” Realizing they did not have the cash for the kind of action scenes a Corman feature required, they came up with the idea to make it about a B-movie Studio, and re-purpose footage from old New World titles. As trailer cutters, they were familiar with every last crash and fireball in the studio’s archive. Dante and Davison were already veteran re-purposers, having edited together the monstrous 7-hour collage The Movie Orgy (1968) out of scarps of B-movies, commercial outtakes, and public access TV (I wrote about this masterpiece here). To cut down on shooting time Dante and Arkush would prepare separate set-ups simultaneously. When Dante shouted “cut” on one scene, Arkush would yell “action!” on another. It’s one of the rare films in which the feature acts as a documentary of its own production, as the characters in the film deal with the same budget deficits  as it’s creators. Dante referred to it as a “home movie”.


The only film set Dante had been on was Death Race 2000 (1975), so he hired the two actors he met there, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. They play bitchy  actress Mary McQueen and delusional director Erich Von Leppe, respectively, the star employees of Miracle Studios (slogan: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”). Woronov is all legs and bile, while Bartel deploys his plummy baritone to absurdities like his thematic breakdown of Atomic War Brides: “What we’re trying to do here is combine the legend of Romeo and Juliet with high speed car action and a sincere plea for international atomic controls in our time.”


McQueen’s female co-stars have been dying off, which opens the door for Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson), just off the bus and ready for work – any work. She is aided by huckster agent Walter Paisley, played with sleazy screwball brio by future Dante-axiom Dick Miller. She is quickly promoted from stunt woman to actress, landing a part in the Machete Maidens of Mora Tau, a Polynesian naked women-with-guns farrago that’s a take-off on The Big Doll House (1971). When Candy watches her debut at the local drive-in with Walter and her screenwriter boyfriend, she has to sit through New World features The Terror (1963, also with Dick Miller) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which are skewered with Mystery Science Theater relish. In the most terrifying moment in the movie, Candy is so enraged by the film, and the inclusion of a rape scene, that she storms into the projection booth, demanding the film be stopped. Then the projectionist attacks her, implying that the audience’s thirst for sex and violence is not so innocent.


The entire film is a blunt attack on Hollywood heartlessness, especially about its abuses of women, from the cattle call of actresses for a nude scene to the total indifference Von Leppe displays towards deaths on his productions. There’s always another girl to replace them, as Candy shortly learns. Narrative is incidental to Hollywood Boulevard, but it eventually shifts from backstage black comedy into satiric slasher flick, with plot details borrowed from the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Death Kiss (1932). Miracle Pictures makes bad movies, but their lives become one, as the body count mounts due to a robed killer straight out of their prop room. In the delirious finale, the murdereress is disrobed and crushed by the Hollywood sign, a blunt metaphor (and weapon) for the town’s attitude towards women.

With the demise of double-bills and the death of drive-ins, the market for cheap programmers has dried up, whether inspired like Hollywood Boulevard or rote like the films it burlesques. But without this cheap testing ground filmmakers don’t have the luxury of making mistakes like their predecessors – not when it’s impossible for the most successful of directors to make more than one film every couple of years. Perhaps the growth of VOD will create more demand for product that someone like Fessenden can exploit, but it doesn’t seem likely.  Even Dante is finding it hard to make features these days. If his next film ends up on Kickstarter, don’t be surprised, but at least donate.


September 15, 2009


September 25th is Phil Karlson night on TCM, as they’ll be screening three of his tight-lipped noirs along with a rare  B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus. He’s one of the many unsung talents from the studio system, and I’ve been entranced with his work since I saw The Phenix City Story, a docu-drama so precisely detailed the stench of corruption wafts off the screen in pungent waves (it airs at 9:45PM on the 25th). So whenever a Karlson comes across my radar, I devour it. Which brings me to 1967′s A Time For Killing, a film which I watched on TCM a few months back, but which is also available for  purchase on iTunes (the TCM master is in the correct 2.35 aspect ratio, but the iTunes listing says their version is full-screen).

Karlson is credited as the sole director, but the movie was originally developed by Roger Corman under the title The Long Ride Home, hot on the heels of The Wild Angels and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the first film in a new multi-picture deal Corman made with Columbia Pictures. It was based on the novel The Southern Blade, a Civil War drama written by Nelson and Shirley Wolford, whose adaptation duties he handed to a young Robert Towne, while Monte Hellman was on board as the editor (he was producing Hellman’s The Shooting, released the same year). A few weeks into the production however, Corman was fired, Hellman resigned in protest, and Towne’s script was scrapped.

There is no definitive story regarding his ouster, but Corman biographer Beverly Gray offers the following:

Towne told Corman’s assistant Francis Doel he suspected that the ouster occurred “because Roger insisted on saving money. Roger didn’t understand that, unlike Sam Arkoff or AIP, [Columbia] wouldn’t think any better of him for saving money. In fact, they would think the opposite. They would think that he was going to make them a picture of lesser quality than they were used to.” Doel recalls that when Columbia executives sent Corman lists of equipment they were planning to ship to his Arizona location, he would cross out items he felt weren’t needed. If, for instance, two generators were listed, he would eliminate one, figuring that the remaining generator would work adequately for the length of the shoot. Presumably, this thrifty behavior raised the suspicions of the Columia brass, who feared getting a cheap-looking product.

Essentially, Corman’s DIY ethos clashed with the plush expectations of the Columbia suits. Corman doesn’t say much about the incident, claiming only that he had a “series of disagreements” before leaving the set. Monte Hellman has a more colorful evasion, quoted from Brad Stevens’ biography of the iconoclastic filmmaker:

“I was editor on the film for a couple of weeks, and resigned when Corman was fired. I never saw the film, and have no recollection of which scenes I may have worked on. It’s another CRAFT moment: Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.”

In any case, Karlson took over the director’s chair, and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma) received sole screenwriting credit. It’s unclear how much of Towne’s script was used in Welles’ version. The cast remained the same, though, and a number of Corman’s cadre of character actors give delightfully eccentric turns: Timothy Carey, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton are all on hand, wielding their jutting-out faces with expressionistic glee. Carey is a bombastic sharpshooter named Billy Cat, Miller a cowardly Union soldier tittering in the corners of frames, while Stanton is a nervous voice of reason on the Confederate side, duly ignored. They provide the colorful background to the dour leads: Glenn Ford and George Hamilton. The contrast is so great between the supporting comedians and the leading brooders, its easy to think that Corman shot most of the former material with his friends and Karlson took over the more psychologically tinged sequences with the latter. But unless someone turns up the production log, it’s impossible to say.

Ford plays Major Wolcott, a quiet type just trying to keep his troops alive as the Civil War winds to a close. He’s stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where Confederate Captain Bentley (Hamilton) is held with a gaggle of good ol’ boys. Wolcott is in love with a missionary, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), who he sends away from the camp because it’s too dangerous.  Bentley and his gang soon break out, run down Biddle’s wagon train and take her hostage. Wolcott is sent out to track them down, just as the war is rumored to be coming to a close.

The script sets up the chase as a study in vengeance. At the open, Wolcott attempts to temper the bloodthirstiness of his Colonel, who orders a brutal execution of a Confederate prisoner. He requests that the search be called off for the escaped prisoners, since the South was expected to surrender at any minute. The colonel insists, Wolcott leaves, and the film tracks the Major’s slow descent into the cycle of vengeance that has enveloped everyone else.

Corman & Karlson keep much of the action in long shot, subordinated to the landscape and the fates that are driving them towards death. Even fight scenes are fought in long shot, including a series of duels between two bickering Confederates. The first takes place in the desert, starting with laughter and ending with knives drawn. Their rage is made small by the camera’s distance, rendered as just a symptom of the disease devouring both sides of the war. For punctuation, Karlson/Corman cut in to distorted extreme close-ups, underlining further Bentley and Wolcott’s psychological breakdown. By the end of the film, when Major Wolcott barrels his way into Mexico, recklessly leading his men to certain death in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, brittle Dick Miller, who runs off with his pal to avoid further combat, turns out to be the smartest soldier in town.