Jem Cohen To Launch "Chain" Project at MoMA
by Wendy Mitchell
How much do South Carolina and New Jersey have in common with Germany and Australia? Sadly, more than you might think. That's the idea behind Jem Cohen's "Chain," a series of film projects that chronicle what the famed filmmaker calls "the disappearance of regional character." The current incarnation of the "Chain" series is "Chain Times Three," being shown at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday at 6 p.m. "Chain Times Three" is a "panoramic triptych"; the big screen at MoMA Gramercy will be divided into thirds, with three projectors playing images that are synched as one movie. At times the side-by-side images are disparate, at times they are related (for example, three parts of a landscape with a horizon line that carries across all three).
In a conversation with indieWIRE last week, Cohen explained, "Over the past six years I decided to start gathering images that had to do with the increasingly homogenized and corporatized landscape. I found that as I traveled around the world going to film festivals or just wandering around, I could be anywhere and find some place in any city that could have been in any other city. I could have been in Melbourne and it didn't feel any different from Houston. That became the underlying theme of the 'Chain' project." The landscapes he shot during those six years include malls, airports, hotels, and other signs of commercial life, both new and in ruins.
MoMA is showing "Chain Times Three" as a one-time presentation (in conjunction with Eyebeam Atelier) on Friday as part of its series "Jem Cohen: Recent Works." Friday's screening will also include his prophetic seven-minute film "Little Flags," which shows a now-eerie war victory parade in downtown Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center. "Reality has mirrored the film in a way that's unforeseen and kind of terrifying," Cohen said of the 2000 short. "It makes me really want to see the film now."
On April 13, MoMA's Cohen presentation will include the 2000 doc (co-directed with Peter Sillen) "Benjamin Smoke," about an Atlanta-based drag queen and underground music fixture; plus Cohen's 1999 "Instrument," about the famed band Fugazi. Cohen will be on hand on Friday and on April 13 to discuss the works, and you can also catch him through Friday night as he presents live film projections at New York City concerts given by the Montreal-based band Godspeed You Black Emperor!
"Chain Times Three" was mostly shot on 16mm, projected from DVD, and for the in progress feature film version of the "Chain" project, Cohen expects the format to be mostly 16mm blown up to 35mm. That feature, which Cohen hopes to complete within the next two years, will have more narrative aspects than this triptych. "In the three-screen version, I've planted little seeds of narrative but you don't see the actors much," Cohen explained. "[The feature will be] very different...but they are thematically related. The feature is about two characters: a Japanese woman studying American themeparks, and a runaway who lives off of the discards of a shopping mall."
The three-screen version features voiceover narration, sound collages, and also music created in collaboration with the Godspeed You Black Emperor, an instrumental band known for its orchestral yet apocalyptic epics. "There's a lot in common with what their concerns are and what my concerns are," Cohen said of the band. "I think we're both trying to take the media in which we work and make something have some political commentary without leaning on the traditional ways to do that, such as lyrics if you're a band or social-issue documentary if you're a filmmaker."
About the commentary he's making with the "Chain" series, Cohen says that it's important to note that he's not trying to be judgmental about corporate landscapes. "It's not about making fun of these places or shooting ducks in a barrel, it is about encouraging people to look carefully at what is happening to the world around them, to do that in terms of the landscape and the geography," he says. "There are a lot of places now where you can't even tell [what the place is]. I did some shooting in a hotel that was in the atrium of an airport that looked down on a shopping mall. All of those things become completely intertwined, that's really what the project is all about."