PRINT March 2005


“TRY TO PRAISE THE MUTILATED WORLD”. So runs the title and refrain of the Adam Zagajewski poem given heightened relevance by its inclusion in the New Yorker’s black-covered 9/11 issue. Jem Cohen e-mailed me the poem after coming up for air from our career-spanning discussion of his work—an interview triggered by the imminent New York release of Chain, his third and latest feature film. Shot over several years in a variety of countries, Chain is a quietly corrosive portrait of two women drifting through a not-quite-locatable world of malls, corporate centers, and hotels. The film occupies the fertile ground where documentary and fiction converge, and registers a darkening emotional current in Cohen’s work, riding on a mix of yearning and skepticism, tenderness and outrage. Praise the mutilated world, indeed. I take it Cohen was feeling a bit worn out from fastidiously rummaging through twenty years’ worth of memories and needed to remind me, and perhaps himself, that his films are essentially celebratory.

His work ranges from elliptical, diary-like shorts to elaborate multichannel installation pieces, but Cohen is probably best known for his two dense, sidewinding, feature-length music films, Instrument (1999) and Benjamin Smoke (2000), collaborations with the band Fugazi and with filmmaker Peter Sillen, respectively. While both movies benefit from extended, visceral performance footage, they gather particular power from strategies displayed in Cohen’s other work: an ability to locate moments of unguarded intimacy in public spaces, and a knack for balancing acute respect for his subjects with an inclination to glide off into peripheral territory, locating meaning and emotion in anonymous bystanders, landscape, architecture, weather.

In Instrument, Fugazi’s members are made to seem heroic less by the spectacle of their own activities than by the mute testimony of their fans, presented in poignant, preconcert parking-lot portraits. And in Benjamin Smoke, the shrewdly self-mocking, cross-dressing protagonist (an outsider musician known as Benjamin) gathers a reflected glow from the depiction of his adopted home, a moldering Atlanta suburb called Cabbagetown. (In one indelible interlude, Cohen and Sillen grant protracted screen time to a buzz-cut urchin determinedly giving the camera the finger.)

Instrument and Benjamin Smoke notwithstanding, Cohen tends to be a lone operator who shoots and edits all his own work, adhering to low-end formats for the last two decades: Super 8 and 16 mm, nonsync sound, the footage typically transferred to video in postproduction. The standard Cohen project proceeds from an intuitive impulse to grab at the raw surface of a chosen subject; then, stitching things together in the editing room, Cohen conjures a rich weave of imagery and sound, with a premium placed on fleeting gestures, vistas unfurling past rain-mottled windows, flare-ups of unreasonable beauty. But “beauty” in Cohen’s book is tempered by an appreciation of sheer matter-of-factness, and the work’s documentary core is com- plicated by a canny deployment of titles, music, disembodied voices, and sounds. In this way, implied and submerged narratives—personal and political history—penetrate the skin of perceived reality.

Born in Afghanistan but raised in Washington, DC, Cohen studied studio art at Wesleyan University before immersing himself in its film studies program, decisively veering into independent filmmaking when he encountered the work of Jean Vigo. (“Seeing Zero For Conduct, I suddenly felt like the door kicked open,” Cohen says. “It was like what had happened to me in high school with punk rock.”) Moving to New York in 1984, he found production work on conventional movies while pursuing his own projects. And after a period of considerable struggle (he recalls twenty consecutive funding rejections over a four-year period), Cohen found salvation of sorts in arts grants and foundation support, including the occasional museum commission for ambitious installations.

Last fall, at the Cinematexas festival in Austin, Cohen screened his rarely seen first short film, A Road in Florida (1983), alongside Chain. The double bill revealed a clear continuity. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white 16 mm, A Road in Florida is a hallucinatory travelogue (most of Cohen’s work can be described as such), cruising a backwater stretch of Floridian marshland. Cohen rides shotgun with an affectless, middle-aged nonactress, importing a sense of mythic grandeur from an Everly Brothers murder ballad while surveying sun-drenched vegetation, a gleaming church, and billboards that seem defiantly unaware of their kitsch value (“Weeki Wachee City of Live Mermaids”).

Cohen’s maneuverings as a visionary tour guide, his unerring eye and unmistakable social conscience, link him to Vigo and to Chris Marker, two frequently referenced heroes. But the sweetly forlorn lyricism in Cohen’s films is singularly his own, and there’s something reliably miraculous in Cohen’s observational touch, carrying the implicit conviction, corny but exhilarating, that seeing is active, a way of sorting out experience, a true exploration of life.

The following conversation took place in January in the kitchen of Cohen’s Brooklyn apartment, while the beginnings of a blizzard filled the back window. As many of the films under discussion are, unfortunately, fairly obscure, I’ve punctuated our talk with brief, blunt descriptions of them. (Much of this work is, however, available through Video Data Bank in Chicago [].)

MICHAEL ALMEREYDA: What did you set out to accomplish in Chain?

JEM COHEN: In a lot of my earlier work, especially the city portraits in Eastern Europe, Italy, even New York, I was trying to hold onto something, some place or moment. Maybe it’s that inevitable filmmaker’s tendency to preserve something that’s disappearing. And I was often framing something out because it was ruining the shot—some new billboard or franchise restaurant or skyscraper. There’s a shot in Buried in Light [1994] of maybe the most beautiful street I’d ever seen—a street in Prague with an insane, stage-set curve to it where everything flattened out, and it seemed utterly timeless. But in order to shoot it I had to put a new McDonald’s directly at my back. Or I’m on a night train in ’92, going through Eastern Europe, and we pull into an old station of jaw-droppingly beautiful glass and iron. Suddenly this train comes in with the Coca-Cola logo covering every inch, including the windows—five cars of bright, shiny red with the white logo—and my instinctive response was to cut the camera and wait until the train left. By the time I finished that project, I wished I’d taken the shot.

MA: So the basic impulse behind Chain was to take things that “ruined the shot” and put them dead in the middle of the frame?

JC: Yeah. We’re so surrounded by malls and logos, big-box stores and all, but they seem to take on this weird invisibility. And it’s not just the generic places—I think it extends to time. No clocks in the casinos, you know. History, decay, the way neighborhoods get old, it’s all antithetical to the way these places are set up. But how do you go from shooting to preserve regional character to documenting the eradication of that very idea? I thought I had to start by just seeing the territory, collecting these places. And I shot them for years, using fine-grain 16 mm film to do it more clearly. A sort of archive of nothingness.

MA: You knew you were making a political film.

JC: Yes, but I can’t shoot thinking about that. I try to put the agendas aside and just approach things with my eyes as wide open as possible. Of course, sometimes you don’t get any choice about what gets politicized, even in the landscape. I was shooting from the window on the train to DC recently, and the police confiscated my film due to supposed national-security concerns. So even the landscape itself has taken on this new weight. I’m still kind of stunned about that, and it isn’t resolved.

MA: Your research for Chain led you to read the business sections in newspapers. What did you find there that you could apply to the movie?

JC: The business pages are so full of intense narratives. If you’ve never looked at that whole side of things, you’re not aware that these people are stabbing each other in the back in the boardroom in the most Shakespearian way. And just as they’re alternately crowning and offing each other, their businesses are rising up and then becoming obsolete or being overtaken. And you see it in the way the buildings are made. You see that some truck has accidentally knocked off a corner of the mall, and you realize it’s a quarter of an inch of fake, sprayed-on stucco and that underneath it’s just big chunks of Styrofoam, like an enormous picnic cooler.

MA: Chain was preceded by an installation piece, Chain x Three, which I saw in New York at Eyebeam in 2002. People would stray into this darkened shed—and they’d stare and stay and watch it through. It was mesmerizing; and by its nature more panoramic than the movie, hallucinatory. It had more music and only hints of narrative. How did that project evolve?

JC: It came first, a forty-one-minute triptych that could be set up as an installation or shown as a three-screen movie. I joined the years of collected places into one super landscape and started to integrate these little new- world narratives. Somebody might speak in voice-over and then you’d see a person, whom you might or might not associate with the voice. With one exception, the people aren’t actors, and I also incorporated bits of found material—like a marketing phone call I’d recorded ten years before of some kid doing a survey about fast-food restaurants. Actually, the very first public thing that I did on the route to Chain was when I screened some new footage from the West Coast in ’96, and I played a Hank Williams song, “Ramblin’ Man,” underneath some of it. When Hank sings “There’s something over the hill that I gotta see”—what does that mean when “over the hill” is just more of the same thing? That whole American impulse to hit the road and see what’s around the bend—what happens to it now? Years later, I had Godspeed You! Black Emperor do an almost unrecognizable version of the song for Chain x Three.

MA: With three screens you literalize the idea that everywhere is becoming more like everywhere else.

JC: Sure, having a shot of Paramus, New Jersey, next to a shot from Spain next to a shot from Atlanta—and you really can’t tell the difference. It all looks connected. Seamless. I’d loved Robert Smithson in college—those ideas about the “eternal city” being Passaic instead of Rome. Also, the triptych has an inherent feeling of travel. You can either use it by expanding the horizon in a way you can’t with a single image or by creating moments of disorientation in the relationships between the screens. So Chain x Three is sort of a “city symphony” where you can’t ID the city. I wasn’t looking for a deep connection with people or story. But I began to get hungry for that, and after years of city symphonies I wanted to take on something I didn’t know how to do. So one Chain project grew out of the other. They have some overlapping shots, but essentially they’re completely different, complementary works.


LOST BOOK FOUND (1996; Super 8 and 16 mm transferred to video, 37 minutes) A street-level tour of Manhattan, refracted through the eyes of a fictional pushcart vendor who encounters a Borgesian composition book containing an arcane inventory of ordinary “places, objects, incidents—all having something to do with the city.” Cohen’s film is a haunting, hypnotic equivalent of that book.

JC: Some of Lost Book Found is straight-up autobiographical. When I first came to New York I got a job as a pushcart vendor—I sold Italian ices—and that job proved instrumental for me in terms of seeing the city, because you’re bored out of your mind; you have nothing to do but watch the intricacies of what goes on. I was on the same corner almost every day for months, and you literally become intimate with every crack in the sidewalk——because you don’t want the wheels of your cart to get stuck. And then you become familiar with these characters; you witness a whole substratum of economics that you would otherwise never see. And most people don’t give a shit about you, you’re like a fire hydrant, and people are having conversations and doing things that you can’t believe right in front of you. I didn’t have a camera; I had to be the camera. But then later, as I was making the piece, I was obsessively carrying Super-8 cameras and shooting all the time.


BURIED IN LIGHT (1994; Super 8 transferred to video, 60 minutes) An impressionistic survey of Eastern and Central Europe in transition, Buried in Light was made as both a film and an installation, the latter commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The installation featured three monitors with synchronized images that echoed and played off each other; viewers could watch from old church pews, surrounded by vitrines of ephemera—maps, film stills, Karl Blossfeldt–like photographic plant studies. Subtitled “Notes and a Wanderer’s Phrasebook,” the movie version is punctuated with title cards displaying foreign phrases (“Der Ausverkauf: sellout/clearance sale,” “odjezd: departure”) that often carry elegaic double meanings.

JC: I hadn’t left the US for fifteen years. The Berlin Wall came down, and for a couple years I had this burning sense: “You should just get over there, because whatever the hell is going on is going to happen really fast.” Of course, corporate capitalism and globalization was what was going to happen. But the point was, I didn’t know those places. I didn’t even really have pictures in my head. I intentionally went over there blind. I had Super-8 cameras, and I just wandered around and got on trains and walked and walked and walked. I didn’t even know what the big tourist places were that I should be avoiding. So the pictures came first, the research later. To edit it, I sort of bluffed that I was really familiar with the Avid, and a big Atlanta editing joint let me work nights for months. I’d get up in the afternoon, read about Eastern Europe, and once the commercial people left, I’d cut all night.

MA: How did you decide to structure it with translated phrases?

JC: I had the crudest guidebooks and glossaries in my back pocket, so I could say I didn’t want meat with the potatoes. So the languages came in bits and pieces, and dealing with fragments—it’s either frustrating or useful, depending on how you roll with it. And then back home I bought this old analog shortwave radio, and I’d sit in the dark searching for scraps of Eastern Europe, and that experience of stumbling across these dispatches and not necessarily understanding them—that became the guiding framework. A soundscape, but it also led me toward a visual equivalent of shortwave.

MA: I was surprised by the use of archival footage in the Polish section. Images of ghetto street life, Jews and Nazis, a flaming window. As if suddenly a kind of collective past rises up and swallows your own experience.

JC: I went over as a nonpracticing Jew returning to where my people came from. And I had no desire to make a documentary about that. But I found you don’t have much choice about grappling with it. I’d walk around some cemetery looking for old porcelain photographs on the gravestones and then, holy shit, I’d find all these headstones busted in half, and when were these swastikas made? Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was left over from the war or done in the late ’80s. That’s the nature of history in old places—it just doesn’t go away. People think they can get rid of it, and that contradiction is integral to the experience of being there. As for Holocaust issues, you’re encountering something that’s inherently impossible and beyond comprehension, and yet you feel you just have to deal with it in some little way.

MA: I was intrigued by the way you emerge as a character. You’re more openly speaking to the viewer in this film, and you conclude with shots of your reflection in the train window.

JC: I guess I was saying, “This is the best I could do. I wandered around and this is what I got.”


LUCKY THREE (1997; 16 mm transferred to video, 11 minutes) A portrait of Elliott Smith, in a yellow button-down shirt, playing the guitar and occasionally goofing for the camera. He sings two of his own songs, plus “Thirteen” by Big Star. As a record of a particular moment in the life of a musician, the piece is immaculate—and piercing, in light of Smith’s early death.

JC: He wasn’t that well-known then, he was on a small independent label out of Portland. I got in touch and—it was one of the only easy films I’ve ever done. No interference from record labels, no crew, no concept, no grand intention. It was just “What’s it like when this guy makes music? Let’s capture that.” And then a little bit of “Hey, what places are important to you? Let’s just walk around and get a few shots of those places.” I called it Lucky Three because it was. I think he was at his peak. He hadn’t fallen down that dark rabbit hole of celebrity and drugs and all that. The sad, horrible thing was I used to show that piece and say, “This is what we ought to be doing with musicians that we care about, because the bullshit lip-sync music videos aren’t gonna tell us much, particularly when they’re gone.”


DRINK DEEP (1991; Super 8 transferred to video, 10 minutes) NIGHTSWIMMING (1993; Super 8 and 16 mm transferred to video, 8 minutes 30 seconds) Nightswimming is a long-form music video, shaped around the REM song of the same name but with several minutes of musicless framing footage. Drink Deep similarly documents bodies in water. Two rare, persuasive glimpses of utopia. (Or not, if you listen to the filmmaker.)

MA: In Chain, setting your characters adrift in an inescapable vacuum, you’ve followed a path into a pretty dark place, where community, shared physicality, joy, just don’t seem possible. Even conversation is impossible. It’s bracing to see the opposite in Nightswimming and Drink Deep.

JC: But Drink Deep is one of the saddest things I’ve ever done! That’s one that’s got death in it, for me anyhow. It’s the flip side of all those young, naked people. I had somebody kind of riffing in voice-over about topics I suggested and actual situations. I knew exactly what they were talking about, and I sunk it just under the surface and let it bubble up on occasion.

MA: It seems wistful, but the main feeling is of joy. You know, in the tradition of Thomas Eakins at the swimming hole. Portraits of authentic joy are fairly rare, in anybody’s work.

JC: Well, I didn’t grow up skinny-dipping at the old swimming hole, so it was something of a revelation. It was shot in rural Georgia and Pennsylvania, and it was kind of ecstatic, but then there’s this underbelly. Black Hole Radio [1992], from around the same time, was much darker, literally and figuratively, and that piece also has to do with this intersection of narrative and the real world. There was this confession line that used to advertise in the New York subway. To listen in you had to pay, but to confess was free. It was mind-blowing. People used it as a confessional, they couldn’t help themselves. I shot some people, mostly from TV screens, and then used Super 8 of lightning storms where you’re just staring into the dark above the city, waiting for the flash. It was first meant for an installation I did at the Worldwide Video Festival in The Hague, made for one person at a time. You’d enter a tiny dark room and just barely see a telephone on a desk; when you shut the door the phone rang. If you didn’t pick it up, nothing happened—you just sat in the dark and listened to the phone ring over and over. But if you picked up, it triggered these images, and the audio came through the phone. I wanted it to be borderline, where you couldn’t quite tell for a while if you were seeing faces or not. One of those original confessions pops up as dialogue in Chain. “Mom, I’m sorry I stole your credit card, but I wanted things and you wouldn’t buy them for me . . . ”

MA: You told me you’ve been taken to task for being “shamelessly romantic.” Do you feel that conditioned the way Chain turned out, or do you think you’re still hopelessly, shamelessly romantic?

JC: When I first came to New York, I’d already turned away from the Hollywood direction of wanting to make “big” or “normal” movies, and I was excited about this vital filmmaking community I thought I’d be part of. So there was a bit of a rude awakening when I didn’t really find a “scene” in any concrete sense. I just bumped into people at screenings and rental places, and after submitting grant applications and work to various venues, I got a vibe back. There were images that people said were “too beautiful” or “too accessible.” The films weren’t sufficiently theory driven. But my work comes more out of experience and memory—and, of course, just walking around and looking. Eventually it does have a great deal to do with people like Walter Benjamin. But Benjamin doesn’t speak in academic lingo. He’s very down-to-earth, coming out of the real world in a poetic way, which is so different from coming at things through somebody else’s lectures. Chain, on the other hand, I wanted to have a certain, I don’t know, coldness. Again, that idea of clarity comes to mind. An artist I greatly respect, Anne Truitt, said Chain was “unflinching,” and oddly enough, that’s the best I could hope for in my work.

Michael Almereyda’s most recent film is William Eggleston in the Real World (2004).