With so many producers so often going to such obvious extremes to rationalize the basic truth that their films are often bald money grabs (the number of alternate terms recently coined for the word “remake” displays a creativity not often exhibited in the films themselves), it’s a specific kind of relief when a filmmaker makes absolutely no bones about courting a dollar. After all, everyone needs money, particularly if the person in question is a struggling artist desperately looking to escape the often dull jobs that imprison him daily. And it’s this honesty that cuts to the root of the appeal of older exploitation films, as they offer a clear and uncomplicated trade-off: They’ll give you the sex, thrills, and gore if you pay the ticket price. Why do you think the most lurid images in sex or horror films are so often referred to as “money shots” anyway?
The classic American exploitation film made anywhere from the 1950s to the 1970s offers both the filmmakers and their audiences another pleasure: the opportunity to briefly shed the self-consciousness that develops in most people as they reach their pre-teens. This self-consciousness that demands we be respectable human beings, and that, if we’re artists of some kind, we strive to produce art that expresses some sort of socially profound or beneficial higher aim—an ambition that can cripple creativity. The classic exploitation film, before Hollywood more or less rendered them moot by flooding the multiplexes with their own bloated imitations, is a madhouse of not entirely processed ids and instincts. Freed by the ambition to make only money, and the utter lack of expectation that their film be any good, a director could do some wild things that, sometimes, were pretty damn good, or at least interesting and subversive.
Roger Corman, of course, was the king of this kind of film, and as the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel makes abundantly clear, he’s adored for his efforts. It should be no surprise to any cinephile or gorehound worth his or her salt that seemingly every American filmmaker or actor of note to come up in the ‘60s and ‘70s started their career with a Corman production, but it may be surprising that Corman himself probably started the American New Wave of this period with rebellious instincts that held the bloat of the studio system in active contempt. Corman, an infamous skinflint, often valued a film’s budget over content or quality, but his method of filmmaking was itself a form of subversion, as he showed aspiring filmmakers that anyone could do anything. (And, yes, it’s hard not to see a political subtext here to our current cultural climate.)
It would be hard to produce a boring Corman tribute, as the film clips and inevitably motley collection of A- and B-lister testimonials could more or less do a director’s work for them, but Corman’s World also has a shocking emotional weight. Alternating between film clips and interviews with an impressive lineup that includes Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, David Carradine, Eli Roth, Pam Grier, John Sayles, William Shatner, Bruce Dern, and Penelope Spheeris, director Alex Stapleton mourns the loss of film-going as a communal activity as well as the popularly held notion that Corman’s just a “schlockmeister” once good for a drunken night at the drive-in.
The film asserts, perhaps inarguably, that Corman is nothing less than one of the most influential American filmmakers of all time and that he was capable of a legitimately good movie when he wanted to be. The sadness lies in the implication that even Corman undervalues his work, and that his return to obviously fake monsters and quick profits after the failure of the daring race drama The Intruder represented a kind of retreat. The film asks a good question: Why did Corman mentor so many major league talents only to forever remain in the minors? My first response would be, well, how does one exactly define the majors and the minors (I’d personally trade any Ron Howard or most Peter Bogdonavich films for The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes, A Bucket of Blood, The Wild Angels, or The Intruder.) But one has to be realistic: Most of Corman’s films aren’t very good (and Corman’s World is very honest about that), and after a certain period of time they even lacked the blunt social satire and wild streaks of anti-authoritarian subtext that give his best films such a kick.
Stapleton finds a more vulnerable side to Corman than is often seen and there’s a poignant excerpt from a 1970s talk show that features the director admitting that, yes, the “shlockmeister” label bothers him. Jack Nicholson, who hasn’t been this emotionally naked in decades, is so clearly heartbroken at one point by his mentor’s implied disappointments that he asks Stapleton to turn off the camera—and those feelings of protectiveness and gratitude, with a little of the grudging ambiguity you may feel toward a tough teacher you eventually grew to love, are overwhelmingly evident in every interview. Corman’s World isn’t just another slick collection of talking heads, but an elegiac ode to a lost era that may have been ushered in by a man with a camera and a couple of dime store creature suits.
Corman's World isn't the kind of film that allows one to show off their state-of-the-art system, but the image is clean and appealing to the eyes, particularly in regard to the movie clips, which look surprisingly great. The sound is well mixed as I didn't detect any flaws.
Included here are 15 minutes of interview footage cut from the film to serve the pace, mostly for understandable reasons. Eli Roth is the best reason to watch this material, as he testifies to the appeal of exploitation movies with a passion that's infectious. "The Special Messages to Roger" featurette is redundant and worth skipping for the distastefully smug tribute from director Brett Ratner alone. (It's a testament to director Alex Stapleton's good taste that Ratner never appears in the actual film.) There's also the trailer.
A solid transfer of an affectionate, surprisingly moving ode to an increasingly neglected pioneer of American cinema.