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Reel Life: the low-budget genius of American film



It's no secret that in the last few decades, Hollywood filmmaking has become increasingly standardized and homogenized. Large productions often look like each other; many new films also look like television shows. A corollary of this is that some of the freshest, most innovative, and most energetic American narrative filmmaking has taken place on the industry's fringes.

Perhaps the most exciting director to emerge in the last two decades is Larry Cohen. His films are all professionally made entertainment features, but their budgets are generally substantially lower than the norm.

Though Cohen has worked in a variety of genres, he is perhaps best known for his horror films, such as It's Alive! (1974) and Q (1982). His camera is never afraid to assume the point of view of the monster, flying around New York with the winged serpent in Q or crawling through a field of grass as a mutant baby in It's Alive! What is striking about those shots is that by allowing the viewer to see through the monster's eyes, Cohen creates sympathy for his otherwise hideous creations. By intercutting these monsters' points of view with images seen through the eyes of other characters, the director creates an energetic collision of perspectives that recalls the near-anarchic yet masterful cinema of Samuel Fuller.

This month a retrospective of Larry Cohen's films at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute displays the full range of his achievements. Some of the most exciting films are his dramatic features, the two most recent of which, Special Effects (1984) and Perfect Strangers (1984), are being given their Chicago premieres this weekend, together with a rare personal appearance by Cohen himself The same surprising contrasts that vivify his horror films are present in these new works.

During the opening credits of Special Effects, we hear (but do not see) a movie director's press conference. He is asked which filmmaker was most influential on his work, and he replies, "Abraham Zapruder." Zapruder is the home movie maker who shot the famous 8-millimeter film of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, footage that has come to represent for filmmakers film as raw, undirected document into which shocking reality intrudes. As Special Effects gradually unfolds, we find at its center Chris Neville, the director from this opening press conference. Neville's last big-budget "special effects" picture has bombed, and he seeks to return to his more modest filmmaking beginnings with his new 16-millimeter feature. But the distinctions between illusion and reality have long since blurred for him; for instance, he has been secretly filming his own lovemaking sessions with different women using a concealed camera. When he kills one of these women on film, his attempts to incorporate the footage into his new film--thus the earlier Zapruder reference--result in a complicated web of intrigue. As is the case with most of the significant films about filmmaking, the illusion/reality paradox continues to haunt Special Effects.

It is to Cohen's great credit that he doesn't make any easy moral choices; the characters in his work are neither purely good nor purely evil. Everyone has good instincts and everyone is also tainted. Thus, Neville may have the right idea in taking Zapruder as a model, but his own "Zapruder" film, utterly evil for its recording of murder, is also hopelessly "pretty" and otherwise overdirected, with morbid touches like a single rose placed on a pillow.

In a brilliant touch, Cohen has the police detective investigating the case become movie-mad himself. This detective, who now hopes to break into the movie industry on his own, is finally seen preening at his own press conference, which forms a mirror image of the unseen press conference with which the film opens.

Perfect Strangers is perhaps my favorite of the nine Cohen films I have seen thus far. It is certainly the richest on a narrative level. There are four central characters: a young mother and sometime feminist (Sally), her little boy, her ex-husband, and a mob hit man who courts her after her son witnesses one of his contract killings. Each character operates according to a completely separate, and in each case somewhat unfathomable for us, moral system. Their lives cross, and they speak with each other, but none can truly communicate; each works at cross-purposes and through multiple misunderstandings. Sally's radical feminist friends form a kind of fifth moral system, one which Sally largely does not share, and the film sets itself aswirl like a series of private whirlpools, each trying to absorb the other but all remaining separate until the film's ending. At the end, Cohen's brilliant near-final image displays, without recourse to dialogue, the inevitably tragic results of this noncommunication between three of the characters.

In all his films, Cohen, who writes his own scripts, avoids the simple narrative choices that would create clear conflicts between good and bad or likable and unlikable characters, which would allow him to manipulate his audience's emotions in one direction, the way a Spielberg does. At the very point when one of his stories appears headed for a clear showdown, he will insert a complicating element, and the film is once again thrown off center. Just as our sympathy begins to build for a hit man, he commits another brutal murder; just as we are ready to condemn the evil director in Special Effects and root for the police to catch him, the policeman starts trying to use this director to break into the movies himself.

On a visual level, Cohen's films are always alive with a centrifugal near-chaos. By combining multiple points of view, he denies the viewer a single character to identify with. Cohen's scenes, built up from combinations of hand-held with tripod-filmed images, and static shots with moving shots, are alive with multiple tensions and conflicting perspectives. We see things from all sides, and we are encouraged to think and compare without being led toward any easy conclusions.

It is easy to see why Cohen has never had a mega-hit; his films are too morally equivocal, too ethically complex. The easy comfort of a single, safe audience-identification figure is denied. His films are not always pleasant to watch, either; one is always somehow ensnared, voyeuristically, by the evil as well as good sides of his characters. The films of Alfred Hitchcock have long been a major influence on the work of many younger directors. Other filmmakers of this imitative and derivative period of cinema try to copy the surface aspects of Hitchcock in their dramatic and horror movies. They use manipulative techniques to produce singular emotions of fear or revulsion in the audience. Cohen, by contrast, has made films that are worthy of comparison to the complexity of Hitchcock's world, in which we are constantly reminded of the evil, as well as the good, that lurks in each of us.

Larry Cohen will be at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 13, for the 8 PM screening of Special Effects and Sunday, June 14, for Special Effects at 6 PM and for Perfect Strangers at 8 PM. Admission is $4.50, members $2.50. Call 443-3733 for a detailed schedule of other Cohen films.

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