NYFF '11 Review: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

· Joanthan Poritsky

It’s a real shame when I tell people “I just saw a documentary about Roger Corman” and they ask “Who?” Who? Somehow Corman has been pushed to the wings of the story of American cinema. The much ballyhooed “New Hollywood” of the 1970s may never have come of age without him, yet his name has been all but rubbed out by the stars who would outshine him. Alex Stapleton’s excellent Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel aims to put the spotlight back on the man who changed the game for generations of filmmakers.

Roger Corman’s greatest talent has been making movies, and I mean that in the most literal sense. The number of films with his name attached is astounding, perhaps approaching one thousand by this point.1 Corman turned his operation into a well-oiled machine, one that could make films in less than a week. His goal was never to re-invent the wheel, the thing that holds up the Stanley Kubricks and the Paul Thomas Andersons of the world, but to be able to make as many movies that could find an audience as possible.

His stylings led him to be one of the most successful B-movie and exploitation producers of all time, but there is a lot more to him. As it turns out, he is rather offended by his reputation as a maker of trashy camp. As Stapleton’s film explores, his life’s work has been less about making “bad” movies and more about making films that tap into what audiences want. Yes, that has meant a lot of breasts and a lot of explosions, but also a lot of work that, even when it was forgettable, became the training ground for some of the world’s top talent. Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola are just a few of the names to have found their start under Corman’s tutelage.

But what of the documentary at hand? Stapleton has made a great biography of a man who history may soon forget. Even though his work is both prolific and extremely accessible today2 he is still somewhat unknown among younger generations of cinephiles. Stapleton’s film elegantly, and enjoyably, moves to correct that. It also tries to explain it. Just as it seems the book is closed on Corman, Stapleton introduces a new villain: Steven Spielberg. One of the film’s conceits, sparked by those close to Corman, is that Jaws and Star Wars represented a major shift in the way the studios went after younger audiences. These were basically Corman movies with massive budgets, and it all but put him out of business, or at least pushed him into obscurity.

It’s an interesting theory, but I’m not so sure I believe it. It’s often said that those blockbusters were the turning point, downward, for American cinema; they’re the reason why there are nothing but loud comic book movies in theaters today. The biggest hole in that theory is that if the studios found a way to attract audiences with Corman-esque films, couldn’t Corman simply step in and become more successful? If Stapleton trips here, it is only because she is too enthralled with her subject.

Nonetheless, Corman’s World is an excellent watch and a damn good time. The doc features excellent closing credits in the grindhouse vain and a number of artistic interstitials (enjoy the poster montage). Interviews with stars big and small, young and old make for a great Hollywood tell-all, but the best footage comes from a wonderfully unguarded interview with Jack Nicholson. If you love Corman, don’t miss this one; if you don’t know who he is, get your ass to a theater and learn something.

Corman’s World will be screening as part of the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 16 and 1:30pm with a special screening of Corman’s 1962 The Intruder starring William Shatner. For more information check out the NYFF’s website.

  1. It’s tough to pin-point how many films he has worked on. IMDb currently has him at 395 as producer and 56 as director (mostly overlapping), but that doesn’t account for everything he’s touched. ↩︎

  2. Many of the titles that are not available on DVD are streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly. ↩︎