The filmmaker Roger Corman occupies a unique–and somewhat complicated–place in Hollywood history. He is perhaps the master low-budget exploitation film director and producer, with several hundred titles credited to him. His ability to produce visceral thrills through action and horror have become a template for the modern tentpole film. Movies like Jaws owe a tremendous debt to Corman’s style of filmmaking. Rather famously, Corman’s sets provided an early testing grounds for many of New Hollywood’s most significant actors and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard, all of whom are interviewed here, an apprenticeship system that Bruce Dern aptly described as “The University of Corman.” All of these complications emerge in Alex Stapleton’s engaging and (thanks to its liberal use of scenes from Corman’s films) incredibly fun documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, about one of cinema’s truest rebel figures.
The film opens with Corman, now in his mid-80s, continuing to work, directing a grisly attack scene from his latest film, Dinoshark. Corman’s affect while directing–and throughout the film, really–approaches bemused detachment. It’s clear that he enjoys making movies and making them on his terms, using a low budget and shooting very quickly. In fact, David Carradine remarks that Corman would rather “shoot a film in three days” than take a larger budget to create a film with more elaborate special effects. Corman’s World then flashes back, following Corman’s career roughly chronologically, from his early career working behind the scenes of the Hollywood film, Gunfight, before launching out as an independent when the studio neglects to give him credit for contributing to film’s story.
Eventually, Corman launches an independent film career, at a time when such careers were incredibly rare. he started with a three picture deal at American Independent and worked there for a while before launching his own New World production company. Corman also discusses his attempts to create more aesthetically meaningful films, in particular an anti-segregation film, The Intruder, which he shot in the segregated south, often at some personal risk. Although the film was well-received, it failed at the box office, and Corman began considering more overtly commercial (and often exploitative) subjects, even while working in what he called “subtextual” messages into many of his films. Many of these included his depiction of the Hell’s Angels in Wild Angels, a film that helped pave the way for Easy Rider. As Tom Elrod notes, Corman’s World seems to imply, in fact, that many of Corman’s low-budget films were essentially repurposed, with bigger budgets, only to become big box office hits. The film also places slight emphasis on the fact that Corman was responsible for helping to distribute many of the European masters that came to shape modern Hollywood filmmaking, helping to introduce American audiences to Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, showing Corman’s influence in that arena as well.
But the tone of the film becomes a little more wistful when it covers the industry shift in the 1970s toward blockbusters and entertainment franchises. In a characteristically understated fashion, Corman recalls that, “When I saw Star Wars, I said, ‘this is a threat to me.’” Nicholson, who displays a tremendous fondness for Corman is even more blunt, asserting, “I hated Star Wars,” in part because he recognized that it signified a turning point in the production of film. These reflections are punctuated with archival footage of factory workers assembling Star Wars toys and memorabilia, and the message is clear: Hollywood has become a factory for manufacturing products rather than making movies, and Corman and other independents and rebels like him are left out in the cold. Finally, as Elrod notes, Corman modestly, though rather bluntly, questions the massive budgets required to make Hollywood spectacles, arguing that a then-large $25 million budget would be better spent rebuilding a slum. Although such an opposition might be somewhat false, Corman’s attachment to the little guy and to his principles of low-budget filmmaking come across clearly.
Corman’s World offers what amounts to an engaging recuperation project, providing a fun introduction to a director who has shaped Hollywood, as well as independent filmmaking, in complex ways. the fact that Corman is a quiet, unassuming gentleman making what appears, on the surface at least, to be B-movie schlock makes his story even more enjoyable.