Documentary Review, “King Cohen” celebrates the Master of Exploitation Cinema

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He didn’t like “getting permission,” signing up for filming permits.

So when writer/director/producer Larry Cohen needed a scene of comic Andy Kaufman in the company of a lot of cops, he dressed Kaufman as an NYPD uniform, shoved him into a parade of police and “stole a shot,” without permission from anybody, in a sea of New York’s finest.

He didn’t script much, hates the idea of “over-preparing” for a shoot, and used his locations as with as much innovation as any movie maker who ever lived.

Hollywood doesn’t like “hiring old,” be they actors, cinematographers, composers or grips? Larry Cohen would “find out whose mortgage was overdue, who needed to work,” and land Oscar winners, from Bette Davis and Broderick Crawford to composers Bernard Hermann and Miklós Rósza, lifting his no-budget “exploitation” pictures into at least the vicinity of “prestige” productions.

 “King Cohen: The Wild, Wonderful World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen” celebrates the cinema of a the King of Cut-Rate, the Emperor of Exploitation, the writer, director and producer of “Black Caesar,””It Lives!,” “Q:,” “Best Seller” and the screenwriter of such recent genre novelties as “Phone Booth,” “Best Seller,” “Cellular” and “Captivity.”

The just-turned-77 indie icon may comically gripe, walking through a horror convention in the film’s opening, that he’s “unrecognized, unrewarded for my lifetime achievement.”

But the fans know. And after “King Cohen,” you will too.

 

 

“This is my epitaph,” Cohen bellows at one point in Steve Mitchell’s film. Maybe it is. But one thing you take away from the film is his eagerness to continue to work, and how foolish it is for a business he never really “joined” (he made his movies outside the system) to not find a use for him now.

Stars, from Fred Williamson and Yaphet Kotto to Tara Reid, Michael Moriarty, Robert Forster and Eric Roberts, sing his praises. Peers like Scorsese, Dante and Landis revel in the urgency, neorealism and grit in his work. And critics, historians and retired colleagues laugh and laugh at the nonsense that happened on the set because Cohen believed in making movies on the fly, with little prep and panic-stricken brio.

You’ll laugh, too, at him and Williamson swapping lies about who came up with what in “Original Gangstas,” who did or didn’t demonstrate the stunts to whom in “Hell Up in Harlem.”

Trust fund kids whisper about “guerrilla filmmaking” in tony film schools from coast to coast. Cohen, pre-9/11 mind you, would drag actors and stage shootings in front of Tiffany’s (“Black Caesar”), sneak into J. Edgar Hoover’s old house (“The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover”) or park an un-permitted shootout in the baggage carousel at LAX.

Who has the guts to try any of that, nowadays? This is guerrilla filmmaking as taught by the Che Guevara of genre exploitation.

There’s always overstatement in such documentaries, and Cohen’s movies often were more memorably for their junk genre cheapness than their topicality, Big Themes or performances. But watching “King Cohen,” you can’t help but be dazzled by flashes of genius in future Bond villain Yaphet Kotto, in Michael Moriarty and Eric Roberts — flashes made possible by the seat-of-the-pants filmmaker’s free-wheeling style.

Larry Cohens don’t come around any more, and seeing J.J. Abrams introduce the picture just underlines that. Everybody playing exploitation games to come along afterward was just an imitation. Pity Mitchell didn’t interview Tarantino, but QT would probably have been too embarrassed to sit for it, anyway. All his “borrowing” would come home to roost.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, fake violence, profanity

Cast: Larry Cohen, Traci Lords, Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson, Yaphet Kotto, Eric Bogosian, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Robert Forster, Joe Dante

Credits: Written and directed by Steve Mitchell.  A — release.

Running time: 1:43

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