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“King Cohen” Makes the Case for the Artistry of an Exploitation Film Hero

The too-easy shorthand description of legendary exploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen is that he’s New York’s answer to Roger Corman. The two share an affinity for the weirder margins of storytelling, have made cult hits with enduring fame for a dime, and possess a mighty work ethic that keeps them creating from morning till night, even today. But where they differ is in motivation. Where Corman wants to make money telling whichever story he foresees will be hot (and he’s been frequently right), Cohen approaches even his most outlandish pictures, like The Stuff (1985), from a personal angle. He infuses them with a message, some kind of moral that you might miss if you’re only paying attention to the killer yogurt. In that way, Cohen is less like Corman than he is a sort of cousin of horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Wes Craven. As those directors have won greater critical consideration, Cohen finally gets his in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this, with scruffy film-world characters (Williamson carefully poses himself lounging with a cigar) shooting the shit about the old days of guerrilla moviemaking and everything you could get away with back then; Martin Scorsese states that nobody could make films like Cohen did post–9-11 as Cohen tells the story of how he shot a brutal, bloody shootout scene at an airport baggage carousel, obviously with no permit. So, yeah.

While Cohen might accept his title as an exploitation director, he does take issue with other filmmakers pretending they’re not exploiting something or someone — “Isn’t every movie an exploitation movie?” he asks. His annoyance specifically stems from people labeling his black-cast films as blaxploitation, especially Black Caesar, which he considered simply an adaptation of James Cagney’s Little Caesar. He asks why his film should be called exploitation, just because he’s giving black actors some work, when Cagney’s film enjoys critical adoration as a classic. It’s a good question, one he’s clearly thought about a lot. Yaphet Kotto, who starred in Cohen’s first picture, the darkly comic dramatic thriller Bone (1972), says that he saw the director as a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. for black actors, kicking down the doors in the 1970s, ushering in the new era of Pam Griers and Richard Roundtrees. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s evident that Cohen really did care about giving work to his African-American collaborators, as well as lampooning in that work the real-life exploiters, notably the wealthy and powerful.

Late in the film, John Landis sheepishly admits that he really does think Cohen’s panned God Told Me To (1976) is actually a great movie. It’s a bonkers story about people murdering others on the order of a superior being with a vagina on its chest and, like all of Cohen’s works, it’s a film played earnestly, even if it is outrageous. Landis loves it, and King Cohen endeavors to remove the stigma of indulging in a Cohen classic, and largely succeeds.

King Cohen
Directed by Steve Mitchell

Dark Star Pictures
Opens August 3, Cinema Village

 

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Carmel vs. Dial 7: A Limo Service Jingle Showdown for the Ages!

For most people, the number 666 has ominous associations. It’s the mark of the beast, the sign of the Antichrist, or part of the absurd name of what looks to be one of the worst new television shows of the season.

But when you sing the words 666 to anyone who watches local TV around here, you’ll get a surprisingly cheery response. The number for the Carmel limo service is 212-666-6666, and the jingle, as well as the hilarious commercial in which it’s featured, has battered it’s way into New Yorker’s hearts and minds, so much so that I’ll occasionally hear people humming it after a long night at the bar.

But now, an impostor has come on the scene. An upstart competitor named Dial 7, with the call number of 212-777-777, is advertising a limo service of their own and horribly, thankfully, they too have a commercial with a catchy jingle. Here, we investigate both commercials and hope to define a clear winner.

Carmel

Pros: Where to start with this classic? We come in with the instantaneously catchy telephone number itself. And then, in knowing jingle form, the destinations to which one could use a ride are enumerated. “Going to the airport!” “Ridin’ round town!” And then my personal favorite, the high-pitched exhortation: “Shopping or a movie!” Several of the actors in the commercial get a solo turn during this portion of this song, but when a large, tan, Italian-looking gentleman comes on the scene, everyone sings a beat-tapping, finger-snapping bridge that leads inexorably back to that famous call number.


Cons:
There are a number of gaffes throughout the commercial. The Asian guy forgets the words during the part of the song that goes “Ride Carmel and be on time.” The portly, orange-shirted gentleman who is a key player at the beginning of the commercial is tragically relegated to the background. Meanwhile the leading lady is utterly forgettable, totally overshadowed by the aforementioned Italian guy, who should really just have a commercial of his own.

Dial Seven

Pros: The new commercial, a winning entry in a contest that Dial 7 held, has a lot going for it. Turning its back on the old-fashioned 666 jingle, Dial 7 embraces a Rap&B mash-up. The rapping is execrable (“Dial seven seven seven seven seven seven seven times”), but luckily, it’s soon over, overpowered by a strong-voiced limousine driver, who refers to her customer as “Big Daddy.” The video is heavily sexualized, as the limo driver’s lips are seen pouting and enunciating heavily on the “sevens.” The suggestions appear to be that the man in the limo is about to be one lucky customer. Also, the man in question appears to be named Pants Velour, and I dare anyone to root against a rapper named Pants Velour.

Cons: The rapping is detestable. The commercial suggests that there’s a good chance your limo driver will sleep with you, or will at least refer to you as “Daddy,” all of which is most likely false advertising and will otherwise be uncomfortable for anyone who does not like to be called Daddy.

Winner:

Carmel. Although the Dial 7 commercial injects some much needed sexuality in the usually snore-inducing limo service game, and has a more forward-thinking jingle, the point of an advertisement like this is to be memorable. And anyone who watches it more than once won’t be able to get 666-6666 out of their head. Exactly what Carmel (and Satan) want.