October 6, 2012
“This reminds me of Bucket Of Blood.”
That was my mother’s response to an exhibit of sculptures by George Segal that my parents went to. Segal’s sculptures look like people roughly coated with a layer of plaster. Bucket Of Blood is a 1959 movie about a mentally disturbed man named Walter Paisley who desperately wants to be an artist but, lacking any talent, makes sculptures by killing people and covering the corpses with clay. So my mother’s comparison was somewhat accurate, although Segal’s sculptures aren’t made from corpses, and they’re in the poses of bus drivers or people waiting at crosswalks or walking, whereas Paisley’s sculptures are caught in the throes of dying.
When my parents told me about the exhibit and my mother’s reaction to it they explained that on one of their first dates, maybe even their very first date, it was the movie they went to see . My father asked, “Have you seen Bucket Of Blood?” I said, “Seen it? I’ve got it on DVD.” My mother looked unsurprised, and my father rolled his eyes and said, “I should have known.” You may be thinking that a film called Bucket Of Blood would be an odd choice for a date, especially a first date. What I thought was that the fact that my parents chose it as an evening’s entertainment more than a decade before I was a notion, even before they were married, may explain a lot about how I came to be the adult I am. It’s a Roger Corman film.
Even before I knew Roger Corman from Shinola I had a fascination with many of his films. They’re cheap and silly and often over the top, which is why when I was a young teenager they were the films broadcast on the local UHF station I looked forward to every Friday and Saturday night. Corman made me an Edgar Allan Poe fan before I read a single one of his stories, thanks to the film versions of The Masque Of The Red Death, The Pit And The Pendulum, and especially The Raven. When Vincent Price looked down at the raven and asked it, “Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?” and the raven replied, “How the hell should I know?” I said to myself, “Wherever this movie is going I want a front row seat.” And as a kid who’d grown Venus flytraps on his windowsill I was beside myself with joy when, one Saturday afternoon, Commander USA’s Groovie Movies featured the original Little Shop Of Horrors. A few years later, still not aware that many of the movies I’d enjoyed so much were all the product of one director, I saw an interview with Corman on a late night talk show. He was promoting his book How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. The subtitle seems to me to sum up Corman’s film philosophy. Some people make films because of deep and driving artistic ambition. Corman made films to make money. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, but filmmaking seems like an unlikely profession for someone whose primary goal is money. But Corman’s also a fiercely independent guy for whom working up the corporate ladder wasn’t an option. As director and producer he could jump straight to the top, even if his films were made on shoestring budgets, and looked like it.
He’s famous for the list of talented people who’ve worked for him who became famous in their own right-a list that includes Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, and Francis Ford Coppola-but that may be luck rather than planning. Talented actors and cinematographers work for the same rate as hacks when they’re unknowns. Corman shot whole films in the time it takes some directors to shoot scenes. He famously made Little Shop Of Horrors on a bet that he couldn’t shoot a film in twenty-four hours. To keep costs down he frequently reused sets and kept the same actors around. For Little Shop Of Horrors he used sets and some of the cast from Bucket Of Blood, including Dick Miller, who’d played Walter Paisley. You may think you don’t know who Dick Miller is, but chances are you do. Look up a picture of him and you’ll probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s that guy who was in.that thing.” He’s made a career of playing bit parts-short-order cooks, pizza delivery guys, cops, holographic maîtres d’. As far as I know Bucket Of Blood was his only leading role. The film was billed as a comedy, but Miller, and the story, evoke more pathos than laughter. Paisley’s a coffee shop busboy whose ambitions are bigger than his abilities. When his “sculptures” are a success-before anyone realizes what’s underneath-he dons a beret and ebony cigarette holder, affecting an “artistic” look. The art critics and beatniks at the coffee shop, the people Walter wants desperately to imitate, give him a paper crown and a toilet plunger painted gold for a scepter. If this was meant to be funny it’s not.
Walter’s lack of awareness that he’s being mocked makes it even worse that the people mocking him see him as an idiot savant, when, tragically, he’s got a disability that makes him unable to understand the extent of his crimes. He’s not unlike Lenny from Of Mice And Men. And the film definitely has its moments, such as when Walter is running from a mob and his shadow is projected on a wall. He’s an outsider, a man without substance, and any stature he had is illusory. And that, sadly, also highlights the films weaknesses. Bucket Of Blood was hastily written and hastily shot, and all on a very low budget. Dick Miller said that it could have been so much better, and he’s right, but it’s not necessarily the low budget that hampered it. Big budgets don’t make great films, as anyone who’s seen Cleopatra, Waterworld, or Howard The Duck knows. Bucket Of Blood could be a study in the romantic idea of genius and madness, and how tempting it is to forgive the crimes of great artists. It could also be a comment on art history. It was released just as abstract expressionism was giving way to Pop Art, a movement that George Segal was part of. Bucket Of Blood could have been a criticism of the art world’s obsession with the new and its celebration of destruction as a creative process, a world of absurdly inflated prices where ideas often completely supplant aesthetics. It could have been all those things, but we have to judge a work of art by what it is, not by what it could be, so Bucket Of Blood drowns in a sea of would-be classics. Yeah, I love it. Mark Twain said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” and I think a similar principle applies to Bucket Of Blood. Maybe I love it because I see the swan that Corman’s ugly duckling didn’t grow up to be. Or maybe I only love it because it somehow touches a deep chord in my genetic unconscious, if there is such a thing, because it’s the film my parents went to see all those years ago. Or maybe that’s just a coincidence. It could be that, rather than my parents influencing me in that direction it’s really been the other way around. There’s an old saying that insanity is hereditary-parents get it from their kids. I thought about the odd history my parents and I share with the film Bucket Of Blood when they called me to say they were really looking forward to seeing a play the theater group in their area was putting on. They didn’t know very much about the story, but my father said, “It’s called The Rocky Horror Show. Isn’t that the title of that movie you and your friends used to go and see every Saturday night?” Close, but not quite. We went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the film version of the stage play, but before I corrected my father I rolled my eyes and said, “I should have known.”