Corman Uncovered

 

Films Made With Little Or No Attention To Quality Or Artistic Merit But With An Eye To A Quick Profit, Usually Via High-pressure Sales And Promotion Techniques Emphasising Some Sensational Aspect Of The Product: that's the definition of "exploitation films" in the Macmillan International Film Encyclopaedia, which helpfully goes on to define "sexploitation" films as: Films Whose Erotic Or Pornographic Subject Matter Is Thus Exploited. If there's one single name associated with exploitation movie-making, it's that of Roger Corman, the 71-year-old American producer-director whose Irish-based studio, Concorde Anois, has already churned out nine feature films since its establishment two years ago at Tully in Connemara. From tinfoil-and-cardboard scifi epics to lurid horror tales and blood-spattered gangster movies, Corman is the king of trash, the man who titled his autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. He is also one of the great icons of low-budget independent film-making, one of the first to show that it was possible to make feature films for a fraction of the budgets of studio pictures, and mentor to an impressive string of famous directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, John Sayles and Jonathan Demme. So when the Galway Film Fleadh screened the Irish-made Corman "erotic thriller", Criminal Affairs, last month, the packed house might have been expected to know what was in store. That they didn't may say as much about their naivete and wishful thinking as it does about the well-established Corman formula.

"People were gobsmacked," says one former Corman employee who attended the screening. "I was surprised. I mean, these are the kind of films he makes, and these were the standard sort of nudity shots." Since then, there has been critical comment in Film Ireland magazine and in last week's Sunday Times, questioning the role of Udaras na Gaeltachta in providing grant aid to Concorde, and of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in providing Section 35 certification to Corman films ("Irish agency `funding porn films' " was the Sunday Times headline.)

Criminal Affairs, the first Corman production with an Irish director (Jeremiah Cullinane), is a pretty typical example of the exploitation genre. Starring nobody you've ever heard of, it follows the exploits of an escaped convict who kidnaps a young couple while on the run from the law. Along the way, there are a couple of rapes, several murders, and some pretty tacky sex scenes. The script is thin, the acting thinner, and the whole thing is typical straight-to-video fodder - nothing particularly unusual, but not the kind of thing that usually gets seen at a film festival. "Criminal Affairs wasn't much different from other low-grade schlock - which, admittedly, I haven't seen a lot of - but I was taken aback by the fairly unremitting level of misogyny," says Lelia Doolan, former chairperson of the Irish Film Board, who attended the screening.

When Udaras na Gaeltachta confirmed in 1995 that Corman was coming to Connemara, the arrival was presented as a key part of the agency's overall audio-visual strategy, which has seen a notable increase in overall employment in the audio-visual industry in Gaeltacht areas in the run-up to the opening of TnaG. Certainly, the presence of Concorde Anois in Galway has provided an unprecedented opportunity to gain vital experience of the film-making process in the West of Ireland. The film and television industry in the past has been almost entirely Dublin-dominated, and the advent of Concorde Anois has set up another centre for feature film production for the first time.

In the first few months of Concorde's activities, there were reports that wages and conditions on the films were dreadful, but the consensus seems to be that things have improved since then. "But there's still a very high turnover of staff," says one former employee. "It's difficult to last more than one year, with the pressure of going from one shoot straight on to another one." Corman productions in America have always been known for their high turnover, feeding off the constant stream of film school graduates and others hoping to crack the industry, but this employee believes that: "the revolving door system may work very well in the States, but there's a much bigger potential pool there of young, eager technicians." Wage rates are still less than half of those in the highly-paid and highly unionised Dublin industry, but the former employee believes that: "It's understandable that they're not going to pay top rate, because it is regular work, and it was worth it for me, because the learning curve was so good." Many Corman employees have gone on to work for other companies in the area, particularly on the TnaG soap, Ros na Run, and there is currently a collective application by Galway-based technicians to join the freelance film branch of SIPTU, which has hitherto regarded Corman's operation with considerable suspicion. Kieran Corrigan of Merlin Films, Corman's Irish partner company, says that he would "like to see a way in which Concorde can be integrated into the broader Irish system".

"We have supported up to 20 film and television companies in recent years," says Terry O Laoghaire of Udaras na Gaeltachta, which provided £815,000 in grant aid to Concorde. "But I don't think that we should have a role in what they produce, nor do I think that we would be thanked for interfering. We can't be held responsible for the content of particular productions. "If it were proved that they were producing soft porn, then that would be a matter for the relevant Government agencies, but we have no evidence of that. This is the first film we have had a complaint about, and it was only one complaint." A spokesperson for Concorde describes the Sunday Times's allegation that the company produces pornography as "totally untrue and outrageous. We reject outright this damaging allegation. Where any sexually explicit scenes occurred in any of these movies, such scenes were an intrinsic part of the story, were tastefully and artistically addresed, and in no way whatsoever could any such scenes be labelled pornographic."

AT the time of his start-up here in 1995, Corman told The Irish Times that his long-term plan was to set up a special effects studio in Tully for the production of science fiction and horror genre movies, but according to O Laoghaire, this is now unlikely. "He was waiting to see how the whole thing developed. The ratio between the level of capital investment in that technology and the jobs created was not attractive for us." Both Concorde and Udaras point out that not all Concorde's productions are in the erotic thriller genre. There have also been martial arts, comedies and science fiction films among the nine produced so far, and the next project is a children's movie, due to go into production in a couple of weeks' time.

In addition to Udaras, some criticism has been directed at the Department of Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands for allowing Section 35 tax relief on these films, a criticism rejected by a spokesperson for the Department. "Our obligation is to certify productions for Section 35 under three broad criteria - employment creation, value added to the economy and enhancement of the national culture. We are unreservedly a Department of Culture, so we do in particular give credence to Irish stories, but that cultural element does not have to apply in all cases," he says, citing the recent Steven Spielberg production, Saving Private Ryan, as an example of a film certified on the basis of just employment and economic reasons. "Nobody asked us why we certified Steven Spielberg."

The Department receives a copy of the script as part of each application for Section 35. "But we don't read the script - we regard them as supporting material for the application, evidence of the existence of a viable project." The question of Section 35 certification usually comes up as a stick to beat the Department or the Minister, as at the Cannes Film Festival last year when the Irish government's support of "Republican propaganda" was criticised by British journalists, or this year when disgruntled investors in the sci-fi film Space Truckers blamed the Department for their woes. In this case, it seems naive to expect State bodies such as Udaras or the Department to adjudicate on what are ultimately matters of taste. The charge of supporting pornography is excessive - as the Concorde spokesperson points out: "All films produced by Concorde Anois are awarded appropriate viewing certificates to enable them to be screened word-wide through cinema release TV and cable, as well as home video". Criminal Pursuit, the more objectionable of the two films to this writer's eyes, received an 18s certificate for video distribution from the Censor's Office. If adults are allowed watch these films, why shouldn't they be allowed make them? And if the Department is at fault for granting certificates to these films, should it not also be criticised for some of the other dreadful, unwatchable movies made here in recent years?

Lelia Doolan recognises the dangers of setting up State organisations as cultural arbiters. "You have to be careful that you don't have these cultural commissars, but I would like to have seen more input into the scripts from the Irish people working on the film."

Some of the best movies ever made have been exploitation pictures, but the harsh reality is that for every Detour or Gun Crazy, there are a thousand forgotten and forgettable B movies which had few or no redeeming features. The fact is that these films, made under very specific constraints for a very well-defined market, may provide an opportunity for young film-makers to learn their craft, but they rarely turn out to be particularly interesting in themselves. Kieran Corrigan points out that the studio also provided facilities and crew for the art-house feature Angela Mooney Dies Again, starring Mia Farrow, but the effects of Concorde Anois on Irish film-making are more likely to be tangential than direct. According to Corrigan, Roger Corman is "making a very significant contribution to the Irish economy and the Irish film industry." We'll probably have to wait and see what that effects of that contribution might be.