I was hoping to write something on the career of Paul Cohen, director of Bell Labs short films and something of a legend, I would gather, in the industrial film world. Unfortunately for me, there was a mathematician of the same name about the same time within the same company, which makes finding information about filmmaker Paul Cohen frustrating. Consider too there was a Dutch filmmaker as well, again of the same name and again around the same period. It seemed a bridge too far for my humble research skills.
Just after posting an earlier version of this piece on social media (a few days ago), I happened to be going back through the films on youtube and noticed a comment on “Microworld” made by one Paul H. Cohen nine years ago, reading:
“I’m the guilty party who made that Shatner film in 1980. Though some of the “electronic wizardry” predictions sound naive today, there is some sharp foresight in the narrative as to where the technology was taking us.”
Intrigued, I began searching for a “Paul H. Cohen” and was shocked to discover his obituary in the Westport Journal, dated less than a fortnight previous. He had lived to be 98. From his obit –
“Born in New York City on December 16, 1923, to Samuel and Dora Cohen, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on his 19th birthday in 1942, the earliest that was permitted at the time. He served in the Galapagos and Central America, commanding a radio operations group in order to protect the Panama Canal.
After the war ended, he attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and then the Sorbonne and La Cinémathèque Française in Paris, where he studied cinematography. He was then employed by the March of Time in Paris.
Upon his return the U.S., Paul was employed by Owen Murphy Productions, the producer of documentaries and commercial films. After several years, he acquired the company upon Mr. Murphy’s retirement. He produced films for such clients as IBM, the USIA, Western Electric, the 1960-61 World’s Fair and the States of New York and New Jersey, and won countless awards from prestigious organizations. He traveled with three presidents — Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.”
I can’t help but wonder if these other Paul Cohens I mention – the mathematician and the filmmaker – had convinced our man to add an H. to his professional name. As late as 1980, he was still going by his ‘old name’. We are now able to see several of his superb films online in varying degrees of quality. I stumbled onto Cohen’s work while investigating links from a content farm specializing in vintage short instructional films; one was described as “trippy” and that was enough to peak my interest.
This simple description, if anything, vastly undersells this film (whose title is Network and whose date I would estimate at 1971) which is, in fact, one of the trippier films you are ever likely to see. Ostensibly a look at Bell’s communication network, it manifests instead as some kind of terrifying dystopian vision of the future, replete with scary music and dizzying visuals.
This music is by Charles Morrow, who himself had an interesting career, composing all manner of music from corporate (as here), to experimental and even transcendental. In fact, Morrow later supplied music for the notorious Ken Russell film Altered States. But get a load of his style here, and keep in mind this was presumably meant to get people enthused about Bell.
It may surprise you to see the “tele-class” at approximately 10:00 on Network’s runtime; this bears an uncanny resemblance to our own pandemic-era zoom classes and meetings, forecast about fifty years ago with startling accuracy.
It’s interesting to note that Network is nowhere to be seen in the official AT&T Archives account on youtube, a corporate resource which desperately needs updating (ideally by scanning the negatives of these films at a decent standard) but which admittedly shares an awful lot of very cool videos. Not this one though. It makes me wonder if Cohen (credited with design as well as direction for the film) rubbed people at the company the wrong way with Network’s decidedly dystopian tone.
As dark as Network is, Cohen’s The Conquest of Light is, er, light. It’s available in a beautiful print from the Prelinger Archives and concerns the development of the laser. The visuals in Krystallos (1962) are lower in quality but feature perhaps Cohen’s most beautiful images, alongside the story of the silicon chip’s development. If you watch Krystallos, I recommend not blowing the image up.
Two other films of Cohen’s available films deserve mention: The Incredible Machine, which includes a robot singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” and, yes, this is the same robot that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s HAL in 2001: and Microworld (1980) a rather breathless film on the development of microchip technology hosted by none other than Canadian wunderkind William Shatner.