Admiring but not worshipful, funny but not mocking, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel makes a case for Roger Corman as an important American filmmaker. In chronicling his successes and failures, wide influence and narrow acclaim, the documentary is, like Corman’s own films, thoroughly entertaining and, like the man himself, witty, candid, and complex. It is also surprisingly moving.
Directed by Alex Stapleton, Corman’s World charts a singular cinematic career. As a director and (more often) producer, Corman has made hundreds of films, operating on two basic principles: titillation and thrift. He understood early that appealing to the impulses seething in the subconscious of the American people — especially teenagers — will sell tickets, and thinking on one’s feet while shooting a movie can save time and money that can then be used to make more movies. From the incipient rebellion of the 1950s to the upheaval of the 1960s to the excesses of the 1970s, he mixed sex, violence, and politics with an almost unerring feel for the zeitgeist.
Stapleton and her editors have structured the film with care and flow, subordinating chronology to topical threads and returning repeatedly to the Mexican set of the 2010 Syfy opus Dinoshark to show how Corman, now in his mid-eighties, is still at it. They deftly handle a great many clips — an early montage demonstrates the kinetic energy of Corman’s films — and add clever retro touches to the opening and closing credits. But the real triumph is the interviews, which not only feature many major talents who cut their teeth working for Corman (De Niro, Nicholson, Sayles, and Scorsese, to name a few), but also are superbly shot, often in unusual settings: Bruce Dern is seen getting a haircut; Jonathan Demme sits in the back of a car; and Ron Howard walks briskly through a residential neighborhood to a cemetery. The flair and variety of the visuals add color to the talk, which is already funny and candid and contains at least a little exaggeration (just like a Roger Corman movie).
The interviews draw out the fascinating contradictions of the professorial gent behind such cinematic offerings as Teenage Cave Man and Bloody Mama. Corman exploited inexperienced filmmakers, paying them next to nothing, but gave them unmatched freedom and invaluable opportunities to learn the craft; he baited his films with female nudity, but explored feminist themes and hired women as writers and directors when they couldn’t get these jobs anywhere else in Hollywood; he insisted that trash was more profitable than art, but his own viewing tastes ran to Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa, whose films he successfully distributed in the US when the majors had all but given up on the foreign art-house market.
Many of the interviewees lament that Corman has never received the recognition he deserves. More incisively, the late David Carradine and Variety critic Todd McCarthy wonder why, with his all his gifts, he remained in his grindhouse ghetto while his New Hollywood protégés went on to make some of the finest films in the history of American cinema. Longtime associate Frances Doel puts Corman’s entire career in perspective when she observes that he has always seemed more determined to outwit authority than to rebel against it. He never sought to destroy the system, only to beat it at its own game. Eventually, it caught up with him: in the late 70s, the major studios realized they could make bigger, better-looking versions of B-movie fare, and juggernauts like Jaws and Star Wars rendered Corman’s aesthetics and methods all but obsolete.
During his two-decade heyday, though, his incredible run of success was a reproach to the studio system. It’s never stated directly in the film, but it can be inferred that Corman’s lack of recognition stems not so much from the quality of his work — though, its surface disreputability provides a lazy excuse for dismissal — but from his fierce autonomy. In an undated talk-show clip, Tom Snyder asks Corman if he minds being called a “schlockmeister” or other pejoratives. Corman smiles self-deprecatingly, but his answer is a firm “Yes.” Corman’s World encourages cinephiles to do the man a favor and call him what he truly is: an independent.