Welcome to The Motion/Captured Must-See Project.
I started this last year, and it got side-tracked as the end of the year came hurtling towards me.
I haven’t abandoned it, though, and starting now, and continuing this year, we’re going to make this an every Thursday part of the blog. I decided to do the first 26 entries on the list as an alphabetical A-Z run, and so today, we continue that. Once I reach “Z,” though, we’ll be opening it up to whatever I consider appropriate. Sometimes it’ll be themed to things happening in pop culure, sometimes it’ll just be something on my mind, but each and every week, I hope to write about a film I consider an essential part of the education of any true film freak.
One of the sad things about the Academy’s decision to move the honorary awards to a separate ceremony is that most of America has no idea that Roger Corman is now an Oscar winner. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s long overdue. Corman’s impact on American cinema is impossible to estimate, but if you erased every person he ever helped get started in this industry, the last 40 years of film would look totally different. Like many people, I was shocked byhow dismissive much of the reaction to the award was in print and online, and I was particularly struck by just how wrong Eric Snider’s complete dismissal of Corman was, but his opinion is probably closer to what the general public feels when they hear the name, if they know who he is at all.
Yes… Roger Corman made a lot of crap, both as a producer and as a director. But that Oscar was about the fact that he has been influential above and beyond the individual films he made. Mr. Beaks wrote an amazing piece that gave Corman his due, highlighting several of his best films and putting to bed the idea that Corman never made a good movie. One of the films that Beaks brushed over, though, may be my favorite of the films that Corman directed (it’s either this or “Rock All Night”), and rewatching it again recently, I was struck anew by just what an odd enterprise it was, and how it is a perfect example of how to do a lot with almost nothing, much like the film I reviewed earlier today, “The Disappearance Of Alice Creed.”
Mad scientists are certainly not anything new, and even in Corman’s day, they were already a fairly well-established genre trope. Here, Ray Milland plays Dr. James Xavier, who is working on a serum that will give him the ability to see through solid objects, with the intention of using it as a surgical tool, imagining himself able to diagnose any disease or identify any internal malady without having to open someone up. The first third of the film sees him testing the serum on himself, then slowly unraveling on a professional level as a result. By the time he sees that a fellow doctor is about to operate for the wrong thing on a little girl and steps in to stop him, he’s pretty much burned down any goodwill among his fellow doctors and scientists. Then something truly awful happens, and he’s forced out of medicine and science altogether. The way the rest of the movie unfolds is where Corman really tries some unexpected narrative ideas, and slowly, the film starts exploring ideas of faith and religion and money and class, all while still telling the story of a man with these crazy magic eyes.
Tim Burton’s been obssessed with remaking this film for a long time, and I can certainly see how you’d be able to do more with the x-ray effects and with the nature of his altered vision, but I doubt you’re going to better Milland’s performance. He was already in the later days of his career, and there’s a weird, sad desperation to his work here that I find quite chilling. And while you could certainly make the film more visually elaborate, the way Corman uses details here to suggest the overwhelming nature of what Xavier sees is effective, impressive. What I dig most about the way the film paints this picture of a man gradually sinking into an unknown world is how he’s never portrayed as a monster, as would normally be the case. He doesn’t go homicidal or start stealing eyes or anything of the sort. He is alien, no doubt, and more so as his vision continues to evolve. The more he evolves, the less he is able to convey to anyone else or relate to them. It’s internally directed horror, not externally directed, and that’s rare enough. It’s even more rare for it to be as strong as this without resorting to the brutally explicit.
This came in the middle of Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe cycle, and it’s not really like what he’d made before or what he made after. So often, he would work and rework and rework a genre or a story type or even a particular idea, but this one sort of stands alone. It’s a unique moment in the filmography of a filmmaker whose work and sensibilities resonate through the last forty years of film so profoundly that to remove him would simply erase what we think of as pop culture. It is a must see for anyone who doubts Corman’s chops. Eric D. Snider? I’m looking at you.
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