REVIEW: Corman's World Lovingly Sketches the Inner Life of a Movie Maverick
Director, producer and distributor Roger Corman's world seems suspended between magnetic poles: At true north he could be described as the godfather of independently produced and independent-minded film; way down south is the Corman who looks more like the godfather to Don Simpson, a crude flipper of hot cake flicks who originated the high concept, sensation-pummeling mainstream cinema we're stuck with today. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, director Alex Stapleton's annotated filmography of the filmmaker's wildly tentacular career, is less an attempt to reconcile those poles than to show how neatly and necessarily they are bound together, by both the financial nature of filmmaking and the stubborn question of taste.
"Taste," says former protégé Martin Scorsese of Corman's workshop, "was out of the question." By 1972, the year he financed Scorsese's first movie (Boxcar Bertha), Corman had been in the business for over two decades, made dozens of movies (10 in 1957 alone) and -- as the title of his autobiography notes -- never lost a dime. Much like Woody Allen, one of the many talents he goosed on to renown, Corman realized quickly that nose-to-tail filmmaking is only tenable when one has complete control. Corman's business savvy balanced a keen sense of audience appetite with the carnal imagination (a "boiling inferno" in his description) beneath his gentlemanly persona. Stapleton chocks the film with money clips from the Corman archives, a mix of curdled rape fantasy films like The Woman Hunter, eccentric brow-lifters like the series of Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price, and chips of campy gold like Little Shop of Horrors or The Fast and the Furious.
Eye opening here and there, the footage is mostly fan candy. Though Corman mentions moving toward camp, little time is spent examining his aesthetic, as it were, or sweating at the gates of that raging inferno; the B-maestro's personal contradictions remain pristine. More sorely missing is any sense of the enormous and fluctuating market for Corman's work over several eras of exhibition. We know his films are gauged to be exactly as successful as they need to be, but outside of the actors and directors drawn into his stable, intimations of Corman's core audience loom large but invisible over the story of an astonishingly robust and still active career (part of Corman's World is spent on the set of what appears to be yet another sweded version of Jaws).
Such complaints feel unavoidable and therefore relatively minor: To tell Roger Corman's story is in some sense to tell the story of last 60 years of filmmaking; some ruthless cutting was required. Stapleton wisely homes in on the emissaries Corman has sent into the moviegoing consciousness -- Jack Nicholson sits for a rare and ultimately moving interview, as do Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier and William Shatner -- and elucidates their B-movie roots. And while we can all be thankful that Scorsese refused Corman's offer to finance Mean Streets, should he reframe it as a blaxploitation epic, again and again we are shown that along with the résumé-bulking services it is Corman's fearless (as with his 1962 segregation drama The Intruder) and agile sensibility (as with Easy Rider forerunners The Trip and The Wild Angels) that define the terms of his influence.
Stapleton's was clearly a labor of love, shot over what must amount to like 25 Corman years. In the press notes the director admits that she waited two years for Nicholson to agree to an interview; both David Carradine and George Hickenlooper have died since filming theirs. Time trudges on, within the film and without. Indeed, the arrival of Jaws and Star Wars are framed less as the beginning than the end of an era. If the summer blockbuster turned Corman's beat into huge business, their "fully imagined worlds" are rarely noted for what little imaginative work they leave for the viewer. And where's the fun -- the risk -- in that?
If the first half of Corman's World doubles as a lobbying campaign for a lifetime achievement Oscar, the second, more elegiac half offers the vindication of that award's receipt in 2009. But then the director who uses bare breasts as props thinks it immoral to spend more than a million dollars making a movie; the distributor who showed Bergman at the drive-in was never in it for the accolades. Having preferred the game and the gamble of the movie business, as his colleagues and loved ones attest, Corman's most fully realized work may have been quietly done in his personal life. The most poignant idea to emerge from Corman's World is that in fact neither man nor mogul can control quite everything, perhaps nothing less than his legacy.
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