Perkins Cobb Revisited

The celebrated underground director who died by his own hand left behind only one testament to his own genius, the revered cult film My Sweet Dread, or so we thought. Writer David Thomson, who last year removed one veil from the memory of his friend Perk Cobb, this year drops another.


When I offered my obituary thoughts on Perkins Cobb exactly one year ago in this magazine, it was with a rather weary reluctance. Over the years, I had determined not to write about Cobb. He had made it clear that he hoped I wouldn't--he showed every sign of wanting to vanish. It was only the provocation of his death last summer (that spectacular Utah suicide was a mysterious and signal urging), and the remorseless requests of Movieline editors that made me yield. And even as I wrote, I had my doubts. Indeed, there was an odd feeling of, as it were, auto-autopsy.

Still, I did want to give at least a nod of respect to that lost and golden age of the 1970s when difficult and private, but beautiful, films were made in America, films that stirred up the sediment of our souls and our nation. I don't mean just my friend Perk Cobb's one and only picture, the arresting My Sweet Dread. I mean Malick's Badlands, Penn's Night Moves, Toback's Fingers, Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens, and the movies of Monte Hellman, not to mention films that were more glorious at the box office but still somehow seemed aware of our darker secrets and felt mixed feelings of awe, pity and, yes, dread for them: The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, the first pictures of Scorsese, and even the inescapable Chinatown.

A lost age of marvels. And haven't attempts at sequels helped us see how completely the edgy moment has disappeared? Yes, I wanted to honor that decade of sultry mavericks by writing about one of its most elusive casualties, a filmmaker who lost faith in the medium, an obsessive who saw through his own excitement, a pioneer who covered his tracks.

There were some friendly remarks made about the April piece. One or two people who remembered Perk called to say it had been well worth doing. Of course, Movieline was blessed to discover that photographer Sandra Johnson had known Perk too, and had snapshots from over the years (though none of us in the circle can quite place the very pretty girl in the two Big Sur pictures). Younger readers complained that they couldn't find My Sweet Dread at their local video stores--as if those grim, threadbare parlors were reliable repositories of our film heritage!

At any event, the piece appeared, and passed away as pieces do. Then one night, three or four weeks later, as I was drowsily watching Point Blank, I got a phone call. The film was ending, and Lee Marvin was resolutely preferring not to appear one more time. At first I thought it was a phone ringing in his story, but it kept ringing. It was a little after 11. There was no introduction or prelude, just the intimate aggression of a woman's husky voice straight into my ear: "Did I ever know you? Did you so much as see me, apart from photography? You don't know enough about your precious Perkins Cobb to begin his story. I'm not going to talk to you. Hello... ?" And then, as I struggled for "Yes?" the phone rang off--it sounded as if it had been dropped back in place.

I hardly slept the rest of the night, alert for a follow-up call, trying to gauge the unstable mix of intelligence and nerviness I had heard so briefly. Was this what one is supposed to call a "crank"? (The concept seems less viable these days when one can hardly ask directions without meeting an unreliable narrator.) But how had the voice found me? And what did it mean that this woman had called me to insist she would not talk? It was all so emphatic and yet so vulnerable.

Some superior knowledge in the caller loomed over me. Had she known "my" Cobb in ways I could not dream of? This was likely. There had always been women hovering at the edge of Perk's shadow, liaisons that curtailed phone calls or poker games. There were times when Perk's number had changed--and I now wondered whether I might end up having to do the same if that jittery, unarguable voice roused me again at three or four, improving on nightmare. I remembered something Perk had told me about his Hollywood: "You reassure crazies. You stroke neurotics. You feed other people's bad habits. The lies are not just allowed--they're damn near expected. A few years of that and who's fit for human company? When you're lying, you see, there has to be a script, you need to be a character, so as to remember what to say. Nobody talks naturally anymore."

And I had added, "It could make a person give up on talking."

Perk nodded and grinned: "I tried that once and liked it fine. But then it began lending me a kind of magic. The less I said, the more they asked. Drove girls wild. Couldn't take it after a while. That's L.A., though. Gets to you some way, sooner or later."

The best part of another week elapsed, and I was forgetting the call when the phone rang again. This was a little after 10 on a bright, sun-wiped morning. A brisk secretarial voice asked for me and then said she had "Graziella Ortiz" on the line. I had mentioned Graziella in the piece--as one of Perk's famous lady friends. Yet, truth to tell, I knew very little about this woman apart from a montage of reckless yet imprecise press stories, a few remembered shots from Vogue and Elle of that stunned, staring face, and of course, the unfortunate Catalina incident. I wasn't entirely sure that Graziella Ortiz was alive still, let alone around.

"Mr. Thompson?" It was the same voice, albeit recast from late night unease into a tone more suited to fresh-air business.

"It's Thomson," I replied. "No 'p.'"

"Ah," she said. "Right." And there was a trifling laugh. Some people think a proper taste for detail is amusing and constipated.

"Look," she began again. "I am interested in having a piece done."

"A piece?"

"Uh-huh. I'm making a return, you see. And I love your stuff."

"Please," I protested. My heart was beating. Writers are such helpless idiots over praise--we never trust a word, especially the words we want most.

"No, really," she told me. How did I know she was grinning at her secretary?

"How did you like the Perkins Cobb article?" I thought I might as well take the lead.

"Did I see that one?" she asked the air. She could have been speaking to that droll secretary as the girl repaired her carmine lip gloss. "Anyway, I thought we should meet."

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