Roger Corman is one of the most-important filmmakers of his generation, and I assure you that's not a joke, no matter what you might think after looking at his credits. Corman has had a rather tenuous relationship with respectability, at least by Hollywood standards, having built his career first on directing low-budget movies destined for drive-ins and grind houses in the 1950s and '60s, and then producing similar fare from the 1970s up to the present. His films often dealt with bug-eyed monsters, delinquent teenagers, motorcycle gangs, drug-addled maniacs, crazed gangsters, and dangerously haunted houses, all committed to film on shoestring budgets. But anyone can make schlock; Corman's gift was the ability to make schlock with genuine style and wit, and his eye for talent was second to none. The list of artists who got their start working for him is impressive indeed: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Monte Hellman, and John Sayles are among the many filmmakers who collaborated with Corman before moving up to Hollywood's major leagues. Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and William Shatner starred in his movies when they were young, hungry, and looking for a way into the business. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who have more prestige attached to their names than Corman, but hardly anyone has shown the ability to do more with less, and he's nothing short of a legend among fans of exploitation.
Roger Corman enjoys an interesting reputation as an artist, a shrewd businessman, and a colorful figure, and filmmaker Alex Stapleton offers a glimpse of all of these facets in his documentary, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. Featuring extensive interviews with Corman and many of the folks who've worked with him over the years, the movie offers a brief look at him in the present day as he produces a low-budget horror film for the SyFy Channel, but it devotes most of its time to his best-known work as a director and his years as a producer and studio head. This isn't the first documentary on Corman -- in 1978, Christian Blackwood made an entertaining short feature, Roger Corman: Hollywood's Wild Angel, which concentrated on the filmmaker's dual roles as a schlockmeister and a renegade artist -- but Corman's World seems to be a lot more interested in the schlock than the art.
Given his body of work, this film's emphasis on the wilder and woollier side of his personality isn't inappropriate, but it makes for an interesting contrast with the interviews with the man himself. Corman often seems more like an accountant or an English professor than a guy who deals in blood, breasts, and beasts; he's soft-spoken, articulate, and clearly has a head for numbers, taking understandable pride in the fact that he's never lost money on a film (though it's clearly galling to him that one of his best and most-personal works as a director, 1962's The Intruder, barely broke even and never found its audience). His first film as a producer, 1954's The Monster from the Ocean Floor, cost a mere $18,000, and while his budgets have risen over the years, he's remained dedicated to the notion of shooting fast, keeping costs low, and finding unique ways to sell pictures. His editors weren't above using action footage from other films to spice up a trailer (or even the feature itself), and when he entered into a lucrative sideline in the 1970s of distributing foreign films in the United States (including Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H.), Corman wasn't content to just sell them to art-house audiences. He dubbed Cries and Whispers into English and booked it into a string of Southern drive-ins as a soap-opera-style family drama; Bergman is said to have sent Corman a note thanking him for exposing his film to a new audience.
While Corman's World offers a reasonably coherent look at his life and career, Stapleton is clearly more interested in anecdotes than fine details, and a few important aspects of his story are not handled with clarity (American International Pictures' interference with the more controversial aspects of Corman's movies) or ignored altogether (notably his brief interlude directing major studio pictures such as The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Von Richthofen and Brown, and his return to the director's chair with 1990's Frankenstein Unbound). However, as a collection of anecdotes, it's very entertaining, and an impressive number of Corman's better-known alumni sit for interviews about him. Most illuminating is Jack Nicholson, who has a lot to say about Corman's reluctance to part with a dollar, though he also makes clear he has a great deal of love and respect for the man who gave him a chance when no one else would.
Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and John Sayles don't get as much screen time, but they have plenty to say about working with Corman, and what comes through consistently is that while he didn't spend much money and wanted movies he could sell -- with requisite amounts of action, sex, or both -- he also wanted them to be good and interesting. Just as importantly, he was willing to give his colleagues all the creative freedom they needed, as long as they stayed under budget and turned in a marketable product. Even as Corman oversees a clearly ridiculous straight-to-cable shark movie, he keeps his eye on the lighting, the editing, and the special effects, trying to make the most of the limited means at his director's disposal. Corman's World sometimes plays more like a celebrity roast in which Corman's friends tell funny stories about him for 90 minutes with a lot of film clips thrown in, but those stories are often hilarious and enlightening, and they make clear why he's still remembered while many of his low-budget peers have faded from memory.