It immediately becomes apparent when one sits down to have a conversation with Robert Carl Cohen that he loves to tell a good story. And why not? He’s got a lot of them.
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 it “a flippy, trippy, psychedelic guide to Hollywood.”
“I was trying to convey that Hollywood is a state of mind,” said Cohen, who earned his bachelor’s in art and his master’s in theater arts at UCLA in the early 1950s. “Hollywood has been called the dream factory, but you can’t have dreams without nightmares.”
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, he 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. He also amassed a trove of amusing stories that run from his work with Romanian black marketeers to his confrontation with Che Guevara, who was flirting with Cohen’s wife.
“My political motivation [in my work] was that the world shouldn’t go up in a big boom,” said Cohen, who was honored by UCLA’s Film & Television Archive last week with a retrospective of four of his films. “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.”