Aesthetics of a 'schlockmeister'
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 13, 2012
If you haven't heard of Roger Corman, surely you've seen a movie that was influenced by him.
In 2009, Corman was honored at the Academy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a long-overdue honor for an incredibly long, resourceful and feistily independent career making low-budget exploitation pictures, and for nurturing the early talents of such filmmakers as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and more too numerous to mention.
Luckily, most of those "more" are on hand in "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," Alex Stapleton's lively, engrossing and enlightening documentary about a career that can be described as surprising on multiple counts.
For one, Corman didn't train to be a movie director (he graduated from Stanford in engineering). His patrician, well-mannered gentility made him better suited for the thoughtful, socially aware dramas he tried to make, before bowing to audience demand in churning out dozens of quick, low-budget horror and action flicks.
The director-producer who made box office gold with such exploitation titles as "Swamp Women," "Bloody Mama" and "Women in Cages" provided crucial on-the-job training for such female filmmakers as Polly Platt, Penelope Spheeris and Catherine Hardwicke. And even while his company was producing such lowbrow exploitation pictures as "The Hot Box" and "Night Call Nurses" in the 1970s, it was distributing sensitive art-house films by Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut.
All of these contradictions and more are covered in "Corman's World," which careers spiritedly between interviews with Corman and his "graduates," clips of his zaniest films, and footage of him executive producing "Dinoshark," a science-fiction action thriller that needs no synopsizing.
When the politically progressive Corman failed to win audiences for his 1962 anti-racism drama, "The Intruder" (starring a young William Shatner), he decided that the audience was always right and set out to reward them with simple concepts, energetically executed on as tight a deadline and budget as possible. As the Hollywood saying went, Roger Corman could pitch a movie on a pay phone, shoot in the booth and finance the entire movie on what was left in the change slot.
That ditty isn't repeated in "Corman's World," but there are plenty of memorable recollections, chiefly from Nicholson, who at one point dissolves into tears admiring the man who was the only director who would hire him for 10 years. Corman, he explains early in the movie, understands money. "And if you don't understand money in the movie business, it's like an artist who doesn't understand paint."
If Nicholson sends some of the best one-liners in "Corman's World," he can't upstage the handsome, erudite 85-year-old family man at its center, whose calm exterior belies the shockingly grisly inner life. "Here's this guy in a cardigan sweater talking about mayhem," Bruce Dern recalls at one point. (The cruelest cut of all came when Corman's Saturday-matinee aesthetic went mainstream and big-budget with "Jaws" and "Star Wars," largely relegating him to the world of straight-to-DVD ever since.)
Still at it after 400 movies and counting, Corman emerges in "Corman's World" as a consummate insider of uncommon wisdom and character, such as when he laments to talk show host Tom Snyder that, at $35 million, the average movie budget makes no sense artistically, financially or socially. In the era of $200 million flops, that figure seems quaint now, with Corman all the wiser and more prescient. Roger Corman has been called a "schlockmeister" and the "King of the B's," but from here he looks like the last sane man in Hollywood.
Contains some violent images, nudity and profanity.