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Interview with Jem Cohen

Jem Cohen may be one of the quintessential New York filmmakers of our era. Peerless in his knack for chronicling urban transformation (decay or otherwise), I was first exposed to Cohen’s work via his 2004 feature Chain – itself a narrative/documentary hybrid and product of Cohen’s contemplative 16mm shooting style, tracing and marking the aesthetic anonymities of America’s ever-proliferating malls and office buildings. It’s a tired trope that a good movie makes its setting as much a character as any flesh and blood actor, but Cohen’s body of work thrives on legitimate ongoing visual, scenographic testimony – a repeat encounter. His DSLR-shot Occupy Newsreels, made in the heady fall of 2011, consider the role Manhattan’s LCD signage and steel-and-glass architecture played (and continues to play) in capital’s dominion of power; the jarring incongruity between the planned and the spontaneous. In Cohen’s poetic-documentarian work, text is subtext.

 

Fresh off the acclaimed 2013 film Museum Hours, starring Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Cohen and I met to discuss the film, as well as his recent collaboration with Patti Smith, The Passage Clock: For Walter Benjamin (2007). Several contemplative threads constitute Museum Hours – the question of how a piece of work should be presented, how a viewer should be able to consider it on their own terms, and indeed whether a city can be held to the same criteria. He’s a maker, a commentator and a survivor, and the likes of Chris Marker or Dziga Vertov are certainly part of his aesthetic genealogy. Nothing is easy about challenging the day’s dominant vernaculars, and Cohen wouldn’t be Cohen if he were disingenuous about his experiments, both dialectical in how they consider time and place, and improvisatory in their avoidance of cheap, unsupportive images. 

 

 

Q

The White Review

— You once described the culture of music videos as ‘a polluted river’.

A

Jem Cohen

— Well, I used that analogy when introducing work at a recent London screening, a benefit for the Horse Hospital. I was showing a new film that incorporates a song by the Evens, and because I’ve had a lot of problems with music video I wanted to open up why, in spite of reservations, I was putting my images together with a song. So I came up with that line. The truth is, I have a history of collaborative projects with musicians and a few of those were made under the rubric of music video gigs, but I never considered myself a ‘music video director’ and I always found that to be a troubling designation because, generally, I deeply dislike music videos. I was loath that night, and I’m hesitant now to spend a lot of time repeating a spiel which I think can get obvious or redundant about why I don’t like what happened to the conjunction of music and film, largely because of the music video ‘industry’.

 

So, as a form of shorthand, I just said: ‘Music video is a very polluted river, but they don’t own the river, they just own the pollution.’ By that I meant that the distortions imposed by a commercial industry needn’t dictate how filmmakers conjoin sound with image. There are lots of other routes to take. For example, I just did a project with Jim White {from Dirty Three and Cat Power, among others} and George Xylouris, a live document of them playing, actually making music. It has some other material cut in, but it’s primarily a truly simple record of musicians actually doing what they do, whereas music videos have almost never been a record of musicians doing what they do. I’m not saying there weren’t creative or interesting music videos; I grant that there were a few, but why such a minority?

 

Last year I did We Have an Anchor (2013), the multi-projection piece about Cape Breton which has a big band; before that there was Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008), for many years I’ve made films for the Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows, and so on. The union of film and music doesn’t have to be advertising or cliche-ridden or insulting to musicians or women or whoever they’re usually insulting. Sometimes I want to use music in my films; though just as often I don’t want any – Museum Hours, for example, has no score in the body of the film. But that choice should be my free consideration, outside of the taint of the ‘music video’ label, in the MTV sense of the term. So, it’s one part of my history but I do feel the need to clarify. I avoid making commercial work in general. I don’t like the idea of making ads. Some could argue that music videos done for hire are commercial work and that, by default, one doesn’t have complete control over them, but I still think there’s a line that can be drawn. And anyhow, music videos are such a small part of what I’ve done.

Q

The White Review

— Music is, in a sense, present in Museum Hours. The narrator is a self-described former punk, stating at the beginning of the film, ‘I’ve had my share of loud, so now I have my share of quiet.’

A

Jem Cohen

— Punk was one of life’s great portals for me, from very liberating high school encounters with radical entities like the Cramps and Bad Brains to renegade history and economics lessons sung by the Mekons, the Minutemen, or the Ex. I don’t think punk can or should be pinned down as just a youth thing or a loud/fast thing. I see punk spirit in Thoreau’s refusals to conform and in photos by Helen Levitt. I like to think that the museum guard’s punk days may have served to open his mind more than to narrow it, and I believe that humans are humans regardless of the age they live in, or of their own age. Ways of seeing tend to come around. Heavy metal fans, for example, have a predisposition to understanding Hieronymus Bosch.

Q

The White Review

— Many of your Occupy Newsreels feature some of the live music from Zuccotti Park {the site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp}, or from the assemblages further uptown.

A

Jem Cohen

— Music is always a beautiful part of resistance movements; a great, necessary tradition.

Q

The White Review

— Is that something you wanted to chronicle for the purposes of reviewing two, three, four years down the line? ‘Newsreel’ has a certain connotation.

A

Jem Cohen

— The term was intended with a grain of salt. I made no pretense of objectivity or ‘news’ – though most actual newsreels and news aren’t at all objective either, of course. I also just wanted to participate, to be one of the numbers when heads were counted. But I do have a great urge to document, and that’s kind of my way of experiencing a lot of things. I started to go from the very first day but was initially disappointed and put-off. Then Occupy latched on and stuck and I got very curious and started going and shooting as much as I could. It was simultaneously thrilling and fascinating and frustrating. Eventually I had a conversation with the programmer at the IFC Center movie theatre, and he asked what filmmakers were doing.

 

I expressed that there were about a million cameras there, that some people were doing on-site, collaborative advocacy pieces while others were coming in from outside. I assumed there’d be a lot of long-form documentaries, although few seem to have seen the light of day. But when he asked, ‘What about newsreels?’ I said, ‘Well, if I make newsreels, will you show them?’ And he said ‘yeah.’ That was very exciting. I started turning them around right away, and having them projected in five theatres at the IFC, and they ran for the months that Zuccotti Park existed. So I had to quickly explore the idea of what newsreels had been and could be, and mine also became a way of tipping my hat to a tradition that was important to me, of other filmmakers who had done politically engaged work that was generally not propagandistic, work that had a lot to do with both observation and radical form, people who weren’t just making kind of predictable advocacy-tools that are often a bit formulaic. Because, let’s face it, formulas can be affective, at least in terms of grabbing viewers, but they don’t usually make for really good films.

 

One thing that happened that I thought was both interesting and disturbing was that some people, probably with good intentions, wanted to make very slick pieces in support of Occupy – to put up on YouTube and stuff, basically commercials for the movement. They looked like ads, which isn’t surprising since some were made by people who worked in advertising. They made me very uneasy. I understood that people were trying to speak the language they thought would have the maximum mass appeal, and they might have been right about that. But I think it’s a problem to speak commercial language when you’re trying to be part of a resistance that’s inherently against market dominance and the corporate mindset. To make something that looks like a Coke ad but happens to be for Occupy, is, well, it might get a lot of hits on so-called social media, but there’s still a problem there. I tried to stay outside of both that territory and the strictly advocacy-based approach, and since I was working solo, I was thankful that my work didn’t have to be vetted by anybody, including the non-commercial media collectives – God bless them, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they were down there doing very important, gutsy work – but that wasn’t the role that I chose. I did collaborate with Guy Picciotto on the music.

 

Commercialism does have a vernacular. It has particular forms. If you’re going make stuff because you are interested in and believe in what Occupy was at least trying to get at, or circling around, or, in their own varied ways, attending to, then isn’t it more appropriate to try to do it in the spirit of the thing? And that resistant spirit is something that can guide you towards a new, different vernacular. I shouldn’t say a ‘new’ one, actually, which neglects a whole tradition and seems too definitive. A radical approach can and maybe should be an uncertain one, because uncertainty relates to ambiguity, even to embracing a kind of ambivalence that can be part of a healthy movement. If you don’t recognise the ambivalence and the frustrations then you’re not being realistic and you’re going to be very, very disappointed when the movement crashes. Because it’s going to crash. And then it’s going to get back up. But you can’t help it get back up just by pretending, by glossing over the beautiful ambiguities that the world is really made of.

Q

The White Review

— But those contradictions are very hard for people to face, aren’t they?

A

Jem Cohen

— I don’t know; are they hard to face in my newsreels? I think they’re in there. They aren’t dominant, but they’re present. You see tired, frustrated people, people taking some avenues that are problematic. And you see beautiful, romantic innocence. And you also see difficult work and intelligent logistical solutions that lead to the complete transformation of a piece of New York geography that, before Occupy, no one could imagine being transformed in that way. A genuine reclamation of space; an embrace and investigation of what it means for space to become truly public. I tried to show a lot of different things, but you’re not told the meaning, you’re not told, ‘This is all great or all terrible.’ You’re not told, ‘Look at this and you’ll come away thinking this’. And when I used music, it doesn’t just tell you what to feel. 

 

The newsreels are humble; they’re not in any way meant to be conclusive, or didactic. But they are supportive, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. It’s a movement for which I had – and have – a great deal of empathy.

Q

The White Review

— Your 25 October Newsreel prominently features the images of Times Square – massive LCD screens, shifting commercials, brand names overlooking the protest. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the Square’s depiction? 

A

Jem Cohen

— Times Square today is a kind of sensory overload machine built overwhelmingly around advertising, branding, and tourism. It always was, to a degree, but that was leavened by freakier subterranean currents that made things much wilder, much less predictable. On 25 October, I was totally mesmerised to see Occupy erupt in the belly of that shiny beast, with the distinction between who was there to march and who was just there fantastically confused. It was simultaneously surreal, absurd, amazing, and, to give the situationists a tip of the hat, a beautiful sort of detournement of space. It mirrored and augmented what was going on downtown at Zuccotti Park, and any time that the centres of financial, commercial takeover can themselves be taken over, even a little bit, is a gift.

Q

The White Review

— It’s funny discussing this while there’s a Chris Marker retrospective up the street. You’ve paid homage to him before, correct? What about the Dziga Vertov Group?

A

Jem Cohen

— One of my newsreels was dedicated to Marker (aka Krasna Sandor) and one to Vertov – I was thinking about them as individuals rather than of the Vertov Group – Godard and Gorin and that crew, so, yes and no. Vertov – one of my favourite filmmakers – intended and was expected to make propaganda but he was such a creative, complex filmmaker that he migrated towards something else, and eventually he paid the price. He was too free-thinking to make socialist-realist propaganda in the way the Comintern or whoever wanted. His plan was to invent a new language for cinema, in extreme opposition to what he saw as a constrictive, commercialised set of forms that had been created by, you know, the power and entertainment structures of his day. He was trying to turn that on its head while serving the revolution, and he did a pretty great job of it for a while, but then it got him in trouble. And that in itself is very instructive, not to mention heartbreaking.

 

When I went down to Occupy with Vertov on my mind, I wasn’t just naively thinking, ‘wow, I wanna be a revolutionary filmmaker making films for the revolution’, I was thinking about the history of how revolutionary movements often fall prey to their own dogmas and constrictions. It doesn’t mean there aren’t great propagandistic films; Santiago Alvarez, for example, is a filmmaker I deeply love and dedicated another newsreel to: a hardcore propagandist, but also an incredibly creative, wonderful filmmaker.

Q

The White Review

— This idea of ‘subversion’ is in vogue, now and forever, but actually when you look at his films there’s no double meaning. It is what it appears to be – there’s no ‘trick’ or ‘hidden meaning.’ You included Alvarez in your A class at the International Center of Photography, ‘Documentary as a Poetic Force’.

A

Jem Cohen

— I tried to run the gamut, showing things that could be considered straightforward, like excerpts from Polgovsky’s Los Herederos (2008), to examples that are almost immeasurably self-reflexive and complex, like Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961); wildly different ends of the spectrum. You have a carefully stripped-down, observational work by Chantal Akerman in contrast with {Vertov’s} Man With A Movie Camera (1929), which is turning somersaults, discovering itself as it goes. They’re all political films. Overall, I’m interested in a tradition of what I call lyrical documentary, and in my course I use the word ‘lyrical’ in part because I’m interested in the way Walker Evans used the word ‘lyric’. Evans is pivotal in that he’s simultaneously able to completely respect the ‘thingness’ of what he’s looking at as a kind of cold fact, while on another level he’s an artist elevating those facts so they become something other than just pieces of the real world. They become something else: they become Walker Evans pictures.

 

He uses that word ‘lyric’ and it’s not quite the same as ‘poetic’. I love poetry, but I’m not talking about more labored attempts to be poetic. A lot of what I’m trying to indicate is just that there is a tradition, a thread. People have this strange tendency to think we are just now discovering hybrid genres, and they often neglect a history that goes, certainly back to Marker, Rouch, Varda, Watkins, but also to Vigo, Vertov, Ivens, back to the beginnings of cinema, really. It was always complicated.

Q

The White Review

— Obfuscation.

A

Jem Cohen

— Well, not obfuscation, but experimentation. More interesting filmmakers always wanted to make their own language and get away from the formulas that sometimes imprisoned the other arts. A lot of them were politically engaged, and wanted a cinematic language to embody that, and many wanted to include ambiguity in the work. None of that is new.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve talked and written about Chris Marker’s Sunless {Sans Soleil} (1983) quite a bit. To me that film makes more sense in the context of Far From Vietnam (1967) and Grin Without A Cat (1977) – you can chart his political evolution, in some way, across the contradictions in those films.

A

Jem Cohen

— To me Marker navigates his engagement with the world in wonderful, varied ways – sometimes collectively, sometimes deeply individualistically. Sunless, to me, is in many ways his home movies. It’s his personal gathering of fragments of travel, thought, and life, in a kind of ultimate document of how the mind works and how a filmmaker constructs. I don’t separate it from his other works, some of which are collective, more advocacy-based pieces, which had a different form and function because of that. But, there’s no way to really boil down or simplify what Marker did at any point, because his mind is just so wild. And the forms that he found to make things in are so varied and free.

 

Marker made things in response to the past and future, but he made them in a present, sometimes as an off-the-cuff response to current events. Sometimes films had to be done quickly and yet the degree to which they were always astonishingly thoughtful; it’s wondrous to me. Some of them he came to feel differently about over time, so he restricted viewing of certain films while he was alive, but I think it’s important – and okay – that we look at all of his work now.

Q

The White Review

— It seems like Lost Book Found (1996) was made out of moments of day-to-day observation in the city that you don’t register on a literary, conscious level – there’s, for instance, a repeated image of a guy pulling down a grate as he steps down into the basement of a storefront. There’s a lot of footage of Times Square which is, today, downright otherworldly.

A

Jem Cohen

— They’re actually businesses all over the city, not so much in Times Square, but anyhow, yes – it’s a stratum of New York that is largely gone.

Q

The White Review

— In terms of remembering, was the film intended as a self-conscious historical vista, or was it more personal inquiry than that? Did you know the city was going to change so drastically?

A

Jem Cohen

— It’s all of those things. Most documentaries are, by default, historically interesting. Hopefully. It comes with the territory; you filmed the world, the world changed, you have that document. With Lost Book Found, I was trying to come to terms with a city, trying to navigate it. And I was in love with the city. I gathered footage for years without knowing what for, or how I might use it, because that’s my job. When I started to think about the particular project and how it might evolve, different paths opened up, and one was simply to remember and address my time as a pushcart vendor. That experience had been a literally ground-level way of getting to know layers of the environment, many of which are often not evident to us, and on a broader level it was a very down-to-earth route towards thinking about capitalism. And, eventually, the film became a way to pay my respects to the prescience of Walter Benjamin and to the work of Ben Katchor.

 

It was always, on one hand, very personal, and on the other, intentionally at a remove from autobiography and facts. For example, I didn’t sell peanuts in Midtown; I sold Italian ices on Canal Street. I asked somebody else to read my narration, because I didn’t want my own voice there. Much is based in fact and some is a departure. So, it was a hybrid, and all of that came together organically. It came from walking and looking and trying to make sense of footage as I gathered it, day after day and year after year. It hung over my shoulder, a big grainy bag of memories, locations, and fragments of the city as I was living in it.

Q

The White Review

— The fragmentation makes it, in some way, the opposite of propagandistic.

A

Jem Cohen

— Well, that could be true, but politics are never that far away. We’re doing this interview and over your shoulder just outside the window, seven small Brooklyn buildings were just torn down to make way for a giant luxury condo tower. That geography is political. Luxury towers without low-income housing, priced in a way that is completely insulting to the reality of what people in this neighbourhood have historically been able to pay, those are political facts but they’re also the facts that will change the light, the skyline, and so on. These towers are making Brooklyn look like some utterly anonymous, generic neighbourhood you can find anywhere across the globe. Completely erasing the regional character.

 

So it’s never just about one thing. It’s weather, light, it’s the raccoon I saw on a city rooftop the other day, and it’s layers of history, fossils of how people lived and the businesses they ran… all these things equally present in a sometimes beautiful and sometimes deeply troubling thicket. I’m trying to navigate that, and I happen to have a camera or tape recorder in tow. I’m thrilled to be able to engage in that enterprise, and I’m also trying to maintain a sense of humour, which is going to be hard when the condo starts blocking out all the light here. But I’ll keep making films, and trying to do it without knowing in advance exactly what I’ll make, and without doing it by somebody else’s rules. So that’s ‘the Project’.

Q

The White Review

— Had you been collecting favourite sites or spots in Vienna prior to writing Museum Hours, or did its travelogue qualities arise in the opportunity for production? 

A

Jem Cohen

— I’d had opportunities to roam there off and on, in large part because of showing work at the Viennale, a very fine film festival. They commissioned Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin, which connected the decline of the Hapsburg Empire to the Bush administration via novels of Joseph Roth, who lived in Vienna. So I paid special attention to his turf. That said, much of what ended up in Museum Hours came out of random circumnavigation and getting out of the cold rather than any organised location scouting.

 

Museum Hours is part scripted, part improvised; sometimes one actor is following lines exactly, while the other is free to respond and to riff. I never gave out a complete script in its entirety and sometimes insisted that the characters react to each other in the moment, just as the camera might respond to the uncontrollable ways in which the world rolled on around us while we were working. On a good day, walking through a city or a museum offers up chance encounters in which the eyes and mind can alight on anything for any length of time. I wanted to see if a film could work the same way.

Q

The White Review

— So much of Museum Hours explores the experience of a city as a resident, versus that of a visitor. Can you speak a little bit about this dichotomy, and the film in relation to your Passage Clock collaboration?
A

Jem Cohen

— The guard is a longtime Vienna resident, but the movie asks if his time in the museum might have shifted the way he sees everything, from detritus on the street to his own face in the bathroom mirror. The film doesn’t always identify his direct P.O.V. because the point isn’t only what he actually sees, but a broader openness to the world that becomes accessible to him, to the foreigner, Anne, and hopefully, to viewers of the film. Anne isn’t a tourist, she’s a visitor, in limbo due to circumstances beyond her control. But this limbo encourages her to wander, and walking may be the best way to crack a city open. Visitors can become tourists at times, but tourism is usually a business proposition and in a city like Vienna, it can be a pretty stuffy, high-end affair. That isn’t Johann or Anne’s way, so they’re left to explore less familiar territory in less prescribed ways. Passage Clock was a very different, more abstract kind of film, pairing footage of the night streets and arcades of Paris with Patti Smith reading many, many definitions of the word ‘passage.’ It was made in homage to Walter Benjamin and Chris Marker. I guess both films connect in regards to wandering in cities, which forms the backbone of my work.
 

Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels can be viewed in their entirety here.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jem Cohen has made over sixty films including the feature length projects Museum Hours (2012), Instrument (1998), Chain (2004) and Benjamin Smoke (2000) (with Peter Sillen). His short films include Little Flags (2000), Night Scene New York (2009) and Long for the City (2008). He also makes still photographs, installations, and shows with projected images and live soundtracks, the latest of which is Gravity Hill Sound + Image, with Guy Picciotto, Jim White and George Xylouris.



Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including SlantThe L, and The Brooklyn Rail. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.