For a film that reveres the down-and-dirty independent filmmaking ethos that legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman exemplified, it’s ironic that the talking-heads interviews in Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel feel so self-conscious. Where did Stapleton get his ideas about framing shots, The King’s Speech? Interview subjects—including Corman himself—are often pushed to the sides of cinematographer Patrick Simpson’s frames, with lots of negative space to look at; it’s as purposeless and distracting as all those stupidly arty shots cinematographer Danny Cohen pulled off in last year’s very un-Corman-like Oscar-winner (unless Simpson really, genuinely thought he was doing something original and, well, “rebellious”). And what’s up with Stapleton’s decision to go to the French electronic-pop duo Air, of all people, for the film’s odd score?
But I would imagine no one goes to a documentary like Corman’s World expecting cinematic interest. We go expecting, if not necessarily insights into the man himself or his work, at least a good overview of his life and legacy. For the most part, that’s basically what we get here. From his younger days starting out as a script reader at 20th Century Fox, to his frustration at getting no credit for his successful script revisions for 1950’s The Gunfighter, which him to leave Fox to produce and direct films for American International Pictures, to his eventual founding of New World Pictures and its eventual flameout as Jaws and Star Wars changed Hollywood forever, Corman’s World briskly—as briskly as Corman made movies—hits the highlights of his career.
The Corman that emerges in this biographical portrait is a man in as much love with filmmaking as he is with giving audiences what they want. His idea of what audiences want, though, strayed pretty far from what one might imagine most major-studio bigwigs think audiences want. The closest Corman’s World comes to genuine insight into Corman’s sensibility comes from an anecdote the man himself recounts about his experiences in the Navy as a younger man. “Those were the most miserable two years in my life,” he says, admitting that he piled up demerits, apparently just because he wasn’t content to conform to any establishment. That kind of restless anti-establishmentarianism is evident not only in his approach to producing and directing (his insistence on doing things quickly and cheaply, without studio interference), but in the films themselves, most explicitly in youth-baiting late-’60s pictures Wild Angels and The Trip. (Corman might also have made it a producing trifecta with Easy Rider until negotiations fell apart.) Whatever he did, he was defiantly his own man—as Stapleton’s film relentlessly hammers into us.
The title of the film, Corman’s World, could also be said to suggest the world he essentially created for young up-and-coming filmmakers under his influence—future star directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Joe Dante, among others. Some of the more entertaining anecdotes in the film come from these alumni of Corman’s unofficial “film school”: According to Dante, who helmed 1978’s Piranha under Corman’s tutelage, his boss gave directors basic story elements and structures he expected his films to adhere to, but left the rest completely up to the director, allowing for bits of personal expression to come out whenever possible; and when he had trust in people working for him, Corman’s wife Julie says in the film, he would often leave them alone to figure things out for themselves.
Eventually Jaws and then Star Wars came along, however, and—as Corman characterizes it in this film—applied obscene amounts of money to the kind of material he directed and produced for under, oh, two million dollars. That spelled the beginning of the end for his brand of unapologetically disreputable, unpretentious entertainment. This seems to not have stopped Corman though. Even now, he’s still making films like Dinoshark, the 2010 made-for-TV movie he’s seen shooting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in Corman’s World. As Stapleton would have us believe, Corman is still heroically doing things his own way, even as the world has seemingly moved on from his brand of filmmaking.
Whether Corman is merely being foolhardy by persisting in making his trashy B pictures on the cheap even without much of an audience for them is one of many interesting questions Corman’s World deliberately glosses over. When his Lifetime Achievement Oscar is presented as some kind of culminating career high point, without any recognition of the irony of a “Hollywood rebel” being canonized by the establishment, you know this film was made by someone more interested in hero worship rather than multifaceted exploration. Still, as far as hagiographies go, Corman’s World is breezy and entertaining enough to be absorbing, especially for the uninitiated. And Corman’s implicit clarion call for the unapologetic embrace of trash cinema remains as bracing as ever.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.