Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 02, 2016 11:50 am 
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A man with a camera roaming the world

Kids just out of school.
Someone behind a sign
on a cell phone.
Men gathering cardboard from the street.

These captions appear together an hour and a half through Jem Cohen's new documentary, which is divided into 15 segments of different lengths. This time after the more linear Chain and Museum Hours, which had discernible characters, relationships, and linking locations, this returns to his more abstract and purely observational roots. The lines above might seem random, though, but obviously chronicle the palpitating street life of a city. He ranges from his home base New York to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, and places in between. As an anonymous urban voyeur with a camera myself, a still camera in my case, I can see early on in a series of shots and sounds Cohen captured in the New York subway (a recent subject of mine) how experienced, steady, bold and brave he is, what a good eye and what a good camera he's got.

The focus is generally urban. Some may think, like the excellent Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, that Counting is about "mortality, globalism, jet lag, personal loss and the dialectical tug of war between the built and natural environment." If you travel so far across the world and focus on cities, these topics will appear, most like. This being sound and movement as well as image, Cohen chooses to introduce "protest" as an aspect of city life, and Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, in her review, calls that a "leitmotif" of this film and goes so far as to say "it’s easy to see the entire movie — with its insistence on ordinary beauty and its undertow of leftist politics — as an act of resistance." Indeed sometimes the voices on the soundtrack literally are in protest: chants of "I can't breathe" against a notorious recent New York police murder of an African American; there are references to "Occupy," and objections (in English) to shutting down a last open space for political demonstrations in Istanbul. At other moments we hear in the background sounds of a Congressional hearing about NSA spying, and see Cohen's own shots of spy cameras placed high above a city street, though often he is being a voyeur himself.

But there are just beautiful photographs, cool digital yellows, a dog standing stock still, cats, possible riffs off Chris Marker, the kind of thing that arouses the ire of the Slant's irascible Clayton Dillard, who thinks Marker's way better (he probably is) and protests that what he calls Cohen's "poetic pretenses" are "compounded by a sledgehammer insistence on elusive and irreducible moments as inherently beautiful." Oh dear. Well, he may have a point: not every bit of detritus in the film is beautiful, but I'm not sure Cohen is insisting that it is. Clearly this kind of filmmaking, while it lacks the lulling, repetitious kind of beauty (and crowd-pleasing kitsch) of visual poems like Koyaanisqatsi, isn't slick and dazzling like that, and is more intimate and personal, can annoy people in a different way, or just bore them.

Cohen is now 53 and this may be a summation of the kind of film he's been honing for years, the best way he can express all he sees and knows. So it's a balance of didactic and neutral, "observational" in two senses. Or as Hornaday puts it, the film "unspools as a sort of manifesto" but Cohen is "far too subtle and committed to open readings" to say so. So each of us must decide what it's a manifesto about (which again may irritate some viewers) or maybe we can decide it's not about anything that can be named.

Counting is a mirror for viewers or critics. Oddly, though reviewers find so much in this film, they don't seem to think much about what kind of person would make it. Despite his references to busy urban life and to organized protests, he seems to me the classic "silent traveler" type, anonymous, reserved, sly, unobtrusive. He's the very opposite of Michael Moore; the opposite of Chris Marker too, despite his possible debt to Marker, because Marker's lengthy commentary is absent. He gives us an insight into his secret self. This is not a diary, but it is. It ends with a line from Chris Marker, "In this layman's double for prayer that we call memory." Before that, he begins shifting among images more rapidly, from a neon-drenched Middle Eastern city with calls to prayer and signage in Arabic (Sharjah), to New York cabs, a ravaged pay phone, back to minarets and fluttering videotape, so we might be flickering about in his mind. At one point we hear Cohen receive a phone call informing him of his mother's stroke. But mostly he is delighting in the wonder and energy of urban life -- and decay. Maybe next time he'll return to particular people and relationships, but this is probably, for him, the most expansive and personal medium of expression open to him, and it is open to him as to few others.

Counting, 111 mins., debuted at Berlin 9 Feb. 2015; seven other festival showings, latest San Francisco, where it was screened for this review. US theatrical release 31 July 2015. Also shown in the National Gallery in DC in Dec. 2015, hence Ann Hornaday's review. This has a rich sound design as well as precise imagers and has live music. Patti Smit is one of the producers. TRAILER. London had a Jem Cohen season from March to May 2015 at the Barbican, Whitechapel Gallery, and Hackney Picturehouse: see this Guardian article.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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