In our Swampchat discussion of December’s Movie of the Month, the 2000 Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, we praised the film for feeling remarkably ahead of its time in terms of the modern comedy landscape. Long stretches of the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern HBO anti-hero comedy or post-The Office docucomedy, which is true even if both genres are pulling influence from the same souce as The Independent – Christopher Guest mockumentaries. That’s not the only way in which The Independent was ahead of its time, though. Most mockumentaries & spoof comedies wait until the material they’re mocking is actually released. The ever-prescient The Independent, on the other hand, was released more than a decade before the documentary it most resembles – 2011’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.
Roger Corman not only appears in brief “interviews” for The Independent, but Jerry Stiller’s schlockmeister protagonist Morty Fineman mostly serves as a Roger Corman archetype (with maybe a little David Friedman or Russ Meyer sleaze thrown in for good measure). Fineman’s 427 B-movies oeuvre may seem comically oversized & impossible for a filmmaker to achieve, but the timeless Roger Corman (who began making film in the 50s & continues to work to this day) has a whopping 409 production credits (and 56 directoral credits) according to IMDb. For every infamous Roger Corman trashterpiece (Rock & Roll High Schol, A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000, Piranha, etc.) there’s dozens of titles lurking in the archives that no one remembers at all, a sentiment reflected in the way that a dozen or so Fineman features are represented throughout The Independent, but hundreds are listed in his filmography that runs in tandem with the end credits.
There’s so much Corman in Fineman that the connection is undeniable, especially if you consider the way that unlikely former Corman collaborators pop up in both The Independent & Corman’s World – particularly Ron Howard & Peter Bogdanovich. There’s also the two directors’ love for Ingmar Bergman – reflected in Fineman’s herpes-themed The Simplex Complex & in the odd, real-life detail that Corman used to provide distribution for the Swedish auteur’s films at American drive-ins because he thought people needed to see them. The truest connection of all, though, is in the clips of the two directors’ films – Fineman’s fake & Corman’s real. Corman talks at length about the value of text vs. subtext in sneaking in political messages in trashy B-movies features, but watching clips of his work in Corman’s World suggests that the director might be more in line with Fineman’s confession that he was mostly interested in the “tits, ass, and bombs” than he was putting on.
Corman’s World is an invaluable documentary, one that should be required viewing for all movie lovers whether or not they’ve indulged in The Independent‘s delights. Corman himself is just so full of insight from decades of hands-on experience. I particularly enjoyed his rigid, formulaic approach to genre films, like the way he describes that creature features need their monsters to kill someone fairly gruesome easily in the film, then kill at regular, less-shocking intervals until the blood-all-over-the-screen finale. It’s also a delight to see such twisted imagery & violent, sex-depraved themes originate from such a calm, professorial source, a dichotomy he describes as the outer image vs. the unconscious mind. This detail is missing in Fineman’s character, who is just as explosive in his art as he is in his personalty. There’s also a Russ Meyer-esque sleaziness in Fineman that’s entirely absent in the oddly-refined Corman.
What’s most interesting, though, is the ways in which Corman’s career phases serve as a blueprint for the history of cult cinema. Corman started by making creature features & teen rebellion dramas in the 1950s. He then moved on to the much classier “Poe cycle” of his career, a string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that married art house aesthetic with B-movie camp (including February’s Movie of the Month, The Masque of the Red Death). This lead him to indulging in arty hippie movies & giving a shot to young Hollywood voices that positioned him as the paterfamilias of the golden era of New Hollywood. Once his collaborators outgrew him & left him behind (names like Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Fonda), Corman survived on a second wave of trashy exploitation cinema until big budget films he heavily influenced (like Star Wars & Jaws) effectively disassembled the drive-in movie market & drove him to home video cheapness & SyFy Channel mockbusters. The story of Roger Corman’s career is the story of modern cinema at large, something that could also be said about the fictional Morty Fineman.
A lot of Corman’s more artistic impulses are missing in the eternal businessman Fineman, but there really is something to say about Corman & his ilk’s ability to make interesting, profitable pictures on shoestring budgets. Fineman doesn’t have fictional credits that match up with Corman’s racial segregation protest film The Intruder or the soaring artistry of the Poe Cycle, but the two directors do hare an eye for finance. As (frequently Corman collaborator) Jack Nicholson puts it in Corman’s World, “A filmmaker who doesn’t understand money is like an artist who doesn’t understand paint.” The Independent is all about Morty Fineman securing funding for yet another B-picture & even though themselves don’t look especially promising, it really is awe-inspiring to see Corman still at work, stealing shots & cutting expenses for SyFy Channel originals (which are essentially Roger Corman knockoffs), Fineman & Corman are survivors, unlikely successes navigating inhospitable waters for decades on end.
Thankfully, Corman’s success story at the conclusion of Corman’s World is much more impressive than Fineman’s at the end of The Independent. Fineman secures funding for his next picture, surviving to see another day & attending a small-town film festival held in his honor. Corman, on the other hand, receives a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a much-deserved distinction for a director who could film movies as memorable as Little Shop of Horrors in a weekend or provide an environment in which Peter Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit is something called The Gill Women of Venus (aka Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women). I’m glad to see Corman receive the recognition he deserves from The Academy, but it’s almost an even greater achievement that he earned a loosely-based mockumentary homage in (the albeit little-loved, little remembered) The Independent. The Independent & Corman’s World are inescapably linked in my mind as celebrations of one of cinemas most criminally under-celebrated heroes. Even though one is fictional & the other is a documentary, they’re both indispensable in their reverence for a wonderful artist.