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Movie Review

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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Roger Corman has been dubbed—affectionately and sometimes not so affectionately—a shlockmeister for his six-decade career and prolific outpouring of such cult classics as "Monster From the Ocean Floor," "The Undead," and "Crybaby Killer." It's an aesthetic that celebrates cheap production value, crashes and explosive noises, blood and gore, improbable story lines, and wondrously bad acting.

But according to Alex Stapleton's thought-provoking documentary, "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," neither Corman nor his cultural contribution and influence should be dismissed. He also is a hell of a nice guy, mentored several rising actors, writers, and directors, and recognized major talent decades before anyone else. Numbering among these: Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, William Shatner, Ron Howard, and most strikingly, Jack Nicholson, who recalls a decade of featured roles in Corman's films while everyone else in the industry viewed him as virtually unemployable. At one point Nicholson chokes up and apologizes for being "sentimental."

"Corman's World" is a compilation of archival material—film clips, old interviews—and recollections provided by an array of names, including Martin Scorsese, who points out that Corman specialized in exploitation films but also distributed and introduced to American viewers the works of Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, and Werner Herzog. Indeed, contrary to the gold chain–clad, cigar-smoking persona one might expect, Corman is eloquent, precise, professorial, and almost British in his style and temperament, notes Scorsese.

Corman emerges as an entrepreneurial artist of stunning contradiction: the buttoned-down gentleman who believes filmmakers don't need huge sums of money to make compelling movies and that popular sensibilities and serious art can peacefully coexist in the same film. Born in Detroit in 1926, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering before launching his career at 20th-Century Fox, where he ultimately became a story analyst. He wrote and sold his first script, "Highway Dragnet," to Allied Artists, serving as associate producer on the picture. With the monies earned, he made "Monster From the Ocean Floor," marking his foray into independent production.

He tackled sci-fi, gangster, horror, and biker films; some were made for as little as $20,000 and shot in three days. Corman describes it as catch-as-catch-can moviemaking. "We had no permits, and if the police showed up, we ran." He built an indie empire—producing more than 385 films and directing some 50—and is viewed by his admirers as a financial and a cultural visionary. Some of his "outlaw" teen films, produced in the 1950s, anticipated the youth revolution of the '60s, Corman and others suggest. These movies were a far cry from the Andy Hardy world and spoke to new young viewers who wanted to beat the system and define themselves in their own terms. His 1962 film "The Intruder," starring William Shatner, was an early movie to examine segregation in the South.

Corman, who earned an honorary Oscar in 2009 for lifetime achievement, shows no sign of slowing down; though the film doesn't explore his career after the late '70s, in the wake of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" and George Lucas' "Star Wars," both of which were high-priced, high-profile versions of what Corman was doing decades earlier. Nicholson slyly accounts for the difference in critical acclaim. Spielberg and Lucas were the products of posh film school educations, whereas "we just needed a job." Corman says the amount of money underwriting megahits is obscene and could be put to more socially useful purposes. Stapleton, making her directorial debut, vividly brings to life a Hollywood icon way ahead of his time.

Genre: Documentary
Directed by Alex Stapleton
Featuring Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda, David Carradine, Peter Bogdanovich

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