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If Jack Nicholson and Martin Scorsese trash a director’s films, saying that ”nobody was trying to make them good,” or that ”taste was out of the question,” odds are that the guy won’t last long in Hollywood. But for Roger Corman, the master of all things exploitative, it’s high praise that explains an oddly prolific career.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel never stops tickling itself about that success. Focused on the first half of Corman’s career, director Alex Stapleton explains how the soft-spoken filmmaker spoon-fed thrills to restless teenagers in the form of dirt-cheap sci-fi during the 1950s, then cemented his status as an anti-establishment filmmaking icon in the coming decades. It’s an easy enough narrative to understand, even if you’re unfamiliar with wonders like Swamp Women or Creature from the Haunted Sea. Corman is framed as one of the country’s first guerilla filmmakers, a smash-and-grab pioneer whose style would later be co-opted by multimillion dollar projects like Jaws – he’s the little guy, marching to his own beat, who sees years ahead.
It’s entirely appropriate to acknowledge the significance of Corman’s work. He’s spotted just about every B-movie trend of the last six decades, churning out hundreds of low-budget films while giving first breaks to an impressive number of Hollywood stars. (Aside from Nicholson and Scorsese, ”Corman Film School” alums also include Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, William Shatner, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola.) Stapleton wisely talks to all those big names who passed through his orbit too, splicing together their interviews with archival footage to make a fun, by-the-numbers documentary. The nagging problem? While Corman’s World makes for a nifty homage to a man whose influence far outweighs his oeuvre, there’s no thought about what that influence implies.
Stapleton rarely seems to consider the value of Corman’s work, or where trashy films fit into our cultural hierarchy. Rather than explain why the Corman catalog is so cherished – and so misunderstood – he shows a bunch of celebrities who just keep insisting that it is. (That’s not to say the interviews are anything but compelling, or in Nicholson’s case, downright charming.) When all else fails, much like its subject’s work, the movie becomes a montage of booms, blasts and boobs. Corman’s World needed to jump into the inherent conflict of Corman’s career, scalpel in hand for a complete dissection. Instead, it gazes lovingly at an odd Hollywood underdog story.
How did Corman feel after his thrifty ways cost him a chance to make Easy Rider? Or when he watched his crop of apprentices rise to fame and stardom? Or, after studios ripped off his formula, when he was beaten by budgets 20-times more than he could afford? Hell, we don’t even know if Corman’s happy now, producing SyFy original movies such as Dinoshark and Sharktopus. These questions are recognized, but disappointingly, never directly answered.
Even so, it’s difficult to call Corman’s World a bad movie. For fans, it’s a lighthearted roadmap of one delightful career. For everybody else, it’s a surprisingly entertaining collection of B-movie clips, backed by some classic Nicholson bravado and a few creative animated sequences. And because it so heavily relies on footage from Corman’s New World Pictures, the documentary manages to pinch many of the elements that made his films such fun in the first place. When Stapleton finally wraps around to modern day, hours before Corman is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oscars, there’s just enough of a sketch of the man that his happiness emanates off the screen. He’s beaming before his moment of recognition, and it’s incredibly touching.
Corman has trafficked in exploitation for years, attracting outsiders to outlandishly superficial films. It’s just too bad that Corman’s World suffers the same, however unintentional or well-deserved that tribute seems to be.