Robert Carl Cohen
The filmmaker behind "Mondo Hollywood" has spent a lifetime seeing the world and doing things his own way
By Noela Hueso
It immediately becomes apparent when one sits down to have a conversation with Robert Carl Cohen (BA ’52, MA ’54) that he loves to tell a good story. And why not? He’s got a lot of them to tell. Cohen, 92, is the filmmaker behind Mondo Hollywood, a 1967 documentary that has become an underground cult classic, giving screen time to the city as well as to a bevy of colorful characters who lived in Hollywood seeking fame and fortune — and some who already had it.
Variety called the film “a flippy, trippy, psychedelic guide to Hollywood.” Cohen says, “I was trying to convey that Hollywood is a state of mind. Hollywood has been called the dream factory, but you can’t have dreams without nightmares.”
But before he was traveling the streets of Los Angeles filming unconventional personalities, Cohen was traveling the world in the first decade of the Cold War, filming as an NBC News special correspondent in China and as an independent documentary producer in both East Germany and Cuba — exciting but risky endeavors at the time. From these experiences, Cohen subsequently created his own documentaries that showcased both ordinary citizens and political leaders alike, giving Western audiences newfound insight into countries that were separated by political ideologies from the rest of the world. In the ensuing years, Cohen also became an author, essayist, graphic artist and lecturer, all in service of his interest in avoiding World War III.
With Cohen in attendance, over two nights, December 9 and 11, UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen four of Cohen’s films: Mondo Hollywood (1967), the animation short Mr. Wister, the Time Twister (1956), Inside Red China (1957) and Committee on Un-American Activities (1962).
“Because Cohen’s work has lacked the recognition it deserves,” says Paul Malcolm, senior public programmer of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, “it was important to the Archive that we acknowledge his work and career, showing examples of his engaged style of documentary filmmaking,”
As Cohen explains it, he didn’t have a burning desire to get his master’s degree in film but rather saw it as a means to an end — a way to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, which, in his opinion, “wasn’t helping anybody except investors” — though it did set him up for future success.
His life after graduating from UCLA was rife with intrigue: He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954. In Paris, he handled NATO’s secret plans, worked with Romanian black marketeers and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the Sorbonne. And when he headed to Moscow to observe the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1957, he was approached by NBC Moscow bureau chief Irving R. Levine, who asked him to travel to “red China” on assignment, in defiance of the travel ban, to follow a group of American students who were touring the country. Cohen was given a 16 mm hand-held camera and seven rolls of film for the five-week excursion that began with a nine-day ride from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Recalling the experience, Cohen says, “I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t know jack about China. I never took a college course on China, I never read a book about China, I never attended a lecture on China.”
But it all worked out. He was the first American to film in China after the communists came to power, and at the end of it, in addition to footage of the traveling Americans, he had logged recordings of ordinary citizens as well as Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. NBC only purchased the footage of the students (“They gave me back 90% of what I shot,” he says), presenting him with the opportunity to create Inside Red China on his own.
Upon returning to the U.S., however, Cohen says the State Department wasn’t happy with him and refused to renew his passport. During this period, he started lecturing on Inside Red China at universities in the U.S. and Canada. When his passport was reissued in 1959, he immediately contemplated making Siberia the focus of his next documentary but opted instead for East Germany. After Inside East Germany became popular on the university lecture circuit, his agent then suggested that he go to Cuba.
Retorted Cohen: “Just because another country goes commie, doesn’t mean I have to go there!”
But with the blessing of the U.S. State Department this time as well as the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cohen and his wife Helene, also a UCLA alumna, headed to Havana so he could film the daily lives of Cubans from all walks of life. His favorite anecdotal memory is of Che Guevara flirting with Helene in French during a Bastille Day party at the French ambassador’s residence and Cohen confronting him about it. That confrontation, Cohen says, made it into his CIA and FBI files.
“I’ve seen them,” he says of the files, explaining that his lawyer had requested them on his behalf. “They’re labeled ‘His relationship with Che Guevara.’”
Inside Castro’s Cuba (1963) was added to his lecture series.
When asked what motivated Cohen to take these trips and make these films, he says simply, “My political motivation was that the world shouldn’t go up in a big boom. I was definitely trying to make a statement that people can understand: It’s not necessary to have World War III. My basic motivation is to have a good time.”
The idea of making Mondo Hollywood was brought to Cohen by another member of his team.
“I was lecturing, doing quite well and making lots of money, when my lawyer at the time said, ‘Why don’t you make a movie about Hollywood?’” Cohen recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll make a movie but since I personally don’t have a view of Hollywood, I can’t say what Hollywood is. Each individual had their own experience.’ So, I went to Barney’s Beanery, stood in front of the bar and said, ‘I’m making a documentary about Hollywood. Who wants to be in it? If you think you’re interesting, come and tell me your story. You have to be typically Hollywood or really way out there — or both.’”
Accepting the caveat that they wouldn’t get paid, but would get screen credit, there was no shortage of interested parties.
“All of a sudden, there's knocking on my door at 3 o'clock in the morning,” he says. “It was Gypsy Boots yelling, ‘Put me in your movie.’ There were more people than I could handle. I finally ended up filming 22 of them.” They ranged from “nature boy” Boots to Ram Dass to Cohen’s own housekeeper, Estella, one of the more grounded individuals featured in the film.
Cohen’s unconventional approach to making Mondo Hollywood involved filming without sound and allowing his subjects to dictate what would be filmed, from skydiving to surfing. Later, during postproduction, each person wrote and narrated their own sequence.
The entire assemblage also includes vignettes that Cohen filmed of such recognizable faces as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Newman and Ronald Reagan, among many others. Greater Los Angeles was on display, too, as Cohen and his camera visited several public gatherings including an anti-communist crusade, a UCLA peace rally and the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965.
Cohen acknowledges that his filmmaking approach was unusual: “I’m just a person who happens to have had the educational background to film things that I find interesting and relevant.”
Posted: December 8, 2022