Independent writer-producer-director Larry Cohen [1941-2019] is a strange and fascinating case in contemporary cinema. After early days in television, rising from 1970s blaxploitation to cult fame for films including It Lives Again (1978), The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) and Q – The Winged Serpent (1982), Cohen still sits uneasily in almost anyone’s critical canon. For there’s a way of abstracting any Cohen film – in one’s memory, or in the train of a critical discourse – that can make it sound incredibly sophisticated and complex, perfectly realised and ideologically well-intentioned.
Actually watching and hearing a Cohen film can be quite another matter: they’re often slap-dash, slipshod and insanely off-the-wall. This makes him a spiritual cousin (as well as real-life friend) of Samuel Fuller, in whose films we also find endlessly brilliant ideas thrown onto the screen in a sometimes gloriously hit-and-miss fashion. By the mid ‘80s, Cohen’s career approached the stage Fuller’s was at around Dead Pigeon On Beethoven Street (1970): aware of his cult status, Cohen started succumbing (in his more personal low-budget quickies) to all manner of in-jokes and games.
Enter Special Effects, made back-to-back with Blind Alley (1984), and a very queer number indeed.
I can’t honestly say there is a single fleshed-out element in Special Effects – dramatically, psychologically, emotionally or thematically. And there certainly isn’t anything much going on worth blessing with the title of mise en scène. Every sequence is like a rough sketch for a film Cohen would do properly if he had the time and the money. But what great ideas the man has!
The main cluster of concepts here concerns the psychodramatic interrelation of so-called real life – country boy Keefe (Brad Rijn) losing his wife Andrea (Zoë Lund aka Tamerlis) to New York’s filmdom allure – with a cinematic fiction. The latter is embodied and generated by the malevolent Chris Neville (Eric Bogosian). There’s a wackily indecipherable Chinese-box game set in motion between Neville’s film, Cohen’s representation of it, and yet another version of the events purportedly constructed after the fact by the hilarious, starstruck cop Phillip Delroy (Kevin O’Connor). These switches of level don’t bear retrospective logical scrutiny (the Delroy thread was added late in the shooting, and it shows), but their arrangement is dizzying and suggestive enough to create a momentum.
So far, it’s pretty clear-cut as a schema: the power relations of the filmmaking situation resonate as a metaphor for problems of sexual identity, à la the ubiquitous reference in all such cases, Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock’s classic is only one of the movies plundered at length here, but it was certainly uppermost in Lund’s mind. She commented in a 1996 interview, “It amused me to play two roles, a little like Vertigo” – although her voice (to her chagrin) was dubbed for one of these parts. (1) Sophie Charlin writes admiringly of this double casting and its place within the imaginary Lund cinémathèque: “Zoë has several faces and several bodies; her portrait is a confluence of figures, a diffraction of images”. (2)
However Cohen, being a shameless and slightly crazed opportunist, throws a thousand and one other notions into the brew. Only he would seize on the effervescent cinematic potential of anything from Lund’s ability to wiggle her ears to a chance to pastiche an hour of Paris, Texas (1984) in two minutes flat. Cohen is also fond of a brand of madcap, scattershot, screwball humour (see his Full Moon High, 1981) that fills Special Effects with delicious behind-the-scenes detail, but simultaneously tends to drain it of any enduring, coherent significance.
Special Effects is, ultimately, a film for Cohen aficionados. They can graciously overlook the holes that riddle it, in order to revel in the fleeting brilliance of ideas and allusions. Anyone who stumbles upon it unacquainted with the director’s colourful career may simply find it mad – and they would have a point.
Somewhere between the starry-eyed idealisation of Cohen as a rigorous, intuitively intellectual auteur (such as we sometimes see in the commentaries of Robin Wood and his pale disciple, Tony Williams), and the pop-eyed disbelief that greets his wilder excesses, we can locate a filmmaker whose real genius is located precisely in his monster-embracing madness, not above or despite it.
In that imaginary canon – which will never, ever be mistaken for the Sight and Sound ten-yearly poll – Special Effects holds a true and rightful place.
2. Sophie Charlin, “Zoë Lund, hommage à une heroine”, Balthazar, no. 5 (Spring 2002), p. 49.
© Adrian Martin June 1987 / September 2002