Words

David Jenkins

King Cohen – first look review

The wild and crazy cinema of Larry Cohen receives the in-depth documentary treatment that this master director deserves.

There’s a wisp of production-line poetry in this cheerily conventional documentary about the run-and-gun regent of low-rent genre cinema, “Loopy” Larry Cohen. Steve Mitchell’s reverent survey is constructed in a slick, no fuss style which blends together a swathe of revealing, talking-head interviews and clips from Cohen’s gigantic body of work which straddles both small and big screen.

There are no silly animated interludes or clever-clever attempts to unduly fun-up the material – and you feel that’s the way Larry likes it. Mitchell – like Cohen – expends all of his creative energy discerning what works in his picture, and then when he’s done that, he milks it for all its work. And what works is training the camera on Cohen himself, perched on a golden throne (which is very faux-Trumpian), while he reels off quality anecdote after quality anecdote. It’s hard to imagine a more avuncular and self-effacing artist on this green Earth.

Cohen began his career as an occasional stand-up, but quick-fix success eluded him and so he started punching out screenplays for TV. He’d pull concepts out of thin air while sat in the commissioner’s waiting room – such as the western serial Branded, about a disgraced American cavalry officer, which he invented while reading about an old Hollywood movie with the same log line. He wasn’t a man who fought tooth and nail to preserve a pristine creative vision. Instead he played a long game so he would eventually be owed a measure of independence. On his directorial debut, Bone, he secured the money by saying that he’d throw in a free screenplay if it flopped.

The theme that runs across the renegade director’s entire career is the desire to live and film in the moment. If something is happening on the streets, if people are panicking or behaving in a certain way, use it – get down there with a camera and soak it up. On his weird, allegorical monster movie, Q the Winged Serpent, from 1982, Cohen thought nothing of hiring a team of steeplejacks to sit in carts hanging from the upper floors of New York’s Chrysler Building, and have them fire off machine guns with loaded with blanks. As empty cartridges rained down onto the streets, pedestrians began to worry they were witnessing a terrorist attack. And so Cohen got down there sharpish to snatch this dramatic gold.

Many of the interviewees talk about Cohen’s work as if it’s subversive and ironic and maybe not to be taken too seriously. But not Martin Scorsese, who appears almost driven to tears by the intensity of Michael Moriarty’s madly committed performance in Q, as the monster’s crazed accomplice. He describes Cohen’s cinema as “dangerous”, referring perhaps to the combustible energy which tints every frame, and the fact that, in each shot, it looks as if someone is placing their life on the line in order to get the coverage. Often they were.

Despite his vast network of connections and a persistent admiration for Old Hollywood, the film says that Cohen was never truly accepted by the establishment, and it was this rejection which allowed him to do things his own way. He was never really affected by failure, as he had the ability to see the long game. If a movie crashed and burned in the cinema, he was content that it would make its money back in home rentals.

The film also manages to sneak fragments of personal biography into all the movie chatter, making it possible to see that these works weren’t merely autobiographical, but that they were hard documents of Cohen’s own memories and foibles. King Cohen works as a handy primer for the Cohen curious, but a vital reminder of his off-the-chain greatness for those who have already seen such trash classics as The Stuff, It’s Alive and God Told Me To.

Published 25 Feb 2018

Tags: Larry Cohen

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