The Greatest Career in the World
Carlson says his work on Laurel Chiten’s award-winning documentary “Twitch and Shout,” about Tourette’s syndrome, garnered him wide recognition and led to more directors recruiting him for assignments.
In the decade after earning his education degree at UConn, Cob Carlson ’76 (ED) taught fifth grade and earned a master’s in education in Hartford, managed a Whole Foods store in North Carolina, and worked for the YMCA in Greenwich, Connecticut.
While doing marketing and public relations at the Y, Carlson realized it wasn’t where he was meant to be — he kept coming back to how much he enjoyed his “American Cinema” course at UConn taught by dramatic arts professor Michael T. Gregoric.
“He talked about this concept called the cinematic correlative; that a film needs a lot of people to get made. He was not a proponent of the auteur theory, where it’s the director’s film,” Carlson recalls.
At the time, Carlson regularly visited an arthouse theater in nearby Norwalk, The SoNo Cinema, with a friend who was a filmmaking graduate student. As they discussed the films, his friend told him she thought he had “a good eye,” adding “you’d make a good editor.”
“That really got my juices flowing about film and I just decided to go for it,” says Carlson. He completed an accelerated filmmaking program at New York University, where he then taught for three years and discovered editing is the part of filmmaking that he likes most.
In the early 1990s Carlson moved to Boston, a center for documentary filmmaking. “The editor is like a hired gun,” he says. “Producers and directors would hire me to do the hands-on work of assembling the film.”
For more than 30 years, Carlson has edited — and sometimes produced and directed — feature films and documentaries on topics ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to war orphans to Robert F. Kennedy.
Carlson looks back on his top 10.
Cob Carlson’s Favorite Film Projects
➊ Radio, radio: “The Greatest Radio Station in the World” 2022
Taking its name from a 2021 New Yorker piece about WPKN-FM, Carlson’s latest celebrates the quirky, listener-supported radio station initially led by the late Jeffrey Tellis ’63 (BUS) when it was the student-operated station at the University of Bridgeport. Created with the help of some of his Eastern Connecticut State University film students, Carlson directed and produced the doc, highlighting the host-driven format of WPKN, the passion of its staff and listeners to keep such radio on the air, and the challenges faced by the station as it became an independent entity.
➋ More than a good walk: “Donald Ross: Discovering the Legend” 2015
Carlson discovered that one of his frequented golfing spots, the George Wright Golf Course outside Boston, was designed by Donald Ross, the legendary golf architect who designed 400 courses in the United States. Golf Digest calls the doc an “admirable portrayal of the master course architect. With interviews from everyone imaginable who has something wise to say about the designer of Pinehurst No. 2, the film makes for inspirational viewing before you play a Ross course.”
➌ A finger in the food pie: “Farmageddon” 2011
Having been involved with food and food politics for many years, composting in his backyard and tending a community garden while teaching in Hartford, Carlson eagerly accepted an offer from first-time filmmaker Kristin Canty to edit this buzzed-about examination of local farmers’ struggles against government regulations.
➍ Off the road: “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur” 2007
This documentary about a troubled period in the Beat writer’s life following the literary success of “On the Road” blends readings from the Jack Kerouac novel “Big Sur” with commentary from Kerouac-influenced writers and artists including Patti Smith and Tom Waits.
➎ Good guy or bad guy: “Buddy” 2005
“He was quite a character, just a complex guy, which is why it made a good film,” says Carlson of Buddy Cianci, the long-serving mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, who had to resign twice after felony convictions. New York Magazine called the retrospective “a fascinating study of American local politics and a surprising tale of a man who, in the words of one commentator, ‘has a city as his mistress.’”
➏ Hangin’ with Willie & Friends: “Farm Aid” 2003
After moving to Boston, Carlson reunited with a friend whose wife is the executive director of Farm Aid, the organization co-founded by Willie Nelson that since 1985 has raised more than $70 million to support family-centered farms. He began volunteering for Farm Aid and filmed musicians discussing the importance of supporting a family-farm system of agriculture for this PBS program.
➐ He was a friend of mine: “Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir” 1998
A Discovery Channel documentary on the life of Bobby Kennedy marking the 30th anniversary of his assassination during a presidential campaign trip to Los Angeles. From The New York Times: “Memory may have softened reality and added a glow, but the television audience can still learn much from the likes of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Rep. John Lewis, and Richard Goodwin about the hopes he aroused and the causes in which he enlisted.”
➑ Civil political talk: “The Long and Short of It” 1997
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming debated issues of the day for this weekly WGBH series. “It was a different time, where Republicans and Democrats could talk with one another in a friendly way and shake hands across the aisle and do things civilly,” Carlson says. “Bob Reich is just an incredibly warm, funny, and down-to-earth human being. A joy to hang with the guy.”
➒ Family history: “An Irish American Story” 1996
His most personal project, Carlson produced this 30-minute film that traced the journey of his grandmother, at the age of 16, from the farm she lived on in Kildysart, a historic fishing village in County Clare, Ireland, to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
➓ Uncontrolled reaction: “Twitch and Shout” 1993
Critically lauded and honored at multiple film festivals, it’s a study of life with Tourette’s syndrome, the neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by muscle-motion tics and vocal tics that can include coprolalia, the involuntary swearing and uttering of obscene remarks. The film was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the audience included people with Tourette’s. “Some people would see themselves on screen and react vocally. It was a lively screening, to say the least,” Carlson says.
By Kenneth Best
Photo by Peter Morenus