I have a particular fondness for movie documentaries, especially those about filmmakers whose work I enjoy. It’s a no-brainer really – interviews, clips and perhaps some personal insight into their work, the films are (almost) always going to be entertaining.
And so it is with Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World (subtitled Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel), which is not so much a critical look at the work of the legendary producer/director as it is a celebration. As one interviewee comments, it’s depressingly likely that many younger film fans don’t even know who Roger Corman is, and the film feels like an attempt to rectify that. And so while the documentary does take a journey through Corman’s long career, the main thrust of the film are the collected memories of the people who worked with Corman and then went on to bigger (if not always better) things – and there are plenty of them. Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, Pam Grier, David Carradine and others all turn up here to share their memories of working with Corman, and what becomes quickly apparent is just how loved he is, despite being notoriously cheap and cheerfully admitting that he would exploit these (at the time) young talents. While they are not all fond of their work for Corman, they seem to genuinely adore him – an emotional moment with Nicholson comes out of the blue and is quite touching.
The classic example of a (recent) movie documentary about films most viewers might be unfamiliar with remains Not Quite Hollywood, which showed that you could cover a wide range of movies in detail within a 90-minute framework. Corman’s World doesn’t quite manage that – there are chunks of his career that are glossed over or ignored, films that are present only as clips or posters. But I don’t think this was ever planned as a definitive career biography – it is, after all, Corman’s World, not Corman’s Films. And space is given to the most important works in his directorial canon, from his 1950s black and white ultra cheapies to the Poe films and later, edgier works like The Wild Angels and The Trip. There’s extensive coverage of his only flop, the serious, brilliant ant-racist The Intruder (with William Shatner), and rightly so – though the critical appreciation for that film could and should also extend to some of his other, less outwardly respectable films… his Poe series remains amongst the best horror of the 1960s, for instance. Also covered is the seemingly unlikely relationship with World Cinema, as Corman’s New World Pictures distributed films by the likes of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and others during the 1970s, often taking a financial loss in the process. Something for the critics who would dismiss the likes of Humanoids from the Deep to think about – what do they think was financing the release of those arthouse favourites?
Corman himself – extensively featured in new and archive interviews – comes across as a serious, intelligent man who just likes making movies – and while he might have wanted to be a ‘serious’ filmmaker, he seems quite content with his legacy (if not necessarily the generally sneering dismissal of it). Certainly, the film seems to suggest that Corman could’ve followed his protégés into the mainstream if he’d had the confidence or ambition to do so – but frankly, that would be our loss, so thank God he didn’t. The fact that he also – quite rightly – seemed to have an ethical distaste for the idea of spending tens (or by now hundreds) of millions of dollars on a film when half the world is starving is very much to his credit too. I’ll take a Corman cheapie with ropey effects over a bloated, disgusting effort like Avatar any day.
Like all the best documentaries, Corman’s World feels way too short, and fans can forever pick holes pointing out the films that deserved more coverage. But that’s hardly the point. This is a taster, an introduction to one of the most important, but neglected filmmakers of all time, and if it encourages younger fans to look further into his back catalogue than just Sharktopus and Dinoshark, then it’s mission accomplished. For more seasoned fans, it’s an affectionate, always entertaining look back at a film world that no longer exists, sadly, and a must-have item for all exploitation film junkies.