His output may have been variable, but the producer Roger Corman has always been able to talk a good movie. The low-budget auteur of such exploitation fare as Attack of the Crab Monsters, Gill Women of Venus and Humanoids From the Deep has forever insisted there's no reason why any trash movie should go beyond ninety minutes, a tenet anybody sitting through the two-and-a-half hours of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, or the two-and-three-quarter hours allotted to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels might very well agree with. Corman's World, Alex Stapleton's very smartly drawn documentary portrait of the now octogenarian cineaste reveals Corman had his formative bad experience with the major studios early on - going uncredited (and unpaid) as a junior for his script notes on Fox's big Gregory Peck hit The Gunfighter - before declaring himself permanently independent, even if this meant scraping by on nickels and dimes, having to hustle the measly profits of one production into the entire budget of the next.
Making movies for love and no money gave Corman at least one advantage: he was unlikely ever to bankrupt himself with an overreaching Cleopatra or Heaven's Gate. And doing it all himself, in the early days, kept him firmly in touch with his audiences: where the studios, overseen by aging dynasties, had slipped into archaism by the mid-1950s, Corman was busy presaging the teen revolution in such quickies as Sorority Girl. You could (as Stapleton does) argue that the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s would have been a far less vibrant place without the creative energies Corman was pumping into it at the grass-roots level: there'd have been no Easy Rider without the producer's The Wild Angels and The Trip (both, in fact, far more challenging in their form and content), while the likes of The Godfather Part II and Mean Streets were dependant on director-star combos who'd served apprenticeships on earlier Corman productions.
If Corman's reputation has always been more elevated than those of other schlockmeisters (let's say Ed Wood, or Troma's Lloyd Kaufman, or the chancers behind Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus), that's because he was canny enough to know good business and good filmmaking whenever he saw it, and his best works strike a balance between the two, seeking to make the best out of the resources available. Still, as a casual scan of one of the industry's longest list of credits will reveal, the Corman filmography remains hit and miss. Even Jack Nicholson (interviewed here as one of Corman's discoveries, and tearing up with affection for his friend) has to admit Corman "made a good picture by mistake every once in a while", and certainly it's easy to be affectionate about the man if you haven't had to sit through the scuzzier end of his canon. (Any documentary treatment has the benefit of showing clips of the films' zappier moments, rather than subjecting viewers to the whole thing.)
A less favourable critic might well wonder where the progression is in a career that extends from Not of this Earth and the original Piranha to such recent offerings as Dinoshark and Piranhaconda. Alternatively, you may choose to regard this as proof Corman stayed true to the no-frills, no-fuss level of filmmaking he always believed in, and - besides - if the movies themselves (by their creators' own admission) didn't make very good stories, their makings often did. In all, Corman's impact on modern pop culture has been far greater than a glimpse at his budget sheets might suggest: his second feature proper The Fast and the Furious (from way back in 1955!) formed the basis for one of today's more enduring summer-movie franchises, and the interviewees Stapleton gathers here (Nicholson, Scorsese, DeNiro, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Pam Grier) speak to the depth and range of the talent Corman nurtured.
Something of which I hadn't previously been aware: how Corman's delight in overturning accepted Hollywood wisdom (while turning a quick buck from same) led to him distributing Fellini and Bergman movies to drive-in cinemas in the 1970s, indirectly fostering a whole new seam of cinephilia - but then Corman's life and work has shown that to love movies is to love all movies, whether made at American-International, Cinecittà or the SyFy Channel. Throughout, he's remained polite, modest and unruffled - a true gent in a cutthroat, willy-waggling industry - no matter how far down the barrel his own projects were scraping. A handful of these - A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors, the Poe adaptations, Rock 'n' Roll High School (no-one else would have thought to give the Ramones their own vehicle), Grand Theft Auto, Death Race 2000 - have passed into movie eternity, and are always worth staying up with when they appear on TV in the early hours. There are more prestigious productions, helmed by garlanded directors and featuring the most revered of performers, which you can't say that about.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel opens in Picturehouse cinemas nationwide from February 21st.