In Alex Stapleton's dazzling, honest, oddly emotional new documentary "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," Roger Corman, the now-85-year-old filmmaker behind such films as "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Death Race 2000," is depicted as a doggedly independent, skinflint-y genius. Through a series of lively interviews with some of Corman's most talented protégés (among them Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme) and even livelier clips from his films, the case is made that Corman not only trained and equipped the current batch of living auteurs but that he fundamentally reshaped the Hollywood landscape in profound ways that are still felt today.
Like a Corman movie itself, 'Corman's World' starts small and unimpressively, with some behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from a recent Corman joint, the Syfy Channel original "Dinoshark." Everything is pintsized and ill equipped; one cast member admits that the crew, on location in some pitiful Mexican tourist trap, thought that there was something interfering with the walkie-talkies they use to communicate, until they realized Corman had just bought children's walkie-talkies. But everything has a charmingly sleazy low-budget feel, including the guy with the foamy Dinoshark puppet, chomping on some helpless bimbo in a bikini while blood shoots into the water through a clear plastic tube. After literally hundreds of movies, Roger Corman's mentality remains the same: cheap movies, made quickly, that make tons of money (even if they're on the basic cable back-channels).
We then jump back, jazzily, to the beginning of Corman's career. According to him, after working at Fox as a script reader, his notes for "The Gunfighter" (starring Gregory Peck) were used but he was never credited, so he was upset and decided to make his own movies. He hooked up with American International Pictures, run by James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, who tasked him with producing a series of pictures, including an influential batch of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (many starring Vincent Price) and, later, a series of counterculture films that would go on to inspire "Easy Rider" (starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Peter Fonda who all worked previously with Roger).
Interspersed throughout the biographical timeline,are interviews with many of the filmmakers and stars that Corman either worked with or greatly inspired. And this could have been really dull, but Stapleton has made an uncanny decision to shoot each interviewee in a different location and scenario – we watch Bruce Dern talk about "The Wild Angels" while getting his hair cut; Jonathan Demme speaks about starting out with Roger while riding in the back of a town car (he's wearing a TV On The Radio sweatshirt, of course); Ron Howard is strolling around his posh Connecticut neighborhood as he bemoans his measly 3% ownership of "Grand Theft Auto." What's striking is how heartfelt each of these interviews is. Many of them have to pause to collect themselves; Jack Nicholson, never one for showing much emotion, actually breaks down into tears. It's one of 2011's most profoundly touching moments. "I hope he knows this is not all hot air," Nicholson says, choking back tears. "Other people also love him."
And watching the film it's easy to see why: Corman not only shepherded the careers of any number of important filmmakers still making their mark today (including people not interviewed here, like James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, and Curtis Hanson), but he also was a visionary of marketing and distribution. He brought these movies, no matter what you thought of them, to major audiences, who would be influenced for years to come. (In a fascinating sidebar, Stapleton briefly investigates Corman's distribution of heady art films from Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa, during the height of his drive-in success.) Corman also notes that he was keenly aware of the leftist subtext in his films; they were part of what made them so special.
Against a bouncy, bubbly score by Air, we watch fantastical bits of films here and there, movies that might have been made for next-to-nothing but hold up impressively well today ("Death Race 2000" is just as gripping and hilarious and profane as it's ever been). Dante says that Corman is directly responsible for the "New Hollywood" movement; after the studio system collapsed it was the filmmakers that knew how to make films breezily and for pennies, that took over the scene. And it was the Corman ethos, of monsters and babes and big special effects that would grip the same market at the end of the 1970s. It's been noted before that "Jaws" was essentially a Roger Corman movie but with a bigger budget and stronger marketing push; after watching 'Corman's World' you can't help but feel the same way.
If there's one nitpick with the documentary, there isn't much time given to the psychology of Roger Corman. One of the most compelling sections of the film chronicles his lone flop, an adaptation of a controversial novel called "The Intruder" that starred a young William Shatner as a racist white man in a segregated southern town, a film that was completely free of the exploitative elements that defined most of his films. Since then Corman has stuck to the B-movie formula but it doesn't explain what's kept him from truly breaking into the mainstream, from spending a little bit more money and putting a little more effort into being accepted by everyday America. The closest answer anyone can come up with is that Corman didn't want to give up his independence, but under scrutiny it sounds like a flimsy excuse. Clearly the man knows how to tap into the zeitgeist. Hell, he's still doing it today.
So much of 2011's cinema has been a dewy-eyed nostalgic look back at earlier times and places, and there's a fair share of that in "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel." But, like the razor-toothed fish from "Piranha," Corman keeps moving forward, from drive-ins and grindhouses to home video (first VHS, now DVD and deluxe Blu-rays) to cable television, always looking for the next (and cheapest) way to entertain us. For all of his old-fashioned charm, there's always been something a little futuristic about Roger Corman. Even if you don't like his movies, 'Corman's World' will make you appreciate the man behind them. [A-]