Jem Session

Jem Cohen, We Have an Anchor, 2012, color HD and black-and-white 16 mm, 85 minutes.

LIKE SO MANY OF JEM COHEN’S efforts to marry images and sounds since his early collaborations with friends like R.E.M. and Fugazi in the 1980s, We Have an Anchor is as beguiling as it is unclassifiable. Presented at a two-night run at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, it combines live musical performance with a multiprojector presentation of footage principally shot by Cohen during a decade of travels through Cape Breton, a rugged island off Canada’s east coast. As the DC-bred, New York–based filmmaker admitted after the first performance, he’s still unsure whether it’s a concert or a movie.

It could, of course, be both those things. It’s become a dernier cri for contemporary musicians to perform live scores for films, much as their predecessors did in the days before sound cinema. In recent years, everyone from Tindersticks to Tune-Yards to Tom Verlaine has been turning their instruments toward the flickering screen. Here in Toronto, local hardcore heroes Fucked Up got in on the action by providing a memorably thunderous score for Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928) at last year’s Images Festival.

Yet We Have an Anchor, which Cohen first presented in Troy, New York, last April and makes its Canadian premiere in Toronto, functions differently from other music-and-movie mergers. For instance, Cohen’s illustrious band––made up of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Dirty Three drummer Jim White, film composer T. Griffin, Toronto singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, and members of Montreal post-rock heavyweights Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra––cease playing for significant stretches, thereby allowing natural sound, the voices of Cohen’s subjects, and even moments of silence to take precedence over any musical Sturm und Drang.

Such restraint is welcome given the bombastic tendencies of so many other live scores (Fucked Up’s included), though some audience members might’ve liked to hear more of O’Hara, who’s had only a sporadic presence on the music scene since the international success of Miss America in 1988, an album much adored by the likes of Morrissey, Bono, and Radiohead. Her contribution to the performance is limited to two fleeting renditions of the hymn for which We Have an Anchor is named. (O’Hara also stars in Cohen’s new feature Museum Hours, a lovely ode to art and friendship set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.)

Trailer for Jem Cohen’s 2012 documentary We Have An Anchor about Cape Breton.

The piece diverges from conventions even further in respect to its visual component. Shot on Cohen’s signature black-and-white 16 mm and on HD video, much of the imagery boasts the same rough-hewn beauty that distinguishes many of Cohen’s mesmerizing portraits of people and places, be it the gloriously grubby Atlanta neighborhood occupied by the subject of 2000’s Benjamin Smoke (codirected with Peter Sillen) or the disparate but interchangeable shopping mall and hotel spaces in 2004’s CHAIN. The more exhilarating sequences also display the brute force of the many concert segments in Instrument (1999), Cohen’s filmic history of Fugazi.

Yet We Have an Anchor contains a startling array of moods and modes coexisting as a landscape study, an impressionistic travelogue, and a deliberately fragmentary history that prioritizes the words of poets over anything in the official record. Cohen also includes the voices of subjects such as sculptor June Leaf, a longtime resident of the island with partner Robert Frank, and a young fisherman who eagerly tells viewers of the mishaps that nearly cost him his life.

It all culminates in an earnest and largely effective effort to convey the essence of Cape Breton, a place so relentlessly lashed by the elements that it’s easy to see why one subject describes it as “beyond weather.” No wonder the score’s stormy swells seem perfectly apt, though more provocative links between sound and image are discernible in the hints of the island’s Celtic-influenced musical traditions provided by the violins of Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau. Various buzzes, squawks, and hums also highlight the curiously radiophonic history of a place that hosted one of the easternmost wireless stations built by the Marconi Company in the early 1900s.

When the ensemble reaches full force in tandem with a climactic series of images charting countless combinations of land, sea, and sky, We Have an Anchor achieves both a grandeur and a coherence that make this endeavor seem much greater than the two halves of concert and movie. It is, as Cohen puts it, a “love poem for a place”—one that’s as intimate and awestruck as this corner of the world deserves.

We Have an Anchor played at TIFF Bell Tower on December 4 and 5.