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April 7 – May 14, 2017

Jem Cohen, Present and Adrift

Partly influenced by the work of photographers such as Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Eugène Atget, Jem Cohen (b. 1962) entered into filmmaking at street level, documenting the discarded objects, invisible people, accidental art and oddly beautiful moments hard to spot if one is not looking for them. He meditatively investigates the uncategorized spaces, grey areas, hidden undersides and accidental messages that may not be often recorded for posterity but may contain the essence of places and people and this modern, hybrid existence where plastic and concrete are as likely to form a visual poem as a bird in a tree. Recording and privately ordering these abandoned, forgotten remnants somehow reverses the commercial food chain. By removing the sign from its original economic purpose, Cohen manages to uncommodify the commodified.
 
Cohen’s work is deeply political and inherently compassionate in its observation and selection, yet his gaze remains unsentimental and nondidactic. His films are born from the particular freedom experienced by working in the margins with a small or nonexistent crew—not allowing commercial interests or industry standards to dictate his work. Instead, he explains, “I just like to roam and shoot with the guiding principle being to look and to listen. Don’t feel you have to pre-decide what you’re making; let the world itself tell you what you’re making.” A Cohen film may not seem too constrained by any narrative, medium or industry concerns, yet it does appear bound by an endless fascination with this mortal plane and its material creations. Whether a portrait of an individual or a “city symphony,” his films impart a sense of rambling, wandering, looking and listening, being present. Naturally, his films take shape in a genre less territory—usually a mix of documentary, narrative, essay, poem—and occasionally manifest in a non traditional theatrical format: a multi channel gallery installation, visuals accompanying a concert, or as newsreels of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, played before features at the IFC Center in New York.

Both celebrated and critiqued, cities are often in Cohen’s watchful crosshairs, for they “are always on, more or less, and they’re also places where notions of democracy or the lack of it are readily tested in very visible, public ways.” He scours the city streets, malls, museums, parking lots, plazas, airports, often shooting in places without permits, literally testing and challenging the idea of public and private as he is making a film. In 2005, his film was confiscated by police when he was simply filming landscapes from a train. Afterwards, he wrote an open letter imploring filmmakers and artists to carry on regardless of “national security concerns.” “I believe that it is the work and responsibility of artists to create such a record, so that we can better understand, and future generations can know, how we lived, what we build, what changes and what disappears.”

If his city symphonies seem more like collaborations with his environment, Cohen’s portraits of individuals or groups usually involve the participants in the making of the film, as with Fugazi and the diaristic documentary Instrument. And when working with musicians or actors, it is an intimate, organic, evolving relationship between equals.  Museum Hours was half-scripted and half-improvised, with some dialogue written after spontaneous events had occurred. Drawn to people, places and sounds that do not fit easily into a commercial category or elegant algorithm, Cohen respectfully introduces those who are fiercely independent, radical, passionate and distinctly uncooptable, like Fugazi, Patti Smith or Benjamin of Benjamin Smoke, into his living cinematic anthology—on and off screen.

“It’s all work that asks viewers to find their own way, their own themes, their own anchors, work that refuses to separate the thing made, the making, and the world itself.” Cohen’s lyrical dérives are ultimately reclamations of space, land, objects, ideas from the alienated corporate monolith. Without overtly stating it, his films call for a deeper engagement and presence in the world. Leaving a Cohen film, your eyes don’t need to adjust to reality; it is as if you can see reality more clearly: the wonder, the beauty, the strangeness, the sacredness, the ugliness, and all of those difficult-to-name areas in between. – Brittany Gravely

We are honored to welcome Jem Cohen to the HFA for the two opening evenings of this retrospective.

Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and David Pendleton, unless otherwise noted.           

$12 Special Event Tickets
Jem Cohen in Person

Friday April 7 at 7pm

New York City Found and Lost

Jem Cohen has been walking the streets of New York City for thirty years now, documenting its burgeoning street life. Over those years, however, seemingly endless waves of gentrification and, more recently, security restrictions have changed both the life on the streets and the freedom to film it. This program of short street portraits, some of Cohen's most beautiful and eloquent work, traces those changes.

 

Coney Island End of God the Way It Must Be

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 1996, 35mm (orig. Super 8), b/w, 3 min

Print courtesy filmmaker.

Little Flags

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2000, digital video (orig. Super 8), b/w, 6 min

 

NYC Weights and Measures

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2005, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 6 min

 

Lost Book Found

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 1996, digital video (orig. Super 8 and 16mm), color, 37 min

“And as I became invisible, I started to see things that had once been invisible to me." Informed by his experience as a street vendor in New York, Cohen crafted an homage to Walter Benjamin, whose work he discovered during the film’s construction. The narrator, a pushcart vendor, meets a man who is expert at fishing objects out of sidewalk gratings, collecting and selling this urban debris. Possessed by the memory a mysterious book he almost purchased from the street fisherman, the narrator begins to see life through the template of this book and its eccentric, obsessive categorization of “places, objects, incidents.” Like the book’s author, Cohen and his stand-in become collectors of the accidental poetry of the street—art that has no calculable value, no official category—and when finally relegated to only memory, no actual substance. Tenderly coalescing Cohen’s preoccupations with urban existence, commodification and the art object, the film is a diaristic wander through the visible to the invisible, loosening the tethers of both to create an entirely unique phenomenon.

 

Night Scene New York

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2009, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 10 min

 

Helianthus Corner Blues

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2014, digital video, color, 3 min

 

Real Birds

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2012, digital video, color, 11 min

 

Total running time: 76 min

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Jem Cohen in Person

Saturday April 8 at 7pm

Passages 1

Cohen finds endless mystery in the real world: on city streets, throughout museums, inside busses on foggy, anonymous highways. Transformed by his camera, some music and some text, these real places become transformed into passages towards a more mystic side of life.

 

The Passage Clock
(For Walter Benjamin)

Directed by by Jem Cohen. With Patti Smith
US 2008, digital video (orig. 16mm), b/w, 10 min

 

Amber City

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 1999, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 48 min

 

Blessed Are the Dreams of Men

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2006, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 9 min

 

Long for the City

Directed by Jem Cohen. With Patti Smith
US 2008, digital video (orig. Super 8), b/w, 9 min

 

Total running time: 76 min

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Sunday April 9 at 7pm

Museum Hours

Directed by Jem Cohen. With Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Austria/US 2013, DCP, color, 106 min. English and German with English subtitles

Johann, a guard in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, meets Anne, who has traveled from Canada to be with her comatose cousin. Within this alienated atmosphere, the two strangers—portrayed by non actor Bobby Sommer with singer and occasional actress Mary Margaret O’Hara—connect through art and jokes and their unique paths. Unusual entities among cinematic characters, they remain somewhat mysterious to each other and to the audience, and unlike the standard Hollywood fate, their fate is not a romantic one. The romance in Musuem Hours instead emerges in its luxurious philosophical meanderings and in the gently guided exploration of public spaces and private interactions. Cohen opens the narrative up even further by traversing time through the shared experience of art; in particular, that of Pieter Brue gel, whose works also tend to lack a distinct center and, in fact, draw the eye to the more inglorious elements. Rather than elite or esoteric diversions, both Brue gel’s paintings and Cohen’s experimental film draw the eye back down to Earth to the mysterious, awkward pleasures of our uncelebrated, mortal pursuits. DCP courtesy Cinema Guild.

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Friday April 14 at 7pm

Passages 2

A moving portrait of the legendary film curator Luce Vigo and Cohen's latest New York streets film precede his newest feature.

Crossing Paths with Luce Vigo

Directed by Jem Cohen
Spain 2010, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 12 min. French with English subtitles

 

Bury Me Not

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2016, digital video, color, 10 min

 

World Without End (No Reported Incidents)

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2016, DCP, color, 57 min

Quite close to London, but a million miles away, Southend-on-Sea is a town along the Thames estuary. I was invited by an arts group there to make a portrait of the region. The film is of everyday streets, weathers, birds, and of course, water, mud, and sky. It is also of people. I made a series of almost random interviews with locals—not my usual approach for a landscape or city film—but I became fascinated by the musicality of the speech, the depths and specificity of knowledge, the odd revelations. Are these people fully representative of the area? Not at all. As is usual in my work, I embraced the chance encounter and rejected the very idea of the definitive. What I discovered is that the estuary and its insistent tides brought in not only nature and history, but prize-winning Indian curries, an encyclopedic universe of hats, and a nearly lost world of proto-punk music. – Jem Cohen

DCP courtesy Grasshopper Films.

Total running time: 79 min

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Saturday April 15 at 9pm

Counting

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2015, DCP, color, 111 min

Referring to Counting’s poetic, essay style as “life-drawing,” Cohen composes a meditative multi-city symphony from the layers of matter—dark and light—created and destroyed by civilization and its corporations. Primarily traversing public spaces, Cohen documents the intimacy of the communal, the occupation of the private, and all of the ambiguous realms in between during trips to cities like London, Sharjah, Moscow, Porto, St. Petersburg, New York and Istanbul. Originating from his reaction to the death of Chris Marker, Cohen captures, with his own system of categorization and rhythm, the many layers of information that coalesce in modern urban centers . As events in his personal life eventually seep through and emotionally tone the landscape, Cohen’s open structure filters just enough, allowing for the audience to make their own narratives from his collection of observations and reflections. DCP courtesy Cinema Guild.

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Friday April 21 at 7pm

Chain

Directed by Jem Cohen. With Miho Nikaido, Mira Billotte, Tarik O’Regan
US 2004, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 99 min

Cohen reconfigured a three-channel installation piece titled Chain X Three into a more narrative, linear structure that follows two young women in different corners of the global economic spectrum. Both at the mercy of larger corporate forces—seen overwhelming the landscape in the form of malls, hotels, chain stores, highways and sprawl—each impassively and pragmatically respond to the stagnant alienation of the suburban miasma. Amanda is an American runaway, surviving off of abandoned spaces and complimentary coffee, whereas Tamiko is a scout for a large Japanese company sent to the States to study amusement parks. The film navigates a nowhereness that can be either alienating or comforting, but ultimately reveals the humanity even in this dead zone. Cohen acknowledges the beauty, humor and poignancy amid the bleak economic end games and the “superlandscape” of mass globalization, the homogenized encroachment of which is startlingly revealed in the film’s end credits.

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Sunday April 23 at 4:30pm

Benjamin Smoke

Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen
US 2000, 16mm, color and b/w, 73 min

Jem Cohen and co-director Peter Sillen, both visually involved in Athens’ independent music scene, were introduced to Benjamin—née Robert Dickerson—through Michael Stipe, a longtime fan. Over a decade, Cohen and Stillen craft a compassionate portrait of Benjamin, whose marginality—unclassifiable musician, openly gay, HIV-positive, addict, drag queen—is as spectacular as his unedited authenticity, passionate vitality and sensitive vulnerability. In Atlanta’s eccentric—and gradually gentrifying—area known as Cabbagetown, the filmmakers document Benjamin’s public and private performances, wild musings, Southern left-field surroundings, and his band’s opening for Patti Smith, another fan. A unique soul whose bright flame is sometimes difficult to watch directly, Benjamin seems equally powered by both a passion for life and a self-destructive fatalism. Amid the rough grains of film and notes of Benjamin’s bewitching music, Cohen and Sillen capture the essence of this secret, decadent Southern star. Print courtesy Peter Sillen.

Preceded by

Peter Hutton

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2016, digital video (orig. 16mm), b/w, 2 min

 

Anne Truitt, Working

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2009, digital video (orig. 16mm), b/w & color, 13 min

 

Lucky Three: An Elliot Smith Portrait

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 1997, digital video (orig. 16mm), color, 11 min

 

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Sunday April 30 at 4:30pm

Instrument

Directed by Jem Cohen and Fugazi
France 1999, digital video (orig. 16mm, Super 8, video), color & b/w, 115 min

This collaborative project with Fugazi documents the seminal “post-hardcore” band from 1987 to 1996 as they explode in popularity without breaking with their strict codes of ethics and independence. Featuring punk icon Ian MacKaye—who is credited with coining the term “straight-edge,” a movement that rejected drugs and alcohol, among other excesses of Western Civilization—Fugazi live their songs’ lyrics, playing and producing music cheaply. No merchandise, no corporate label, not even set lists, prevent them from being an instrument of any greater force than that of their own creation. Cohen’s patchwork of Super 8, 16mm and video footage fits the rebellious function in this mesmerizing diary that drifts on and off stage, in and out of sync, from electric performances to the mundane reality of being a band—all of whose members seem sweeter, funnier and less dramatic than their onstage presences would suggest.

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Sunday May 14 at 7pm

Gravity Hill Newsreels: 12 Short Observations about Occupy Wall Street

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2012, digital video, color, 64 min

As a natural outgrowth of his ongoing project filming life on the streets of New York and reflecting on the politics of such public spaces, Cohen started making frequent trips to the Occupy Wall Street home base in Zucotti Park in October and November of 2011. Some of the twelve short films he shot there include moments of daily life in the base camp, some document meetings and marches, and some capture police raids and the dismantling of the encampment.

Birth of a Nation

Directed by Jem Cohen
US 2017, digital video, color, 9 min

Cohen's newest film features the crowds on the streets of Washington, D.C. on January 20 and 21 of this year, both the inauguration and the protests.

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