Classic Jems


Left: Jem Cohen, Night Scene New York, 2009, still from a color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes 30 seconds. Right: Jem Cohen, One Bright Day, 2009, still from a digital video, 17 minutes.

WHEN CONCLUDING the first of his “Movie Nights” at the IFC Center in New York, Jem Cohen foreshadowed the next event, a screening of the haunting performance document–cum–historical essay Empires of Tin (2008): “It’s not an easy ride, but some of them can’t be.” The statement elicited chuckles from the audience, not only for its self-deprecating candor but also for its apparent irony—no Cohen work is an easy ride.

The Brooklyn-based filmmaker’s meandering camera is not bound by traditional paths; rather, it is set in motion by rumbling trains, buses, and Cohen’s wanderings on foot in New York and abroad. Training his lens on the underpinnings of a place—its buildings, roads, and waterways—Cohen registers the majestic, fleeting music of its daily life: a Chinatown shopkeeper tending his stall, the floating detritus of a spirited parade. He assembles most of his films from an ongoing archive of window recordings and street footage, a practice that, post-9/11, has prompted his role as community advocate. He rallied, for instance, against mayoral initiatives in 2007 to restrict street photography and continues to pass out flyers today asserting the rights of New York City’s filmmakers and photographers.

For his third and final night at IFC, Cohen will screen a program of “Shorts, Rarities, & Things to Come.” This cinematic treasure trove, brimming with portraits of cities, people, songs, and ideas, will include the especially radiant One Bright Day (2009). Structured around a children’s nonsense rhyme of the same name, the film focuses on the rants of a homeless veteran who rises like Lazarus from the nocturnal streets to achieve occasional, startling coherence through his slurred words. Shot in 2006, three years into the Iraq war, in front of the antiterrorism barriers at Manhattan’s Penn Station, the short offers seventeen minutes of disquieting contradictions. As a representation of raw emotion and the futility of violence, it epitomizes Cohen’s uncanny ability to transform abstract notions into poetic meditations.

“Movie Nights with Jem Cohen” at the IFC Center in New York will conclude on Thursday, September 3. For more details, click here.

Cameron Shaw