Since the early ’80s, New York filmmaker and media artist Jem Cohen has amassed an impressive, independently produced body of work traversing a broad thematic and geographical terrain. His films tend to skirt the margins of traditional approaches to narrative, documentary and experimental filmmaking; consequently emerging from a uniquely conceived space of interwoven fragments of documented reality, lyrical narrative and fleeting visual impressions. His works are something like the ‘essay film’, a label by which his films are often categorised, but they are also something much more. Cohen’s films are portraits of places, or people, or times past that each constitute a specific way of seeing that does not pretend to be impartial or objective. Many of his films are purely subjective because they posit a unique way of looking at the world approached through his own camera-eye. In this sense, his films have the tone of memory, of words and images recalled, or of the act of sifting through personal archives.
Working primarily in 16mm and 8mm, Cohen has moved between a predominantly solitary working practice, shooting and editing many of his own projects, and collaborative projects developed and realised with other artists, filmmakers and musicians. In particular, his continued commitment to a solitary work practise arises from a fierce independence that also draws on a documentary tradition akin to the American street photography of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. For Cohen, this approach has involved shooting material constantly, day to day, in his native New York, in countries through which he is travelling, or wherever his wandering camera takes him. The material is often conceived with a project in mind but more frequently it is a steady addition to the film archive out of which much of his work has emerged. Films such as Benjamin Smoke (1999), the elegant portrait of a drug-addled underground musician from the American South which Cohen co-directed with filmmaker Pete Sillen, and Instrument (1999), for example, are works built around a decade of shooting with and around different musicians. The stunning Just Hold Still (1989) and Drink Deep (1991) are lyrical, loose narrative pieces formed from the visual and written fragments of memories, friendships, times and places; intimate works that dwell on small mysteries and are equal parts document and fiction.
A large part of Cohen’s work, and several of the films for which he is best known, could be loosely described as city portraits; impressions of the spaces and places that he has passed through and, in particular, his native New York. Cohen’s acclaimed film Lost Book Found (1996), which is one of his few works to have been screened in Australia, (1) was shot over a number of years on the streets of pre-Giuliani New York. Inspired by a period of time when Cohen worked as a push-cart vendor on the streets of New York, it meditates on a changing cityscape dictated by the demands of the dollar. The semi-fictional narrative reflects Cohen’s sentiment that after working on the street for some time he became invisible to passing people and, the film’s narration continues, ‘as I became invisible, I began to see things that had once been invisible to me’. This notion articulates an undercurrent of much of Cohen’s work: a desire to investigate these things that are invisible to us, to find the resonances in the ‘real world’ that we so often overlook. This idea is at the heart of other works such as Amber City (1999), the portrait of a well known Italian city that is unrecognisable because Cohen steers away from the only landmarks that we know and seeks beauty elsewhere. Similarly, the three-channel installation Buried in Light (1994) is a collage of images of the everyday from a rapidly disintegrating cultural landscape in Central and Eastern Europe.
Cohen’s choice to make films about the fringes, back streets and detritus of spaces, and about people who live and work on the margins of society, is both a political and personal choice. The expressions of this choice are best expressed in the remarkable Instrument. This film, shot on super-8, 16mm and video, is a passionate document assembled in collaboration with Fugazi, an extraordinary band who, like Cohen, have toiled away on the margins of art and industry without attempting to capture the attention of the world at large. They have chosen to disengage themselves from the machinations of commerce which affect the music and film worlds alike, and both have continued to work on exceptional projects that have provoked deep and widespread admiration.
Interestingly, through his varied projects, Cohen has become equally known in the art world, the film festival circuit and in musical avenues. While he has produced two installation pieces to date and has had work screened at many film and video festivals worldwide, he has also made five music videos and a number of concert films for REM, and collaborated with musicians such as Elliott Smith, Blonde Redhead and Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). Though this work differs, often markedly, there is a visual and creative consistency in the measured and meditative approach Cohen takes to his artistic practise. The common element running through Cohen’s work is an interest with how we live and move through life and an exploration of the beauty, mystery and complexity of the everyday.
Jem Cohen’s recent visit to Australia coincided with the screening of Benjamin Smoke and Amber City at the Melbourne International Film Festival. During his stay, I had the opportunity to speak with him at length.
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RHYS GRAHAM: Jem, you’re here for the Melbourne Film Festival which is screening two of your works: Amber City and Benjamin Smoke, two films which are quite different. On the one hand, one is a film about a physical, communal space and the other is about an emotional space in that it focuses on an individual. I want to ask you about your approach to your films that are spatial and your films that are more emotional or individual.
JEM COHEN: Well, those are two very different films, and one is a commissioned request by a small arts group to do a portrait of their city and so there was a certain abstract assignment, while the other is a portrait of a person, and a friend. But I don’t really think that I approach projects differently in terms of emotional or non-emotional content. Architecture and the environment are, in a sense, very directly related to human lives and human emotions – even if the humans are not portrayed. What does that weather or light or landscape make you feel? How is the scale of that building likely to affect the people who walk beneath it? And Benjamin Smoke does also include a portrait of Benjamin’s neighbourhood; the odd neighbourhood of Atlanta called Cabbage Town. Certainly because he is such a character and because there are so many intense personal issues that come up, that film is a more emotional, personal one – just because it’s about a single human, rather than a place, it has that quality. But I don’t make any big distinctions in my mind between ‘now you’re making this kind of film’ and ‘now you’re making that kind of film’.
RG: One thing that we have mentioned is the idea that your films are sometimes non-specifically labeled as ‘essay’ films. And I think that one of the reasons is that at the same time as they are a document or a ‘documentary’ they are also ‘narratives’ and often curated in ‘experimental’ programs. Are you able to locate your work within cinema generally?
JC: No, it’s not my responsibility and I don’t really concern myself with locating it. Luckily, there are a few other things that I bump into that are in a similar terrain and the terrain is a kind of non-terrain because it’s a between-genres-terrain. But there are people that I have seen over the years, Ross McElwee or James Benning or Chris Marker, who seem to also traffic in a kind of personal ‘essay’ slash ‘documentary’ mode that may also have elements of narrative in it. When you work the way that I do, where I’m working with what’s at my disposal, and it’s usually just me, and there is usually no crew, then this is the kind of work that just makes sense. This is the kind of work that just happens when you are trying to continue to make films that have to do with one person navigating this planet, and you are not starting from within the ‘film industry’, or commenting on the history of cinema, or being governed by what movies mean to other people. By the same token, I don’t think that the films are about me. They have to do with the way that I see things but they tend not to be explicitly about my ‘self’
RG: Clearly, that way of working or that ethic is important to you. How difficult has it been to continue making films within that ethic?
JC: Well, one doesn’t like to complain but an honest answer is that it’s a pain in the ass most of the time. I mean basically, there is nothing particularly easy about making films, period. And when you are doing it more or less on your own and often self-funded it’s a bit of an ordeal. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to finish a number of projects and get them out to some degree. But I think it’s one of those things where you just forget what a hassle it was the last time and then you soldier forth like an idiot and start the next one. Sometimes the shooting part comes easily, and sometimes the editing. But it’s the logistics – it’s the money and tech problems and so on that really bog things down. That said, this is what I love to do and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. There are strange and secret satisfactions, and going the strictly traditional route would probably dilute them. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t do bigger movies, just not the way they’re usually made.
RG: It’s interesting that the idea of ‘independent’ filmmaking has become a genre in itself.
JC: Well, it’s one of those terms that has been made meaningless like ‘alternative’ music. It’s a nauseatingly meaningless term now that people talk about The English Patient (1996) as an independent film. That is a really bad joke to me. But there is ‘independent’ film. Just not in the way that it is usually referred to. And there always has been and there always will be. Filmmaking is many different things and there is no reason why it should be so identified with ‘big’ movies or narrative movies. And ‘independence’, to some degree, is really just a state of mind. People like John Cassavetes made the most fiercely independent movies of all time and not just because he was working outside of the Hollywood system in many respects but, really, because of what he was after.
RG: And how important is it to you as a filmmaker who has now been making films for fifteen or twenty years to encourage and maintain that ethic in the broader community or the broader artistic community?
JC: It’s really important. I think that as things become more corporatised and as the public idea of independent cinema becomes more perverted to include things like The English Patient, then it becomes important to prove to people and to young filmmakers that there is something that is genuinely independent. I bring up The English Patient because on some sort of logistical level it may have been an independent film in terms of its financing not coming directly from a major studio, but the movie is like five Hollywood movies crammed into one. It’s not that terrible a film, but it’s excessive. Excessive acting, excessive sound design, and so on. So, there is nothing all that independent in the sensibility that is going into it, as far as I can tell. I just feel like it is important to let people know that there is not only an alternative but an alternative tradition; whether it’s somebody like Cassavetes making Faces (1968) or Robert Gardner’s ethnographic film Forest or Bliss (1985) or Sadie Benning’s videos, or live shows by bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, that perform with projected images.
RG: I want to ask you about your musical collaborations and the idea of working with film as a composition, or a working together of different energies.
JC: Filmmaking involves making music with images and time. I don’t play any instruments and may indeed be a frustrated musician, and this is where Iget to do it. On a literal level, I also get to make music for the soundtracks by cutting and pasting sounds and music together, making loops, overdubbing and sampling with the edit machines . . . I also love to involve musicians in making soundtracks; it gives them new avenues and freedoms. On a broader level, I often describe how punk rock gave me a model for operating independently outside of an industry that I couldn’t connect with. Anyhow, there are two facets of my involvement with music in film – the portraits of bands or musicians, and the soundtrack contributions and collaborations. Most of my work has not been all that collaborative but some of the music work is by its very nature. This is because I’m trying to get to some sort of essence of what musicians are doing and therefore it becomes not so much about what I’m doing or about how I see the world and more about these other artists. How their work proceeds and functions and how I can dovetail what I do with what they do. So, the music portrait work is really where I have done most of my direct collaborating and that can be tricky. I’m not really used to doing it but it has its rewards and I’m certainly glad for doing it. But I get very used to working entirely on my own. Shooting, cutting, building the soundtrack, producing. The one great benefit that comes out of that is that you can function entirely by your own instinct and you don’t have to answer to people. Whereas something like Instrument was a really complicated tug-o-war over many years. In the long run I’m really happy about it but there’s no point pretending that it was smooth sailing. It wasn’t. If it had been, it wouldn’t have the thorniness and sense of collision that makes it interesting.
RG: Just as some of your other films are an archive of images of a place, Instrument was an archive developed over time spent with and around Fugazi.
JC: Eventually about halfway through that ten year period they came on board to fund the project and so at that point they were not just funding me to make my film. The fact that they were funding made it something that they were sharing in and much of the editing was done with band members a foot and a half away from me and we really hashed it out together. It was an interesting process. The great thing is that I was allowed to include things that the band didn’t want in, and they are responsible for a lot of things done in ways I might not have done them on my own. As an example of a spot where things really came together: at the end of the film, some of the most important band commentary plays over somewhat random shots of people who have come to a free concert, and it crystallizes the band’s feelings about community, about an expansion beyond any obsession with four individuals. Guy Picciotto had a great deal to do with that critical edit, and as soon as I tried it, I knew in my heart that it was right. I should add that the archive also included lots of things shot by other people, so it was also about sifting through a collective history.
RG: In your short films, particularly your collection Just Hold Still (1989), what you seem to be working with is a kind of emotional narrative, small fragmentary pieces that are often very telling. I want to ask you about writing for that form, or whether the making is the act of writing.
JC: It is more the latter. The making of it is the act of writing. Usually, since I’m in a constant process of gathering fragments of film and not necessarily knowing what I will do with them. Some of the fragments are best suited to some sort of short form and I guess that the logical correlative would be haiku or something like that. It just naturally follows that some of the works would be distillations; that there is no reason for them to be long. But sometimes I’m writing in advance or planning in advance and then going out and shooting, but other times I’m just going through my material and projects announce themselves and then they’re made more from collaging the existing files rather than any normal script.
RG: So are you continually revising the material that you have shot for sparks for new projects, or are you at a point now where you are looking for new material to develop?
JC: Well I’m at a point now where I can no longer encompass what I actually have because there’s too much of it. It’s a library with no Dewey decimal cataloguing system. (Do they use that system here? Do they use it anywhere anymore?) After a while, it becomes a forest, not a library. But also, my shooting style has changed a lot. The bulk of my archive, in terms of the actual amount of footage shot, is probably super-8, and a lot of the earlier projects were entirely super 8. But in the last four years or so, I’m predominantly shooting 16mm and I would also like to finish some more things on film. So, my archive is not always useful to me. I feel that if I had the time and the equipment I could do a lot of short works built from my archives but there is always something new that I want to get onto. And now there are certain things about 16mm that are going to be more useful for the projects immediately at hand.
RG: What are those things?
JC: Well, I think that super 8 is a particularly visceral format. It often has a painterly immediacy that is very emotional and visceral. It is really a kind of ‘feelings’ format whereas 16mm and 35mm have more of an ability to delineate facts and give you somewhat more information about what things look like rather than what they feel like. 16mm is a harder format for me. I think that I can shoot things in super 8 which I know will look beautiful and which I know will have an immediately magical quality. Whereas with 16mm it is much more difficult to do something that combines the naturalistic quality of giving you information about the real world with something special. But I like that challenge. It’s interesting. And maybe I’m less interested in “beauty” now.
RG: Simon Schama describes a notion in which in telling or writing about a place, you use the ‘archive of the feet’; to walk around the place and gauge it from the feet up. That seems clearly to be something that informs your work and you are often included in a general idea of peripatetic cameramen. Is that something that will always inform your work, this ‘archive of the feet’?
JC: Yeah, and the ‘archive of the car’ because I have a thirty-two year old Chevy that I have done a lot of my shooting from and with. But, yeah, I like that. I think that as humans we walk around. That’s a natural thing. Whereas, much of what cinema is built on is types of movement and types of seeing that we don’t actually do. And, so to me, again, it makes more sense to proceed from what my daily life is like rather than trying to think of types of movement and ways of seeing that are not particularly natural. When I was a younger filmmaker I was really thrilled and fascinated by thinking about dolly moves and what I would do if only I had a crane. Those things are still useful and sometimes they are quite extraordinary but increasingly I am just not drawn to them. I don’t really care anymore what I could do if only I could hire a big crane. It would probably be interesting but I have gotten entirely taken up with just trying to put on film things that are like experiences that are accessible to me and most other humans. And walking also relates to that whole Walter Benjamin flaneur thing which always made a lot of sense to me.
RG: How does Susan Buck-Morss and Benjamin’s work tend to influence or inform the work that you are doing?
JC: Well, I came to Walter Benjamin when I had already embarked on Lost Book Found (1996) and so it wasn’t so much that I was inspired by Benjamin to work a certain way. It was just that it was so wonderful to be working in a certain way and to run into a body of writing that discussed similar concerns and similar approaches. The collage, the standing around on street corners, the notion of losing one’s self in cities, and what he describes as the ‘shock of the crowd’. All that made sense to me. And looking closely at the remnants of commerce, and at places like shopping malls. His work is so damn prescient. And there was something that I had read of Walter Benjamin’s that didn’t end up really being what Lost Book Found was about, but it did provide a really important early spark. And that was just a weird little comment in ‘One Way Street’ that someone should do a close-up study of bank notes. That through the frolicking of the little figures and the traditional iconography of the banknote you would see the portals of hell. As with a lot of Walter Benjamin, I am not exactly sure what he meant but, certainly, I got a big kick out of it. It had certain reverberations that just clicked. And Susan Buck-Morse’s book, The Dialectics of Seeing, does an incredible job of bringing Benjamin’s arcades project to light. So when I started doing Lost Book Found originally, I was doing a lot of close-ups – taking everyday bits of debris, leaflets and coins and advertisements, and looking at them in close-up. He also talked about the revolutionary potential of the close-up in a way that I think is really brilliant.
RG: What’s interesting is that your films do tend to look at the everyday but audiences tend to approach it as a new way of seeing, as something remarkable.
JC: Well, that’s a funny reversal that we’ve all gotten into. I think that for so many people cinema is bound up in the idea of fantasy or escape. I’m not a Marxist but on a certain level, a Marxist reading of that might make perfect sense. That you have people who are stuck in miserable situations and they want to be distracted and certain powers that be want to have them be distracted. In a way the cinema is a great way of telling people not to look too closely at their actual circumstances but to dream far away about other circumstances that they will never actually encounter. And it keeps people occupied and, in a certain way, it keeps them happy for the time being. That seems like a logical way for cinema to have developed, as an escape mechanism that really functions so well because people have something that they want to escape from. Whereas a perfectly good alternate view would have it that the world that exists is interesting, the world is inherently wondrous and surprising and always special and that, therefore, it would make sense for cinema to pursue that, rather than distract from it. A lot of people have a nostalgic sense of when they saw some big movie . Oddly enough, in my generation and the generations that came later, over and over again you run into people that talk about Star Wars (1977) with this glaze of childhood delight. To me, even when I went to Star Wars I felt like ‘I don’t know but that’s pretty disappointing’. It just didn’t really do it for me. Well, that’s not entirely true – I’m sure I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stick with me in any deep way. But with Jaws, E.T. and so on, it started to get to me . . . That sense that sentimentality or fear were just what we needed to take us away from things . . . That wonder was something to be fabricated on some massive level and then sold back to us . . . Whereas something like Blood of the Beasts (1949) (2) completely blew my mind when I saw it because it showed that here’s part of the world that the camera can bring to you that already exists and is entirely real and yet completely insane. Go into an abattoir where people are doing this everyday and just look at what they do. It’s hallucinatory, it’s surreal, it’s amazing, it delivers you life and death in those concrete and searing aspects. That’s a pretty great thing.
RG: As well as looking at the world as a place of wonder and interest, can cinema function for you as a political tool, in the loosest sense of the word, as there seems to be an implicit sense of the political in your film, without it ever being overt?
JC: Every once in a while it slips into the overt but generally I don’t like to be too terribly overt. When I look back at the work I find it to be very political on a certain level, but a lot of viewers wouldn’t see it that way. Again, in line with what I was just saying, to me any clear-eyed representation of life on the planet is inherently political because so much representation is not clear-eyed: it’s mystifying and it is romanticised and it’s sentimental. So work that is not in any way blatantly political but has that direct approach where you really feel like you are getting a straight-up sense of what things are actually like, that is all political work. Sometimes, when I have done something like go to Central and Eastern Europe soon after the fall of the Berlin wall (3), where I was setting out on a personal level to get some idea of what capitalism is and what, quote unquote, communism was, then there is a direct political aspect to the work. Lost Book Found was for me an attempt to try to take this heady, vague word of capitalism and look at it in terms of daily life, and try to remove it from the academic context and analyse it in terms of street life and my own life. So there is often a political component. Instrument is a political work because Fugazi is a political force. Not more than they are a musical force, but as part and parcel of being the kinds of musicians that they are, so Instrument is an inherently political work. I’m all for that. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (La Promesse  and Rosetta ) make the most powerful, clear-eyed, complicated work that is also political in the best sense of the word. I also just saw that short by Eric Zoncka, The Little Thief (1998), and it made me feel wrenchingly reacquainted with violence, the reality of violence, whereas most violent Hollywood movies leave me feeling utterly removed from violence. Kiarostami isn’t necessarily a political filmmaker, but his approach to cinema represents a radical return towards both daily life and to open-ended narrative, and in this climate those are political moves in themselves. At this point, I have to add that I also like work that isn’t “realistic”, but that throws a wrench into the works, jolting you to see the world in a totally different way – works by Buñuel, or Tarkovsky or the Brothers Quay, for example. Bresson is one of my top five filmmakers and I don’t even know where he fits in. I just know that he blows my mind.
RG: And, although you work alone, you seem to work in a community of people who tend to create work practices that are influenced by their politics as well.
JC: Not all of them. There are filmmakers whose work I like a lot, like Peter Hutton or Jim Herbert, whose work is generally very apolitical and I consider them part of my broader community. But then there are people like James Benning whose work is very political, Todd Haynes and a few others. Sadie Benning’s work is very political on a ‘personal is political’ level. I think that activism is important and a lot of the people whose work I most admire are activists or were activists. Whether it’s Vertov or D. Boon of the Minutemen (4), I like to see people out there trying to stir things up and change things. Kick a little Ass. I don’t really feel like I do enough as an activist on a political level because most of my life energy goes into my work and so I hope that I can make that up a little bit by doing work that serves some political function.
RG: Another element that I detect in your work is this constant thread of remembrance that seems to run through your films. Sometimes, that may be the paying of remembrance to an artist, to Cassavetes, or Jean Vigo. Or, the films are simply about remembrance in works such as Light Years (1989) which is about the memory of a person, or again, the memory of a place. How much does memory and remembering influence how you continue to make films?
JC: What else is there, really? Cinema and moviemaking have this incredible capacity to work like memory or to work like dreams. That is really it’s magical function, to be able to replicate those two basic human activities. So, aside from looking clearly at the real world, the other thing that it can do is feel like memory or feel like dream. That is to me an integral part of movies and it is a big part of my work.
RG: Do you have any sense of how your work is evolving over time or how it will continue to evolve?
JC: To some degree, I look at my very first film, which was called A Road in Florida which I made in 1983, and I look at my work now and it’s kind of appalling how similar they are. Basically it was all laid out in the first film. On the other hand, I generally tend to work in some direction that makes me a little uncomfortable, where I don’t really feel like I can pull it off. And when I get comfortable in a certain mode I like to try to shake out of it and get into something else. I think the work will always have to do with that grey area between genres and trying to make something that crosses those boundaries between documentary, experimental and narrative. I think the work will always do that. And I think the work will always have some sort of basis in the real world, whatever that is. I know that ‘real’ is one of those terms that we can get into trouble for using. But I think there will always be that documentary aspect. I think that for the next few years I will be trying to make some sort of collision between documentary aspects and narrative: interweaving undirected street footage with recreated and scripted elements. So that is the challenge that I am faced with now.
RG: Can you see yourself moving away from film, from celluloid?
JC: I’ll shoot on anything. I’ll shoot on video on occasion but, really, I like film the most. I’m doing a DV short right now, but I have an inherent fondness for the flicker and the grain that I will have a hard time letting go of. But if I don’t have a movie camera, I’ll shoot with a video camera and if I didn’t have a video camera and I had a Fisher Price toy camera then I would shoot with that. (Actually, I’d probably shoot with that before the video camera.) In a way I don’t think that it is the most important thing. There is a confusion. People talk about film versus video and they talk about how film has more information but how HDTV will be able to equal that information or eventually video or digital or something will be able to give you more information. It’s never about that. We get all the information with our eyes. We don’t really need more. The thing that is so wonderful about film is the imperfections and the way that information is fouled up and diffused and the way that light wraps around the edge of the building in some inaccurate way and that has some emotional resonance. That’s why film is magical. Video will have some magic of it’s own and occasionally it does but it’s rarer for the stuff itself to have that kind of emotional resonance. It’s a little dead and that’s one of the reasons why it’s less interesting to me. But, you have to work with what’s out there. Eventually, they’ll take the movie cameras out of our hands and stop making the stuff with sprocket holes. But, Super 8 really has that magic. It’s just a direct channel to that magic aspect of cinema and people don’t realise that. They don’t realise the trade off. It seems so archaic and ridiculous that you would want to shoot with a cartridge that is less than 3 minutes long and probably silent and likely to not give you an entirely accurate image of what you see. And that’s the thing. The short length, in many ways, is really great, because it forces people to be careful about what they are shooting, and to have some sense of discipline or planning or just care when they put their finger on the trigger. And all of that is just going by the way side because with video you just roll and roll and roll and roll and there is no expense so people aren’t so careful about it. Also, with super 8 it does seem to have, at least for my generation and the generations before, this uncanny ability to feel like memory. But that’s one of those things where I feel like I’m of the last generation that believes that memories look like home movies, that they look like super 8 projected. Whereas, the big question for young people who don’t have that in their background is whether memory is going to look like video to them? I’m dubious. I think that it will by default, but it doesn’t to me have the same kind of weird connection to the sub-conscious that film and, particularly, super 8 seems to have. And I think that that is a pretty major loss. But it’s got a few more years left. I’ll certainly shoot it until it’s really gone and then a few years after that because I’ll have a stockpile of some kind – going bad in the refrigerator.
- History of New York (1987) and Witness (Butthole Surfers) (1986) have also been screened in Australia, at the Melbourne International Film Festival, some years back.
- Also known as Le Sang des Bêtes – Georges Franju.
- In Buried in Light – Central and Eastern Europe in Passing (1994)
- Celebrated and influential hardcore band from San Pedro, USA who disbanded in 1986 after lead singer and guitarist D. Boon’s death.