Roger Corman has maintained a reputation as the B-movie master for half a century, but it’s a distinction that has come at the cost of wider appreciation. “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” looks to counter that conclusion by exploring Corman’s influence on contemporary American filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to Ron Howard and Peter Bogdonavich, not to mention the acting careers of Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.
Through their testimonies (in addition to those of the 80-year-old Corman himself), the movie delivers a compelling argument for appreciating the filmmaker as a major artist who’s both largely responsible for many mainstream Hollywood cinema trends while somehow remaining superior to them.
Initially, it’s a tough argument. Corman’s fast-and-loose DIY approach opened the floodgates for numerous ultra-cheesy efforts from the late 1950’s, when he produced movies with titles that told you the whole story, including “Hot Car Girl,” “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” and “The Wasp Women.” However, even these efforts represented a radical break from industry norms. As Corman recalls, his early gig as a script consultant for Fox led to rewrites on the Gregory Peck western “The Gunfighter,” but Corman received no credit for his contributions. Frustrated with the system, he invented his own. It didn’t take long to create an alternative studio, but making movies of quality, with deeper ideas and advanced techniques, would have to wait.
Still, through his ability to maintain autonomy, Corman provided a vital alternative at a time when studio filmmaking was an increasingly suffocating environment. It’s no coincidence that the director’s forays into independence occurred alongside those of John Cassavetes, whose existing stardom and tendency toward deeper subject matter broadened the appeal of his work. “Corman’s World,” directed by Alex Stapleton, barely has time to explore that climate before barreling forward to evaluate the central traits of Corman’s career. Clearly, he influenced many directors whom he took under his wing before letting them to soar to new creative heights. But where does that leave the question of his artistry?
There’s no major case to be made for the quality of Corman’s earliest productions, including “Monsters from the Ocean Floor” and “The Fast and the Furious,” except that they helped him win a three-picture deal with American International and the momentum to continue his evolution. Scorsese valiantly argues that early Corman qualifies as “art in a different way,” but “Corman’s World” springs to life when demonstrating Corman’s capacity to move beyond those limitations. Another former protégé, John Sayles, notes the “edge of rebellion” in Corman’s work, a quality made especially potent in conjunction with Corman’s preference for the macabre. “Clearly,” Corman says, “my subconscious is some kind of boiling inferno.”
His narrative interests evolved significantly in the early 1960’s with “The Fall of the House of Usher” and other moody, stylized Poe adaptations. These represented the height of Corman’s creative powers and he knew it; he backed away from pressure to continue churning out more likeminded work after inspiration left him.
This was followed by an ambitious attempt to move entirely outside his safety zone with the early William Shatner vehicle “The Intruders,” about a white supremacist preacher in the deep south. The film made Corman the prouder than ever, but it was also his greatest commercial failure, a result he still struggles to accept today. The flop of “The Intruder” marked a second stage in his trajectory where he stopped trying to deepen his work and instead aimed to perfect the art of playing into the obvious. “The public,” he concludes in the documentary, “is the ultimate arbiter of your work.”
That statement sets up the compelling argument that Corman’s work — and therefore, Corman’s reputation — has been co-opted by the mainstream industry. The movie shows how Corman-style entertainments were the progenitors of “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” but their hulking shadows went on to overtake Corman’s turf. “I miss the Corman versions,” sighs Bogdonavich in an interview. Recalling Corman’s marginalized role in the industry, Nicholson starts to cry.
If Corman’s economical approach became a useless endeavor once studios began investing in pricier, likeminded productions with flashier results, he didn’t go down quietly. “I think it’s wrong” to spend untold millions on a single movie, the director says. The Academy’s decision to give Corman an honorary Oscar in 2009 might seem ironic unless you consider his pleas to give voice to Hollywood’s conscience.
“Corman’s World” only falters by failing to explore the diminishing returns of Corman’s work in modern times. Despite appreciation for his legacy, he hasn’t directed a movie since 1990’s “Frankenstein Unbound,” and his recent producing credits read like messy retreads of his early career (“Piranhaconda,” “Sharktopus”). While Corman is no longer in his prime, he’s not out of the game; more importantly, the Cormanesque idea of shooting quickly and cheaply without worrying about commercial demands continues to inspire in the digital age. In exchange for the decline of one Corman, the world now has several.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Anchor Bay Films will release “Corman’s World” in New York and Los Angeles this Friday after a long festival run that included Cannes and NYFF. The movie should attract solid business from genre fans and continue a healthy existence on television.