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Dinoshark. Death Race 2000. Stripped to Kill. Cries and Whispers. Which of these is not like the others?
Unfathomably, they all have something in common: Roger Corman. In Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, you learn that the King of the Bs loved his Bergman as much as his blood. As soon as he was financially able (well, more or less forced) to start his own production/distribution company, New World Pictures, he put out esteemed foreign films from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini right alongside camp destined for the Syfy channel. Of course, the schlock far outnumbered the arthouse fare: To date, Corman—who’s still working at 85—has produced nearly 400 movies.
Corman’s World, directed and co-written by Alex Stapleton, begins appropriately with faux old-film-stock credits and clips of the filmmaker’s most ridiculous offerings. One minor fault of the doc is that these clips don’t linger long enough, with Stapleton instead larding the film with interviews with now-A-list directors and actors who got their start working for Corman. Martin Scorsese says of Corman’s mindset about his output: “There’s no need for taste.” John Sayles adds about one picture: “This is a $1.98 science fiction movie.” If you take away nothing else from Corman’s World, you’ll get it drilled into your head that Corman was cheap, shooting as quickly as possible and never spending money on frivolous things such as extras.
But as bad as the results may have been, he’d be happy with them. “Low-budget movies in those days, it wasn’t like today,” says Jack Nicholson, whose first starring role was in Corman’s The Cry Baby Killer. “Nobody was really trying to make them good.” Nicholson later cheerily says that Cry Baby was “just humiliating,” though he also acknowledges that “by mistake, [Corman] actually made a good picture every once in a while.” Indeed, Corman eventually dabbled in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and the aforementioned foreign films once he had a little more money to spend. He also directed The Intruder, a critically praised and deadly serious box-office flop about racial integration in Southern schools.
So Corman’s not all sharktopusses and 60-foot centerfolds, which, along with the parade of commentators recollecting and singing his praises, is the gist of the doc that should be compelling to fans and newbies alike. His demeanor gets significant attention, too: Well-spoken and professorial, Corman admits that he appears the ultimate straight man, though “clearly my unconscious mind is some kind of boiling inferno.” Occasionally, the connection between his filmography and his talent gets a surprising comment, such as when Scorsese says, “We were able to take the same principles we applied to Boxcar Bertha and use them for Mean Streets.” Wrap your mind around that.
All the plaudits and war stories can’t quite sustain the film’s 95-minute runtime, though, and things start to get a little repetitive and dull. But only briefly; the tail-end of the film discusses the advent of the blockbuster, citing Jaws and Star Wars as game-changers that threatened to put Corman out of business. (And whose budgets he believes were “obscene.”) And then the most shocking thing happens: Nicholson chokes up. As he’s giving Corman another round of praise for boosting so many people’s careers, tears threaten to fall (or perhaps do behind those ever-present sunglasses). It’s a stunning moment, and a sincere one, with Jack wrapping things up with a touching sentiment: “I hope he knows that this is not all hot air.”