Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olympics Discover Movieland

I barely remember the opening ceremonies of the 1984 L.A. Olympics. I know they were staged by David Wolper, producer of such prize-winning TV events as Roots and The Thorn Birds. What I vaguely recall is dancers doing a hoedown and a score of pianists banging out “Rhapsody in Blue,” seated at white grand pianos, before Rafer Johnson mounted the steps of the L.A. Coliseum to ignite the Olympic torch. There wasn’t a cinematic projection in sight, but everyone griped that it was all too Hollywood.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Opening ceremonies are now expected to be grand spectacles, geared as much to the worldwide TV audience as to ticket-holders inside the stadium. In Beijing, the 2008 Olympics kicked off with a breathtaking extravaganza directed by Zhang Yimou (whose masterful period films include Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers). This year, the opening event of the London Olympics was entrusted to Danny Boyle, best known for his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire but also responsible for directing Trainspotting and other gutsy indie films. Not only did Boyle use filmed images as a backdrop for the action on the stadium floor, but he also called on show biz personalities (including Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Craig) to add sparkle to the proceedings. Craig took part in the ceremonies’ single most remarkable segment, when -— in character as James Bond -- he appeared on film to escort 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II to the ceremonies. They climbed into an official helicopter, and then (in a carefully edited sequence) seemed to parachute out over London and into the stadium. Obviously, movie magic made that happen.

The magic of movies was also featured in a comic sequence in which British comic Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), bored with his one-note gig in a symphony orchestra, dreamed himself into a clip from Chariots of Fire. This 1981 film, remembered today mostly for its haunting score, details the story of two real-life track stars who competed for Britain at the 1924 Olympics. The film’s most iconic moment comes earlier, with the British team sprinting along a lonely beach, as inspirational music swells. Boyle seamlessly inserted Atkinson into the scene, jostling for position among the runners, then cheating by thumbing a ride to get ahead of the pack, finally elbowing a “teammate” to the ground so he could claim victory for himself.

One big difference between films and sporting events is that the drama inherent in athletic competitions doesn’t follow a pre-approved script. Some of history’s greatest filmmakers have used the spontaneity of sports as the raw material for brilliant documentaries. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, capturing the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was intended to glorify the rise of the Third Reich, but ended up as something of a paean to an African-American track star, Jesse Owens. Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad gave a human face to the 1964 games.

These days Chariots of Fire doesn’t win much respect, but I remember it fondly for taking me back to the era when an Olympic team was a gentleman’s club, one in which a runner who was Jewish or the son of Christian missionaries would not feel at home. Few other features use the Olympics as a backdrop, but one exception is Cary Grant’s last film, Walk, Don’t Run. Grant, at sixty-two, was no longer willing to be cast as a romantic lead. In Walk, Don’t Run, set during the Tokyo Olympics, he endearingly plays Cupid to Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton. This is the only film I know that spotlights race-walking, one of the goofiest-looking sports on the Olympic roster.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The French Have a Word for It: Hollywood

These are not the best of times for American moviegoers. This summer’s offerings have ranged from fanboy blockbusters to embarrassing flops to real-life horror shows, like witnessing a deranged man firing in a crowded theatre. All of which makes me want to relive my recent visit to France and Ireland, where the old verities of Hollywood glamour apparently live on.

I just spent a week in Toulouse, a beautiful medieval city that has in recent years become France’s high-tech mecca. This is where Airbus is headquartered, and Toulouse is justly proud of its Cité de l’Espace, a sort of family theme park that focuses on the European role in space exploration. But as I prowled the old city, with its winding streets and Romanesque towers, what struck me was the local enthusiasm for Hollywood’s icons. In many shop windows, I spotted a whimsical poster of Alfred Hitchcock, a finger held to his lips. This was an advertisement for La Cinémathèque de Toulouse’s June film series, which was completely devoted to the Master of Suspense. The Cinémathèque was also taking advantage of balmy summer evenings by sponsoring an outdoor series, Cinéma en Plein Air. It featured such American flicks as The Magnificent Seven and Les Hommes préfrèrent les blondes, which most of us know better as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

As I continued my wandering, I came across more Hollywoodiana. Like a trendy fashion boutique named “Groucho” that incorporates into its logo that familiar image: the eyebrows, the glasses, the mustache, the cigar. And a pop culture emporium that called itself “Bullitt,” and uses on its signage an unmistakable sketch of Pam Grier, in one of her Woman Warrior poses. Not to mention “Au Fouillis Américain,” a shop crammed full of cowboy boots, baseball caps, and other All-American gear. The drawing of Monument Valley splashed across its façade looks to have come straight from a John Ford epic.

My few hours in Paris yielded more of the same. Over lunch I spotted a young man wearing a Steve McQueen T-shirt, complete with motorcycle insignia. A très chic restaurant, Pierre au Palais Royal, had a photo of Marilyn Monroe emblazoned across its menu cover. A gallery near the Louvre was exhibiting wall art based on popular images of such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean. This is a country wholly besotted with Hollywood. No wonder the French produced The Artist.

At first glance, it seemed that Ireland is slightly less Hollywood-obsessed. One of the endearing facts of Irish life is its reverence for Irish authors. Dublin, which boasts the Dublin Writers Museum, has erected a jaunty statue to James Joyce, and named its new sleek bridge after Samuel Beckett. (Hard to tell what the author of Waiting for Godot would have thought of that.) In Galway, you can pose for a photo on a bench alongside a bronze Oscar Wilde.

Still, the Irish are not immune to Hollywood glitz. Coincidence, I’m sure, that in County Wicklow there’s a town named Hollywood. But it’s hardly a coincidence that on the green hillside of this tiny burg, big white letters spell out its name. Yes, a miniature Hollywood sign. And on a street corner in raucous Killarney, a codger with a one-man band amuses passers-by with his selection of celebrity all-stars. Erin (and Hollywood) go bragh!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Aurora, Colorado: It’s (Not) Only a Movie

Part of what we love about movies is that they can seem so real. Far more than a book or a stage play, a movie can suck us into an alternate reality, making us feel we are in the presence of more excitement and drama than our own lives usually have to offer. Even back in the earliest days, filmmakers played upon the cinematic paradox that the shadows projected on a movie screen affect us on a visceral level. When Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery back in 1903, he ended with an outlaw, in close-up, leveling his pistol directly at the audience. I’m told early moviegoers screamed and sometimes fainted (then came back for more). We smile now at their naïveté, but I think we too are looking for that sort of thrill when the lights go down.

Over the decades, inventive movie honchos have tried to take advantage of the audience’s eagerness to be drawn into the action. In the 1950s, CinemaScope and other wide-screen formats were designed to envelope viewers in a huge image. I faintly remember 1952’s This is Cinerama, a plotless extravaganza made up of a series of you-are-there thrills and chills, like a stomach-churning ride on Playland’s “Atom Smasher” roller coaster. Later in the same decade, horror director William Castle used gimmicks to rouse audiences. In The Tingler, for instance, he got moviegoers to scream on cue by wiring some of the seats in the auditorium to suddenly vibrate at just the right moment.

By the late Sixties, a dark time in American history, filmmakers were reeling in audiences by upping the violence quotient to levels never before seen on film. The bloody Technicolor finale of Bonnie and Clyde was quickly surpassed by the extended orgy of bloodletting that ended The Wild Bunch. Coming out of a movie theatre with an adrenalin rush was nothing new –- Jimmy Cagney gangster films had long given us that -- but we were now starting to expect greater and greater sensations. Movie studios were increasingly in the business of “Can you top this?,” and some filmmakers were obliging with films (like the gruesome but popular Saw franchise) whose entire purpose was to get viewers to recoil in disgust and horror.

Personally, I believe there’s a place for movies that are grim. Not every motion picture needs to be uplifting: the Disney take on life is not always appropriate. There’s a case to be made for films that can to shake us to our core, that can remind us in a fist-to-the-gut way that life can sometimes turn terrifying in the blink of an eye. The saving grace of such movies, of course, is that we normally emerge from them unscathed, counting our blessings. What’s shocking about what happened in Aurora is that a dark tale of make-believe was suddenly interrupted by real-life horror. A man with an arsenal of weapons suddenly emerged from the shadows and made a movie experience tragically real.

It’s beyond me to know with certainty how to prevent more Auroras. Personally I don’t believe in censorship; I do believe in gun control. I mourn the victims. At the same time, I wish there were some way to stop the easy access to guns that enabled one twisted soul to try making a horror movie of his own, a movie that no one bought tickets to see.

Friday, July 20, 2012

War Horse: Horsing Around on Stage and Screen

I admit I never saw Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse. I feel I’ve seen it, though, because of the countless times I watched that beautiful horse gallop across the screen in the widely circulated trailer. I originally figured this would be the film to beat in last year’s Oscar race, because the epic combination of Spielberg, war, and horses (not to mention Janusz Kaminski cinematography and a John Williams score) seemed like a shoe-in. In fact, War Horse did win some critical plaudits, as well as a best picture nomination in the expanded ten-film field. But many accused it of sentimentality, and -– most importantly –- audiences didn’t seem all that interested.

I bring this up now because I’ve just seen the play that inspired Spielberg. Both play and film evolved from a thirty-year-old British children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, who told the story of World War I from the point of view of a country horse who’s conscripted into the British cavalry to bear soldiers into battle. It’s a novel that plunges an innocent, spirited animal into a series of man-made horrors and allows him to emerge triumphant, returning to the care of the farm lad who loves him. The National Theatre of Britain discovered the book, and surprised the author by taking it on as a stage project. Obviously a theatre company can’t do what the Spielberg film did: find a well-trained horse to act as the star of the show. Instead the National Theatre did something I consider far more imaginative: they joined forces with an astonishing group from South Africa, Handspring Puppet Company, which devised larger-than-life horse puppets. On stage, each of the play’s several equine characters is manipulated by three actors in such a way that the metal and fabric “horses” capture the essence of horsey behavior (the toss of the head, the flick of the tail, the proud gait), while also conveying each horse’s unique personality.

This is hardly a kiddie show. The play is serious –- even, at times, tragic –- and when the central horse, Joey, is tangled in barbed wire in no man’s land it’s essential that the audience believe fully in his plight. This we do, because long before this climactic scene we’ve come to accept Joey as a flesh-and-blood creature, one capable of feeling torment and pain. War Horse reminded me of the long history of puppetry the world over. I’ve seen puppet characters on the Japanese bunraku stage (manipulated by handlers who wear black and fade into the background as the illusion takes hold) display an astonishing range of human emotions. Many of Japan’s classical tragedies – involving love suicides and other desperate acts – were originally written for the puppet stage. More recently, when Disney’s The Lion King was adapted for Broadway, the brilliant Julie Taymor introduced huge puppets (of elephants, giraffes, and such) as a way to establish for the audience the animal kingdom first introduced in the animated film.

Of course it’s in the nature of movies to conceal their magic, rather than playing out magic tricks in full view of the audience as stage performers do. Whatever is happening on screen –- like that horse caught in barbed wire -- it’s intended to look real. There’s less need for the movie audience to suspend disbelief, as playgoers do when asked to accept a metal-and-human gizmo as a horse. Just maybe, Spielberg’s film didn’t catch fire because its visuals were too intensely realistic to support a fable-like story. Maybe this horse tale required the kind of step back from reality that only human imagination can supply.

Here's a glimpse of War Horse on stage:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Richard Zanuck: Bursting Out of the Hollywood Cocoon

It sounds like typical Hollywood nepotism when, at age 28, you are named head of production at the studio your father co-founded. It sounds not quite so typical when your father responds to hard times by having you fired. Such was the life of Richard Zanuck, son of Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck died of a heart attack Friday at age 77, with a lot of films left in him.

At Fox, the younger Zanuck presided over fiscal triumphs like The Sound of Music. He also, as chronicled in John Gregory Dunne’s invaluable The Studio, greenlit the bloated Rex Harrison flop, Doctor Dolittle. But generally his ability to sniff out hit material was remarkable. Many obits point out how he gave young Steven Spielberg his first big break with The Sugarland Express, then went on to produce Spielberg’s blockbuster second feature, Jaws.

I want to focus on another intuitive leap made by Zanuck as an independent producer. Circa 1985 he and his partners struck a deal with Fox to make Cocoon. The film -- about some Florida senior citizens who sail off in a flying saucer in order to live forever –- originally had Robert Zemeckis at the helm. When Zemeckis belatedly bowed out, Zanuck and company offered Cocoon to Ron Howard, on the strength of his work on Night Shift (1982) and Splash (1984). Howard, then still a fledgling director, inherited a script full of SFX as well as a cast dominated by such acting legends as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Maureen Stapleton.

Howard worried that Cocoon would come off as a pale copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His impulse was to cut back on the film’s otherworldly elements and focus on the hopes and needs of its elderly characters. Ironically, he discovered that each of the senior actors in his company had a different approach. Of the four cronies whose actions dominate much of the film, Hume Cronyn devoted much mental energy to analyzing his role, while Jack Gilford called on the skills of a trained vaudevillian. The dapper Don Ameche, whose nimble breakdancing scene helped him land a supporting actor Oscar, turned out to be an old-school Hollywood thespian who begged Howard to give him precise direction. As for curmudgeonly Wilford Brimley, he was happiest when going his own way. A prime example is the fishing scene, in which his character breaks the news to his beloved grandson that he’s leaving for outer space. With Howard’s blessings, Brimley discarded the scripted lines and improvised a simple but deeply moving farewell. Says Howard, “It is one of the scenes I've always been proudest of, and I had virtually nothing to do with it.”

In another respect too, Howard learned by listening to his actors. There’s an important plot strand in which senior citizens sneak into a neighbor’s swimming pool, and become rejuvenated by its magical life-force. One scene requires Brimley (age fifty-one), Cronyn (age seventy-four), and Ameche (age seventy-seven) to cavort in the pool like youngsters, doing exuberant flips and dives. Howard hired doubles to execute these stunts, then discovered the three actors were miffed: “They wanted to do it themselves. And they did. They really taught me that you can’t generalize about what people can, or cannot, do because of age.”

Zanuck’s instincts about Ron Howard were right on target. Cocoon went on to become a major hit. But in one respect Howard proved smarter than Zanuck. He decided he wanted no part of Zanuck’s attempt at a 1988 sequel, Cocoon: The Return.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mad About Mad Mad Mad Mad World

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. To kick off its so-called “The Last 70 MM Film Festival,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just screened Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy hit, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, before an enthusiastic crowd. Nearly four hours long, Mad World is a riotous tale of ill-gotten gains that pits police chief Spencer Tracy against some of the greatest comic actors in the business.

Adding to the festivities, the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp and Kramer’s unstoppable widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, gathered on-stage much of the film’s surviving cast and production team. These included Marshall Schlom, Kramer’s veteran script supervisor; Lynn Stalmaster, casting director par excellence; Barrie Chase, who had worn a bikini and danced a drugged-out version of the Twist with the film’s Dick Shawn; the wonderful but now very fragile Stan Freberg, who worked on Mad World’s ad campaign and earned himself a cameo role; Marvin Kaplan (he teamed with Arnold Stang to play nebbishy gas station attendants vainly trying to stop a maniac); the still peppy but now slightly stooped Carl Reiner; ageless Mickey Rooney, who somehow got off a few dance moves; and the inimitable Jonathan Winters, who announced from his wheelchair that these days he’s “not only crazy but crippled.”

Riding herd over this remarkable group was MC Billy Crystal, a lover of Mad World since age fifteen because it contains “the people who made me want to be funny all in one movie.” Crystal puckishly described Mad World as nine hours long, “shorter than some seders.” But it’s clear its release had an important place in his young life, helping him cope with his father’s recent death. Mad World perhaps gave solace to the American people as well. It premiered on November 7, 1963, a mere two weeks before President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. In late 1963, a stunned nation seemed to look to Mad World for the healing power of laughter.

Crystal proved brilliant at briefly interviewing each participant, eliciting chuckles while keeping rampant egos in check. Karen Kramer explained the movie’s genesis: her husband, known for powerful social dramas, had been told by leading critic Bosley Crowther that he was incapable of making a comedy. Never one to back down from a challenge, Kramer vowed to create the most outrageous comedy ever. Carl Reiner admitted how terrifying it was to shoot a scene (in those pre-CGI days) in which a stunt plane came within inches of him. Marvin Kaplan (who neatly summed up the film’s timeless appeal -– “it’s all about greed, and now greed is a national pastime”) disclosed the struggle to find a stuntman for the 5’2” Arnold Stang, who had “no chin and no shoulders.” The eventual choice had a muscular upper body, and so Stang’s costume had to be padded out in order to match.

As for Jonathan Winters, he continues to be a force unto himself, quick to interject off-center remarks to the audience and his fellow panelists (“You up? You awake?”). Carl Reiner recalled how on the set Winters, then newly released from a mental institution, would sit quietly by himself, whittling away at a block of wood. By the time the film wrapped after 166 shooting days, Winters had crafted a beautiful wooden egg. Reiner wondered: Did Jonathan still have that egg? Winters instantly deadpanned, “I’ve laid so many since then . . .”

And with that it was time for the movie to start. What a treat to see those comic geniuses all in a row. Yup, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Johnny O’Cash: Walking Hard in the Emerald Isle

I’m just back from a glorious but slightly soggy trip to Ireland, which may be one of the wettest places around. As we rambled from Kilkenny to Kinsale to Killarney, I kept looking for opportunities to hear traditional Irish music. We lucked out at Kyteler’s, a 650-year-old pub whose much-wedded first owner, Dame Alice, left town in a hurry after being accused of witchcraft, so they say. At Kyteler’s we were entertained by two talented buckos who deftly performed on guitar, banjo, mandolin, Irish drum, and wooden flute. But at one point they took a small detour from Ireland to do a goofy parody of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

That was fun. But from Dublin to Galway, Irish musicians seem to have traded in their jigs and ballads for “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I guess the wearin’ of the green is passé these days, and everyone wants to be the Man in Black. What made this doubly ironic for me is that I’ve been thinking a lot about movie biographies of artistic icons. Not long ago I finally caught up with the 2007 John C. Reilly spoof, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. And on the plane to Europe I chanced to revisit Joaquin Phoenix portraying Johnny Cash in one of the better recent biopics, Walk the Line (2005). Seeing these two films almost back-to-back reminded me how easily the conventions of the biopic can turn the serious into the silly.

Walk Hard (co-written by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow) is an uproarious mash-up of Walk the Line and Ray, both films about musical geniuses that feature tortured childhoods, troubled adulthoods, and lots and lots of drugs. At a recent biographers’ conference, one expert’s advice for writing a biopic was to avoid trying to cover a HUGE swath of someone’s life. But both Walk the Line and Ray aim to be fairly comprehensive. Like Walk the Line, Walk Hard starts with its hero on the brink of going onstage to play a life-changing concert. As his audience becomes increasingly restive, he ponders what has led him to this point. FLASHBACK TO EARLY CHILDHOOD. In Walk the Line, we see the tragic death of young Johnny’s pious brother, fueling his father’s fury that “the devil did this. He took the wrong son.” This key plotpoint becomes ludicrous in Walk Hard, where young Dewey accidentally cuts his brother in half with a chainsaw, and his dad spends the rest of the film bemoaning that “the wrong kid died.”

There follow in both films a string of fairly standard biopic clichés, including the breakthrough recording session where the man in charge scoffs at the hero’s conventional song stylings, prompting him to launch into a brand-new style that announces the arrival of a unique talent. (Amazing how those back-up players always manage to catch on in the knick of time!) Other familiar tropes include walk-on roles for soon-to-be-famous artists of the era, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Also: radically changing hair and clothing as the years go racing by. A few of Walk Hard’s most amusing moments don’t appear in Walk the Line, but they will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a biopic or two. I’m thinking of young Dewey’s lightning-fast progression from picking up his first guitar to proving himself a virtuoso. And of course there’s Dewey’s performance at his junior high talent show: within seconds the adults are outraged, and all the kids are on their feet, grooving to the music.

Just like the good people of Ireland, when they hear the music of Johnny Cash.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Mayberry Farewell to Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

Mayberry -- and who among us is not an honorary citizen? -- was a sad place on July 4, with the announcement of Andy Griffith’s passing. Ask anyone who’s seen Griffith’s searing performance in A Face in the Crowd: this was a man with major acting chops, not simply a folksy guy with a cornpone accent. Yes, A Face in the Crowd presents Griffith once again as a Southern good ol’ boy, a Will Rogers type who wins a national audience with his guitar-picking and his down-home wit. But in this Elia Kazan film (from Budd Schulberg’s story), Griffith’s salt-of-the-earth appeal proves deceptive. As he rises to fame and fortune, he evolves into a monster.

It’s a great performance, but of course the reason Andy Griffith’s death made headlines is because of the eight seasons he spent in our living rooms as Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor. Though The Andy Griffith Show had little impact overseas, it was one of America’s top-rated shows throughout its run. Why was a sitcom about lovable small-town eccentrics so popular? It helps to remember that the show made its debut in 1960, when the United States was going through huge and often painful changes. As Michael Farkash wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, the show “was what many Americans wanted America to be in the troubled early days of racial activism and the Vietnam War. Mayberry was a place to hide from the real world, if only for a half-hour at a time.”

Those who worked on The Andy Griffith Show speak of the atmosphere on its set as a kind of refuge too. In 2001, while researching the career of Ron Howard, I spoke to Keith Thibodeaux. Known professionally as Richard Keith, he played Little Ricky on I Love Lucy from 1956 through 1957. After I Love Lucy ended in the wake of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz split, Keith was hired to fill the occasional role of Opie’s school pal, Johnny Paul Jason. The two series were both shot at Desilu Studios, but the mood could not have been more different. I Love Lucy had featured volatile personalities, and there was added pressure in the fact that it was taped before a live audience. In Keith’s words, The Andy Griffith Show “had the liberty to be a little bit more laid back. In the makeup department room they would be playing checkers and chess and strumming the guitar. Andy would be back there singing old songs from North Carolina. It was that kind of a downhome set. And myself being a southern boy, it was like going back home for me.”

This relaxed approach did not mean that cast and crew were lackadaisical about the task at hand. In this, as in so much else, Andy Griffith set the tone. He prized efficiency, though he had made clear from the get-go that Hollywood hysteria was not his style. Ron Howard (whose memorial tribute to his TV dad is well worth reading) has called Griffith’s balance between dedication and joy a model for his own on-set behavior: “There was a lot of laughter on the set, and at the same time, hand in hand with that laughter, was very good work being done on a consistent basis. Anything less than 100 percent effort would just never fly —- not because he would start yelling, but because simply that wasn’t the way we worked on the show . . . . There was a feeling of, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing, and therefore it’s important. People are gonna watch it. It represents us and let’s do it right.’”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A is for Avatar

I’m one of those unfortunate people who sometimes have trouble getting to sleep. When I do, I have some quiet games I play inside my head. They’re so boring that they usually manage to send me off to slumberland. Though I sometimes try to name, in order, all the teachers I’ve had from kindergarten onward (yawn), my games usually have something to do with movies.

A favorite involves listing all the movies I can think of that bear single-word titles. Working my way through the alphabet, I’ve discovered that the letter A is a great source of terse, evocative titles for action films like Avatar, Alien, Aliens, and Armageddon. And how can I forget Adventureland, Airport, Airplane!, Arachnophobia, Atonement, and Awakenings? Not to mention Aladdin, Anastasia, and Arthur? What is it about the letter A that encourages such a wealth of movie titles? Well, for one thing, in commerce it’s always a good idea to place yourself at the beginning of the alphabet. And there are so many intriguing polysyllabic words that kick off with an A. Isn’t your curiosity more piqued by the words above than by vague and sappy titles like As Good as It Gets? Admittedly, As Good As It Gets was a truly delightful film, but I always struggle to remember it by name. For me, it will always be “that romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and a dog.” As opposed to Something to Talk About (aka “that romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts”) or Something’s Gotta Give (aka “that romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton”).

Roger Corman too seems to have discovered the magic A, as his science-fiction film Android and his disaster flick Avalanche attest. But his decisions about titles have often stemmed from the hope that moviegoers will confuse his movie with one that’s better known. In 1974, when he imported a Franco-Czech animated feature, La Planète Sauvage, he chose as an English-language title Fantastic Planet, to deliberately remind viewers of both Fantastic Voyage and Forbidden Planet. A Corman movie about mayhem in the world of strippers was called Stripped to Kill, not coincidentally a variation on Brian De Palma’s sexy thriller, Dressed to Kill.

Roger, in the days when I worked for him, knew full well that his audiences craved films that promised sex and violence. The word “blood” was always effective, which is why Don “The Dragon” Wilson starred in nine (count ‘em) martial-arts movies entitled Bloodfist. (Yes, Don was a real-life kickboxer, but you wouldn’t want to see a movie called Bloodfoot.) Another great word, of course, was “naked,” and so we called one of our erotic thrillers Naked Obsession. Our films always had a certain similarity, and I admit that in my own mind it’s hard to separate Naked Obsession from Midnight Tease, though I only appeared in the latter.

Roger knew full well that, just as everyone judges a book by its cover art, so everyone judges a movie by its poster and its title. When Steven Spielberg’s screen version of Jurassic Park was still in production, Roger decided it was high time to make his own epic about dinosaurs running amok in the modern world. Remarkably, he shelled out good money for a novel to use as the basis for his film. It was written by the pseudonymous Henry Adam Knight, actually a well-established author who chose a pen name with the initials HAK to comment on the literary merits of this potboiler. I can attest that the novel’s contents were practically useless for our purposes. But we capitalized on its terrific title: Carnosaur.