Monday, April 9, 2012

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011), Alex Stapleton.

The interviews these guys got:  Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante.  Footage of Quentin Tarantino geeking out at Corman's Lifetime Achievement award Oscar ceremony.  Jack Nicholson's sausage fingers covering his bawling face!  My God!  Yet for all the access given to the makers of this documentary, the film never fully captures its subject.  Roger Corman, King of the B's, remains strange and elusive even as he sits chatting affably from his sofa.

Roger Corman, DIY filmmaker, is the man behind hundreds of exploitation films.  From the 50s to the 80s (and beyond) Corman's had his fingers in all trash tropes:  monsters (Attack of the Crab Monsters, 1957), hippies on acid (The Trip, 1967), beatniks (A Bucket of Blood, 1959), bikers (The Wild Angels, 1966).  Some retain cultural resonance -- Death Race 2000, Little Shop of Horrors.  Many have been forgotten.  As is mentioned in the documentary, Corman exploited people as well as material.  His dependence on bright young people willing to work for little just to get their hands on the cameras had him running an informal apprenticeship program for all the above mentioned directors and actors.  Some worked for him only once and moved on.  Others, like Nicholson, stuck out a ten-year slog before finding real recognition.

But there's a big chasm between Corman and his "pupils," a gap the documentary never bridges satisfactorily.  Aside from the Lifetime Achievement award scene, we don't see Corman interact with any of the famous filmmakers or actors he worked with.  Now in his 80s, Corman still hovers over junior editors clicking at Final Cut Pro.  He spends his days fiddling with Z-grade stuff like Dinoshark (2010) and Sharktopus (2010).  What made it impossible for him to go beyond bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking?  What prevented him from ever really connecting with the creative personalities that were taking film into new directions?  A major gap in the documentary is the omission of any discussion of Corman's psychological makeup.  Yes, he is a penny-pincher and a bit of a square.  But other than that, Corman's psyche remains a tightly sealed biscuit tin.  We don't hear anything of his roots or upbringing,  fears or shortcomings.

The film does demonstrate how Corman's one real financial failure, coming from the production of The Intruder (1962), destroyed his hopes of ever resonating more deeply with moviegoers.  In The Intruder, a white supremacist (played by William Shatner) moves into a small Southern town to agitate against integration.  Corman must have faced massive disappointment; his passion for the film's message of tolerance went unappreciated.  "Some highly explosive material is handled crudely and a bit too clumsily for conviction," wrote Bowsley Crowther in a contemporary review.  Was Corman's heart broken too badly for him to ever try serious content ever again?  Who knows, Corman's World is too polite to say much more.  Personally, I've always found The Masque of the Red Death (1964) with its gorgeous use of colour to be Corman's creative high point.  But Corman's World skips over the whole Poe output with one wave of his dismissive hand.  

Corman's World is a decent intro to the man's oeuvre, but left me puzzled.  Did he even watch the movies he made?  What parts made him laugh?  Was he a political or religious man?  Corman remarks that a short stint in the military was the worst part of his life -- but the filmmakers leave this completely unexplored.  He's also quoted in a late-70s TV interview as saying that he finds spending millions on movie making "unethical."  But again, the thread ends there.  Despite the amazing interviews Stapleton captured here, there's also many missed opportunities.

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