Few other filmmakers know Los Angeles or see Los Angeles like Paul Thomas Anderson, a lifelong native who’s made his career on the sprawling cast of characters, themes, and environments that make up the Southern California city. It makes sense then that when Anderson announced plans to tackle an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘70s-set novel “Inherent Vice” (review), he was hesitant to watch a copy of “Mondo Hollywood,” a 1967 documentary given to him by Mark Flanagan, owner of the L.A. music and comedy club Largo.
“There’s a lot of coverage on this period, and there’s a lot that I’ve seen,” the “Magnolia” director explained Saturday afternoon at an AFI Fest screening of the documentary. “Initially I was skeptical and then I put this on and thought immediately, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ ”
A freewheeling, surreal, and fascinating piece told in vignettes, “Mondo Hollywood” places us right in the center of mid-’60s LA and it lets the citizens give a tour. Surfers, sculptors, musicians, and millionaires — the film’s writer/director Robert Carl Cohen put out a casting call in search of transplant eccentrics, and the results invite us into a truly surreal headspace that Anderson found essential for his version of the period.
“Footage this good and up close and personal with weirdos, straight-laced people, humane people, these varieties of people — it just touched me deeply as a reference for what we were doing with ‘Inherent Vice,’” Anderson said. “Our film takes place in 1970 but this is even more valuable, jumping back a few years, because this film captures this ticking time bomb of Communism and the war in Vietnam.”
Just as the documentary was unknown to Anderson before his recent viewing of it, Cohen remained unaware of the “There Will Be Blood” director’s interest until his invitation to present the film at AFI Fest. Following the screening of the two-hour director’s cut of “Mondo Hollywood,” the pair spoke about the origins and atmosphere of the project, in addition to much more.
“I was just trying to capture the ‘is’ of the moment,” Cohen explained. “When you point a camera at something you’re recording a moment in time, and I did not imagine 47 years later I would be sitting here showing the same film mostly to people who weren’t born when it was released — Paul included. I think of myself in 1955, 25 years old, looking at scenes that were shot 50 years earlier around 1900 and it’s mind-boggling. It was an entirely different world.”
A current resident of Boulder, Colorado, Cohen spoke to the “bizarre” experience of returning to the Los Angeles streets once again, half a decade after he trawled up and down it with a 35mm Arriflex camera and shoulder mount.
“Although we’re physically here, there is no here,” he said. “Hollywood is in the mind…it’s a paved over desert with business people making illusions and selling them to people all over the world. The people and images are filtered into your mind through TV and movies, and I’ve seen ‘Inherent Vice’ — Paul is an expert at putting that feeling together.”
Watching Anderson’s seventh and latest feature, the influence of Cohen’s observations is often apparent. Madcap sequences, like the drug-fueled encounter between Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short), feature details right in line with characters like Lewis Beach Marvin III in ‘Mondo,’ who lives on a Malibu mountain with a pet monkey named Mr. President. On a much creepier note, Cohen’s film also features two people involved in the Manson Family murders — killer Bobby Beausoleil and victim Jay Sebring — that seems to hang over the scenes in ‘Vice’ involving Doc’s immersion into an LA cult.
Asked by Anderson about his impressions of his wildly varied cast, Cohen said, “I tried to restrain myself from voicing a personal opinion. Let’s put it this way: whatever anybody does is fine with me, as long as it doesn’t bother anyone.”
Watch some video of the talk below via Cigarettes & Vine.
One group that the film certainly did offend was the French government, who banned the film in 1967 for “a number of perversities, including drugs and homosexuality,” a claim which Cohen challenged straight away on the eve of France’s historic civil unrest in 1968.
“I told my distributor, no one takes drugs, and there’s no sex acts so she must’ve been very perceptive to see something that wasn’t on the screen,” he said. “But then a new Minister of Culture was appointed in 1971, Jacques Duhamel, a former cameraman, and after that they said the film was accepted based on the changes. Nothing was changed; France had changed.”
Almost more enthralling than the behind-the-scenes stories about ‘Mondo’ were the candid anecdotes from Cohen’s life. Some, such as Cohen’s battles with alcohol and bladder cancer, stunned the room with their harsh reality. Others felt heightened but it didn’t matter: Cohen handling naval nuke plans for the end of the world (“It needed two men with the codes to push the buttons, and I saw one of them carried away later on a straightjacket”), or sneaking into China with a young Shel Silverstein (at the time a cartoonist for Playboy).
Cohen also told Anderson that he responded quite strongly to “There Will Be Blood,” as he had a similar personal experience logged alongside his many others.
“It had relevance to me because I used to be an analyst in a mercury mine in 1950, in the Diablo range in central California,” he said. “John Wayne owned the mine – he’d never been there of course, it was just a possession. It was a summer job, and I thought it would be interesting working in a mine for $1.25 an hour plus food and a bed in a four-man tent. When I saw your film I thought it was the most authentic recreation of a mining situation that I know about.”
“Yeah I just made it all up,” Anderson said with a smile. “We shot in Texas and there was an assayer whose hobby it was to recreate that stuff, and he showed us how to do it. He did it. We just filmed it.”
That method of documentation ended up in “Mondo Hollywood” as well, which lends the film a tone that’s far from mocking of these individuals. Cohen explained that he thought up the idea when he was shooting in Cuba as a cameraman for CBS.
“I’d previously done basically newsreels, but in Cuba I tried to do something different,” he said. “I tried to find people and film their stories, and I used that later on because this Voice of God style, where the film tells you what’s important, that’s one form. But I thought it’d be interesting if you got people who were actually involved — a statement by the people who have come to Hollywood, not a statement by me about Hollywood.”
He continued, “I told each person that they controlled what I showed of them, my only influence was in the overall editing alongside the other people. The amusing thing is that the first screening, each of the cast came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for doing a film with me in it, but why did you have to put in those other kooks?’ And the next guy would say the very same thing.”
Watch the full documentary “Mondo Hollywood” below.