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Ann Hornaday talks to filmmaker Jem Cohen, ambassador to a dreamlike world

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 12:25 AM

It's somehow fitting that, at last month's Sundance Film Festival, Jem Cohen's film was there, but Cohen wasn't.

"I have no idea what happened," said the 49-year-old filmmaker, referring to the New Frontier program where his 13-minute documentary "Anne Truitt, Working" played. And that's just fine with him. "I'm glad that people saw the film," he said. "It's just very difficult to transcend the hype and get to what the work is really about. And if any film was going to be low on the hype register, it would be that one."

"Anne Truitt, Working," about the late D.C. sculptor, was part of the exhibition of her work that the Hirshhorn Museum mounted in 2009. Composed of an audio recording of Truitt talking about her work, with visual images of paint jars, her color-spattered studio floor and snippets of the trees and sky outside her Washington studio, "Anne Truitt, Working" evinces a signature style that Cohen has refined over a 20-plus-year career: oblique, poetic, adamantly un-literal and keenly attuned to film as a material object with unique textures, translucence and aesthetic properties.

All of those qualities will be on display Saturday at the National Gallery of Art, which will play host to a program of Cohen's recent short films. In addition to "Anne Truitt, Working," the museum will show "Le Bled," a film essay set in Tangier, made in collaboration with the writer Luc Sante; "Half the Battle," featuring the Dutch anarcho-punk band the Ex; and "Night Scene New York," tracing a night in the life of one of the city's most vibrant, self-contained communities, Chinatown.

Saturated with color (or chiaroscuro black and white), luminously grainy and non-linear, each film opens up a specific world in a dreamlike way, from the rhythms of Chinatown to the trancelike experience of a band touring and performing. Most of the films were shot on Super-8 and 16-millimeter film. "One Bright Day," a portrait of an Iraq war veteran made with a borrowed video camera on a New York street, marks a rare departure from celluloid, which has been Cohen's favored format since his early days making music videos for R.E.M. ("Nightswimming") and collaborating with Fugazi, whose members Cohen knew while growing up in Washington. Film "has a warmth and a kind of from-the-gut expressive quality that I don't know if digital will ever have," he said.

At one point in "Anne Truitt, Working," Truitt expresses skepticism about narrative in art, preferring the purity of line and color and "setting color free into three dimensions." It seemed an apt summation of Cohen's own approach to film. "It's not really that I have anything against narrative," he explained. "I'm just fascinated by asking, how do people really live with narrative? What kinds of endings do we really experience? And, if they're so different from what we often see in mainstream cinema, why aren't we seeing these kinds of real-world experiences of narrative more often?"

The National Gallery's Joanna Raczynska, who works in the museum's department of film programs and curated the Cohen show, says that over his decades-long career, Cohen has become "very important, and very influential to a lot of people."

"I'm a filmmaker, too," Raczynska continued, "and I know that he's influenced me, not just visually but in writing, in the way he thinks, his editing decisions, the way he uses sound. It's not just a matter of entertaining or explaining . . . or just documenting. He does much more than those things, in very subtle ways."

Cohen promises that, like his 2004 feature film, "Chain," his newest work, "Museum Hours," set in Vienna and starring the Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara, will tackle story and character in unconventional ways, even though the film contains more dialogue than he's accustomed to. "Now that I'm 26, 27 years into my work, I suddenly realize that there's always going to be stuff that's primitive," he said. "It will never be a progression towards slicker and smoother and bigger. It will always be raw."

Jem Cohen: Recent Shorts and Other Works will be shown Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the National Gallery's East Building Auditorium, Fourth Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Free admission. "Instrument," Cohen's 1999 documentary about Fugazi, will be shown Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. Call 202-842-6799 or visit www.nga.gov.

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