Everything We Know Comes From Roger Corman

Report From The Telluride Film Festival


(Originally posted Sept. 9, 2012)

Knock. Knock.

Who’s there?


Argo who?

Argo Fuckyerself.

This punch line — the line, not the whole joke — is a running gag in Ben Affleck’s “Argo,”  based on the rescue of six Americans who hid in the Canadian embassy during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The line is at home in Hollywood. It was in the mind of Clint Eastwood during his imaginary talk with Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention. It should be propped up in big letters on a Hollywood hill. And it is especially appropriate delivered in the movie by the profane producers played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. It got a laugh every time at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival.

Affleck is a CIA agent who persuades Goodman and Arkin to fake a movie. The rescue will disguise the Americans as their pre-production crew. They buy a bad script called “Argo” about a space creature of that name whose flying saucer lands in a desert. Affleck’s film (he produced and directed) was screened as a sneak preview, not part of the prestigious Telluride program, but the audiences related to it. They got all the inside Hollywood humor. They appreciated the suspense-enhancing tricks. They cheered at the climax.

The Telluride Film Festival is international and artful and committed to recognition of past greatness. But it is not anti-Hollywood. For example, Roger Corman received a silver medallion this year. On the stage of the Sheridan Opera House for the tribute he  looked more like a fresh Stanford engineering graduate (which he was, class of 1947) than the 86-year-old producer of more than 500 profitable movies with titles like “The Last Woman On Earth,” “The Candystripe Nurses,” “Teenage Caveman,” or “Attack Of The Crab Monsters.”

“Argo” the fake movie in “Argo” the real movie, sounds like a Corman B-list idea, although he probably would have dressed up the title to something like “Argo The Earth Sucker.” A documentary with the tribute, “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” praises his more artful side. Corman produced and directed one of the earliest feature films on racial integration in the South – “The Intruder” (1962) starring young William Shatner as a handsome (he mugged a lot even then) hate-spreader whom the lovely teenage daughter of a liberal newspaper publisher finds irresistible. Corman also directed a series of Edgar Allen Poe mysteries and became the U.S. distributor of Igmar Bergman films.

Even so, the tribute handout called Corman “an incredibly savvy businessman” who created a new genre in the 1960’s and schooled a new generation of talent. The genre was low-budget films aimed at the booming teenager audience that frequented America’s postwar drive-in theatres. The budding talent included actors Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Shatner and directors Martin Scorsese, Frances Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron. In a panel on independent films, Columbia University film professor James Schamus regretted the current lack of a Corman academy where new talent could learn the movie-making trade. “Everybody has to show up at Sundance as a bonifide genius,” Schamus said.

Corman, also a panelist, reminded the audience that in the origin of the industry, 1900-1915, “all films were indies.” The studio system took over, but the modern era of indies actually began with the 1940 Paramount Consent Decree in which the studios divested themselves of theatres.

He is an eyewitness to film history. For example, when the side issue of the place for women in the indie business came up, Corman had a unique observation. He said he had thought that as the industry opened up for women, they would be drawn to directing because of what he called “their sensitivity.” But in fact, he said, five times more women have gone into producing, the money side, and that ought to be material for a “psychological study.”

Fem producers to Corman:  “Argo. . .”




For news value, perhaps the most talked about film at Telluride this year was shot in north Sumatra by Joshua Oppenheimer, a documentarian whose career began with a short selected for Telluride’s Great Expectations program nearly 15 years ago. In “The Act of Killing,” seven years in the making, Indonesian thugs happily celebrate their participation in the slaughter of an estimated 1 million people in Indonesia after the Suharto coup of 1965.

A little history: Communists, the conservative army, and anti-communist Islamists were vying with each other for control of Indonesia when in October 1965, six army generals were assassinated. Gen. Suharto survived under circumstances that were never clear. In the name of security, he took over the government from aging and increasingly extravagant President Sukarno, founder of the post-colonial republic. Suharto broke ties with the Soviet Union and Red China, banned the Communist Party, and began receiving American foreign aid as well as investment capital. His family ruled for the next 35 years.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, soldiers, organized crime, jihadists, and simple thugs slaughtered any perceived opponents, especially “communists” and ethnic Chinese. There was never a reconciliation commission, as has become common in other nations ravaged by mass atrocities. Oppenheimer in his work often heard whispers that this or that household included men who had murdered their neighbors, even their own parents. Soon he made the acquaintance of one such man, Anwar Congo, who is the primary figure in the film.

Congo is a vain and swaggering old man whose character is defined early in the film when he proudly demonstrates a killing device used in many of his executions. (Oppenheimer estimated the number at 10,500.) It is a thin 20-foot length of thin wire anchored to a wall on one end with a wooden handle on the other. He demonstrates on a shaky volunteer how he would loop the wire around the neck of a “communist” before pulling back with both hands on the handle. Congo and other neighborhood thugs began by shooting or stabbing, but, “The smell of blood was sickening, so we devised a system of strangling with wire,” he says, standing in the middle of a rooftop killing field.

Oppenheimer speculated that there will never be any attempt to prosecute Congo or his cronies because they are still feared and many others involved in the war crimes of 1965-1966 have political power. They remind citizens of their past and continue to threaten, he said, “even as governors, senators, and members of parliament.” The film includes shots of a rally of The Pancasila Youth, a militant Indonesian group said to number 3 million men, in which the violence of the past seems to be venerated.

Oppenheimer gained the trust of Congo and his cronies by talking them into re-enacting their exploits before his cameras with the idea that the scenes would be incorporated in his film – and they are.

In the sixties these poor, uneducated bullies were enthralled by American movies. Congo stands in front of the old neighborhood theatre where he and his buddies used to scalp tickets. “We’d do anything for money,” he says. The most profit came from American movies, which he points out, the communists wanted to ban. Elvis was the most popular, but there were many other Hollywood films. Congo says the idea of strangling people with wire came from American gangster movies. A cliché repeated in the film is this:  “Gangster in English means freedom.”

Were Corman productions shown at that small movie theatre in Sumatra? Is Hollywood responsible for the deaths of thousands in Indonesia? Huh?

“Argo. . . “



 Sunday morning was clear and mountainous, countering Saturday’s rain and the darkness of “Act of Killing” and another film of inexplicable political violence, “The Attack.” Like “Precious Life” two years ago at Telluride, it forces us to acknowledge the humanity involved in what politicians call the Arab-Israeli conflict. The world of an Arab medical doctor who has made his peace living and healing in Israel collapses when he learns that the death of his wife in a suicide bombing was her own doing.

Luck that morning put me in line for Mark Cousins’ “What Is This Film Called Love?” next to a bright unpretentious young woman with a “guest” pass. She was in Telluride with the primary crew of Ken Burns and Sara (his daughter) Burns’ documentary “The Central Park Five” about the boys screwed by the tabloid-driven justice system in a famous rape case. My line mate lives on the upper West Side near where I lived in more dangerous times, and she spoke the flashing bright idiom of the new graduates seeking to start their New York careers (and find apartments) in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” one of the more enlightening films at Telluride this year.

We talked about “Amour,” Michael Heneke’s Palm D’Or winner, which depressed me in a variety of ways – not least of which was the realization that Emanuelle Riva, the tragic young nurse in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” is now 85. My new young friend pointed out some nuances in the film that save it from being little more than a slow death watch.

Suddenly I heard my name called from the street in a Scot-Irish lilt. And there was Mark Cousins, who describes himself as “an annoyingly happy person,” greeting me. The sun rose. That’s Telluride: waiting in line is stimulating, and a director with a great memory welcomes you to his film. Cousins’ book, “The Story of Film,” is a standard text in film classes worldwide. The text and its 15-segment video are not about “The Industry” as it is known in Los Angeles, but rather about the craft and artistry of film-making. In the introduction to both he quotes the late actress Lauren Bacall: “The industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great.”

The screen title “What Is This Film Called Love?”  has a pause-making line feed before “Love,” so there are a couple of ways to say it, but the meaning is that Cousins is a poet in love with movies as art. This personal documentary shot with a $100 video camera and edited in 10 days is an artful testament, in particular, to Sergei Eisenstein. Cousins walks three days alone in Mexico City following the path— more  spiritual than physical of Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico!”  There is a radical philosophy in starting out to make a movie “with no budget, no plan,” as Cousins puts it. The radical principle is, in his words again, “Make films about what you don’t know.” And so he walks, talking to a photo of Eisenstein. “You’ve taught me how to look, amigo, ” he says, and he explores the meaning of “non-indifferent nature” and of the word “ecstatic.” (From exstasis, that is, “not static, being on the move, out of myself.”) From time to time the narrative voice, which is Cousins talking, switches to that of a woman. “The feminine,” he explained, in answer to a question.

OK, the Nugget Theatre was not filled that lovely morning. This was not a theme-defining film on the program. But it provided some welcomed balance, at least for me.

Hollywood to me: “Argo. . .”




These were my favorites – the first from Germany, the second from Canada – because I learned from each while entranced by their skillful story telling.

As in  “The Lives of Others” a few years ago, the obsessive surveillance of Honecker’s East Germany, is the leaden backdrop of the humane plot of Christian Petzold’s “Barbara.” It’s a psychologically compelling story about two top medical doctors banished to a provincial hospital for political reasons. The tyranny of petty bureaucrats thwarts professional practice, but in a dim-witted bureaucracy intelligent victims can usually find their way. A Hollywood movie on this Cold War theme would present  life in 1980 on the other side The Wall as foreign and undoubtedly violent, worthy of a Berlin Airlift. But “Barbara” like “The Lives of Others” is a film by Germans about themselves. East and West, the twain, did meet, at Checkpoint Charlie.

“Stories We Tell” is a personal documentary in the genre of Cousins’ “make films about what you  don’t know” – but with a budget and high production values.  It’s by Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress who was part of Atom Egoyan’s ensemble. And it’s no spoiler to tell you that she discovers, in real time with the camera running, that her father, whom she initially chose as her narrator, is not her biological father. Polley – and the editing prepares you for the work’s “Frances Ha” attitude toward sex to understand this – does not give great psychological weight to the surprise, as older-era feature films would. The mystery she seeks is all about her late mother.

Besides Roger Corman, two foreign stars received silver medallions and their new films were screened at Telluride. Marion Cotillard of France stars in “Rust and Bone.” And Mads Mikkelsen of Denmark stars in “A Royal Affair and “The Hunt.” Of these I saw only the last, about a good man believed to have done bad things in a rural Danish town. From this engaging movie about a disturbed school girl’s false accusations, you would think of Mikkelsen as a sensitive actor with a great emotional range. In the stage interview, however, he characterized himself as somewhat anti-intellectual and obsessed with sports. And the clips shown with his tribute showed that he built his career on violence. His recent global fame came from his portrayal of a sadistic operative  in “Casino Royale.” Similarly, Marion Cotillard is gaining global fame from her  role in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Goodness gracious,  Hollywood, you do  corrupt  talent from elsewhere—

Argo. . .