By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Most filmgoers may not know the name Jem Cohen, but many of them have probably seen his work without knowing it.
For more than 20 years, the New York-based filmmaker has been an observant vagabond, turning his camera on the American and global landscape to create poetic reflections on the most alienated aspects of the contemporary human experience. His most highly regarded work has been shown in world-class museums; in fact, one of those installations, "Lost Book Found," featured a sequence starring an errant plastic bag that would be quoted a few years later in the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty." Cohen has directed videos for R.E.M. ("Nightswimming," "E-Bow the Letter") and documentaries about Fugazi ("Instrument") and the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Benjamin ("Benjamin Smoke"). He has even made a film that was shown on the Weather Channel, accompanying a violin piece played by Gil Shaham.
And a select few will forever worship Cohen for calling out Quentin Tarantino -- but more about that later.
In Cohen's newest film, "Chain," which will be shown tonight at the Hirshhorn Museum, the worlds he has traveled in for the past two decades seem finally to have meshed and merged, in a film that blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, personal essay and political polemic, formal rigor and punk rock spontaneity. "Chain" is aptly titled: It's about the franchise stores, restaurants and hotels that increasingly define not just American life but life around the world. But it's also about the ineffable, even mystical connections and transferences that occur within that denatured landscape, and the way fortunes tick upward or downward, like dominoes, with the slightest blip in the globalized economy.
The film stars the Japanese actress Miho Nikaido ("Tokyo Decadence," "Flirt") as a Japanese executive and Mira Billotte, of the District-based band Quix*o*tic, as an itinerant worker and squatter. Despite their different stations in life, they're both adrift in a generic, nameless landscape. As in his previous films, Cohen invokes the critic and dedicated wanderer Walter Benjamin in "Chain," but he also acknowledges Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed."
"I had for years been doing city portraits here and there and they were often, in a sense, preservationist, [in that] there'd be some neighborhood or some particular regional character I was trying to capture," Cohen said recently from Amsterdam. He had just curated a film-music-politics festival in Belgium featuring Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, who with Ian MacKaye executive-produced "Chain." "And as I traveled, I'd run into places where I couldn't tell where I was anymore. I was just always faced with this corporate topography in these spaces in malls and hotels, and I finally made the decision to deal with [that phenomenon] directly rather than framing it out, which is what I'd always done."
The result is a haunting portrait of two women who embody the alienation, abandonment and grudging optimism of the 21st-century economy. Amanda (Billotte) drifts from one low-paying job to another, taking shelter in a series of decrepit motels and abandoned rooms until she finds fragile purchase with a group of other women. Tamiko (Nikaido) is traveling in relatively high style on the corporate expense account until a sudden change in management results in her being laid off. Although the two never meet, Cohen weaves their disparate experiences together so seamlessly -- each narrating her own story -- that their fates seem inextricably linked. (Tamiko's dialogue is composed almost entirely of real-life corporate mission statements and reports; many of Amanda's stories were inspired by the jobs Billotte held at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.) "It's interesting to me that the two characters end up in parallel," Cohen said. "The one who starts out down slightly goes up, and the other goes slightly down. I became fascinated with the mirroring of these two characters and the way they meet on the way up or down."
Cohen, 43, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, where his father was working for the U.S. Agency for Information and Development; he spent his school years in Washington, where he attended Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest. Since making his mark in the art world with the installation "Buried in Light," which was commissioned by Atlanta's High Museum, Cohen has garnered a reputation for rigorous commitment to form -- he makes most of his work on an old 16mm Bolex camera, a veritable antique in the digital world -- and for subverting narrative expectations.
Like all his films, "Chain" is contemplative, impressionistic and elliptical, not typical cinematic fare. But Cohen chafes at labels like "avant-garde" and "experimental." "It is slow and quiet and not exactly action-packed," he said. "But I feel really strongly that I've made a movie about the world we all live in, the malls we all go to, and the characters aren't speaking in rarefied, arty language. It's very down to earth as far as I'm concerned, so it troubles me that it gets pigeonholed into this difficult-art-movie-European kind of thing."
Although "Chain" looks as if Cohen simply took his camera to a suburban mall and shot the two women over the course of a few days or weeks, the production actually took seven years, and he filmed in hundreds of locations, from malls in Florida, Dallas and New Jersey to Berlin, Paris and Melbourne. Since "Chain" made its debut at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival, audiences have been shocked to find out, during the closing credits, how many locations Cohen used -- and, by extension, how homogenized the global landscape has become.
" 'Chain' is not a didactic movie, and it's not propaganda," Cohen explained. "I didn't want to make a film telling people what to think about globalization. I wanted to make a film that said, 'This is the landscape we're increasingly living in, and you make up your own mind about the way we're living in it.' "
Such reticence to coerce is characteristic of the soft-spoken Cohen, which made it all the more surprising when he confronted Tarantino at the Independent Spirit Awards last February. Just before Cohen accepted the "Someone to Watch" award for "Chain" -- which in addition to recognition among the Hollywood cognoscenti brought a purse of $20,000 -- Tarantino had let loose a profanity-laced speech in which he derided the "everyone's-a-winner" sensibility of awards shows and said that the "real" winner was the person getting the "20 large." At the podium a few minutes later, Cohen suggested that the true winners were the countless independent filmmakers who would never be honored at an event like the Independent Spirits, but who made bold, personal and often brave work anyway.
"It was really one of the most bizarre experiences of my life," Cohen said about the episode. "And what people didn't see was [Tarantino] yelling at me backstage afterward. But my point was not to go head to head with Quentin Tarantino, my point was the notion of independence in film or any other realm has become a really degraded notion. It has about as much meaning as alternative music does. But there's no reason why Tarantino had to step up and crassly make this suggestion that it really is all about money. I found that really offensive."
Still, money does help. When Cohen first began filming "Chain" in 1999, he received a grant from the New York-based nonprofit Creative Capital. Ruby Lerner, the organization's CEO and president, calls "Chain" "a very important film" for "the startling statement that it makes about our visual universe." What's more, Lerner says, Cohen has tapped into an emerging, if unexpressed, longing for something different. "We don't even understand the impact the homogenization of place might be having on us as a society," she says. "And I think we've hit a moment where specificity of place is what people are desperately craving."
Cohen admitted that this past summer he was having doubts about "Chain," doubts that bedevil all experimental artists about whether their own formal and philosophical concerns have a broader audience. Then Katrina hit.
"I was just about to have my opening at the IFC in New York," Cohen recalled, "and because I don't have a distributor I was taking out my own ads. And for a moment there, I felt like this was all really unimportant. But then as I heard people talk about New Orleans in particular, everything was [about] whether New Orleans was going to become a theme park or a bunch of gated communities, and what housing will poor people end up in. And suddenly I was like, 'It's not irrelevant.' You may not like it or you may find the form to be odd or unusual, but at least it's relevant."
Chain will be shown at 8 p.m. in the Hirshhorn's Ring Auditorium, at Seventh Street SW and Independence Avenue. Admission is free. Executive producer Guy Picciotto will answer questions after the screening.