Jem Cohen began his career making restless, quietly watchful films having to do with evanescence, moments of vagrant, accidental beauty and the lonely interior rhythms of travel. Even his recent forays into more conventionally linear narrative, with such films as “Chain” (2004) and “Museum Hours” (2012), evinced Cohen’s cardinal themes of dislocation and the charged particles of chance encounters.
With “Counting,” Cohen returns to his roots as a cinematic essayist. “Counting” is a rumination on mortality, globalism, jet lag, personal loss and the dialectical tug of war between the built and natural environment. It unspools as a sort of manifesto, although as an artist Cohen is far too subtle and committed to open readings to approve of such a word. Structured in 15 elegant, enigmatic chapters — filmed in New York, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Istanbul, as well as points in between — this mournful but warily optimistic film finds Cohen working at the height of his considerable powers, as a dispassionate recorder of the world as he sees it, and as a surpassingly compassionate member of the human race he observes from such intimate but respectful distance.
To best appreciate “Counting,” it’s best to dispense with expectations having to do with such conventions as “story,” “character” and “plot.” Cohen, 53, works with film as a material object, focusing on subject matter, pacing and sound design to create an aesthetic experience that’s been all but obliterated by the sound and fury of most mainstream movies. Whether he’s filming a common house wren in extreme close-up, or on the faces of a crowded street in Chinatown, each image is carefully considered and executed (he has a superb talent for framing and composition) to create subliminal associations, moods and emotions.
Although he implicitly critiques the post-9/11 security state in brief shots of closed-circuit street cameras, Cohen engages in his own form of surveillance, drawing the audience’s gaze alongside his as he revels in particularly piquant scraps of graffiti, a Moscow babushka doing some ad hoc editing on an ad hoc advertising installation or the face of a young museum-goer uncannily mirroring the portrait she’s standing beside.
There’s pain in “Counting,” as when Cohen receives a phone call informing him of his mother’s stroke, but there’s deep pleasure, too, as the film builds and grows into a city symphony reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s soaring 1929 tone poem “Man With a Movie Camera.” Even at its most hermetic, when Cohen’s precise meanings are purposefully unreadable, there’s something expansive and encouraging about “Counting,” especially when the filmmaker simply regards people going about their daily labors. Like those little wrens, they peck away at what others might dismiss as crumbs of their existence.
Cohen finds dignity and worth in those crumbs, giving them the monumentality that the Darwinian culture of late capitalism increasingly takes away. With “Counting,” as with so many of his films, Cohen gives the audience the supreme gift of time, shaping it to create a valuable and enduring portrait of the way we live now.
“Counting” (111 minutes) will be shown in the East Building auditorium of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth St. and Constitution Avenue NW on Sunday at 4 p.m., with Jem Cohen in attendance. Free admission. Visit www.nga.gov.