Sundance review: 'Corman's World' offers affectionate look at the legendary filmmaker
PARK CITY - Before I get into the actual review, I'd like to start by directly refuting something Penelope Spheeris says during her interview in the film. She talks about how sad it is that young film fans in their 20s these days have no idea who Roger Corman is.
Rest easy, Miss Spheeris. Roger Corman's legacy was safe even before Alex Stapleton's charming new look at the man and his legacy. Roger Corman was, is, and always will be.
"Corman's World" opens on the set of the latest uber-cheapie SyFy "original" film by Corman, called "Dinoshark," and one of the first things that is obvious is that no matter who is listed as the director of "Dinoshark," it's Corman calling the shots. It's his movie. And I suspect it's been that way for most of his career. His imprint is visible in most of the hundreds of movies he has produced and directed over the decades, and his voice is incredibly clear. He is, of course, most often canonized for the way he gave opportunities to a whole host of young filmmakers who went on to become some of the biggest names in Hollywood, but the great thing about this film is that it also finally brings the focus back to Corman himself as a filmmaker, and not just as a river to his people, so to speak.
Is Roger Corman a "good" filmmaker? That's a fair question, and I could show you films that he's produced and/or directed that would support both possible answers. It misses the bigger point, though, which is that he's a voracious filmmaker, unstoppable since the '50s, and as a result, the sheer size of his body of work deserves some respect and some serious regard, and it feels like the thing that is most important to Stapleton as a documentarian is setting up a context where people are able to judge that filmography as a whole.
One thing that helps is the array of interviews that Stapleton put together with people who knew and worked for Corman over the years. That's always an impressive list to draw from, and Stapleton got many of the biggest names on film, including Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and, yes, Jack Nicholson. It's funny… there are periods of his career where I absolutely adore Nicholson, and there are other periods where I'm not interested at all, and for the last few years, that's been the case. This one interview reminded me exactly why I liked Nicholson in the first place, and he's warm, funny, and in the end, deeply emotional when talking about Corman. The evident affection for Corman that he displays is touching, and the same is true with almost every filmmaker who shows up in the movie to talk about him. They don't just look at him as a stepping stone, someone they grew past in their careers. They love him. They all appreciate just how special that era was, and they can celebrate it here, on the record, once and for all.
The film traces the highs and lows of Corman's career, and I'm glad there's special attention paid to his film "The Intruder," based on the Charles Beaumont novel. It is one of the few overt bombs that Corman ever released, the story of a white supremacist (William Shatner in one of his first leading roles) who comes down to the integration-era South to ensure that the whites in a small southern community stay afraid and dangerous. It's a brutal, honest movie about how tense the "new South" was in those early days of the civil rights movement in America, and Corman and his brother privately financed the film when no studio would touch it. Sure enough, the film died a miserable commercial death. America wasn't ready for a film like that, with the issue laid bare, and Corman paid the price for it.
More than anything, Corman was adept at not just anticipating trends in pop culture but instigating them. He was right so many times that you could make the case for him as one of the primary influences on pop media in the 20th century. Without Corman's "Wild Angels" or "The Trip," there is no "Easy Rider," and then there's no explosion of youth culture into mainstream Hollywood. It's not easy to make a film like this that is a celebration of a filmography as much as it's an examination of the larger social impact of someone's work, but Stapleton manages it. As a result, "Corman's World" is both a pleasure and an energetic primer on the man's work.
More reviews coming, so stay tuned, folks. It'll be another day of snow and movies for me in the meantime, including two horror premieres tonight from Kevin Smith and Lucky McKee, guys whose DIY aesthetics and attitudes owe no small part to Roger Corman.