Six cities; fifteen chapters; a hundred signposts; cats; shops; car parks; and multiple shots taken through the perspex windows of airplanes looking out at the wing, the sky and the clouds below — Jem Cohen‘s non-narrative documentary/picaresque travelogue, “Counting,” is a fragmentary collection of impressions even less coherently linked than his last eccentric essay, “Museum Hours.” Where that film had Renaissance art, Vienna, and the act of looking as its elusive throughlines, “Counting,” despite its chapter headings, is willfully anti-structural, organized according to principles that are all but impossible to discern. If that sounds like a frustrating watch, actually it’s the opposite — there’s a kind of helpless humility to the presentation of these urban impressions, almost a kind of democracy, that allows you to engage as much or as little as you like with them. Wade in up to your waist, roll up your sleeves, and get busy fitting the film together to suit your personal agenda, or sit on the bank and let the flow and the murmur soothe and semi-hypnotize you: the choice is yours, and no one’s judging your results.
Most of us will probably oscillate between those two states, with stretches that lull and flicker unmemorably past, punctuated by whole sequences that, often for obscure personal reasons, suddenly become furiously interesting. Sometimes these occur because of some visual or verbal cue that fizzles across chapters and cities like a synapse firing in a brain, and sometimes it’s the simple pleasure of recognition — “I’ve been there!” Certainly, as Cohen visits Moscow, New York City, St Petersburg, and Porto on his travels, all of which I’ve been to, some of my interest was unapologetically touristic — the pleasure of knowing, for example, that stuffed space dogs Belka and Strelka are still on display in the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics (poor old Laika, the first dog in space did not make it back intact enough), and creating a connection between that and the now seedy and rather run down-looking tomb of Lenin wherein his waxy corpse lies in state for all to file past, goggling.
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Sometimes, purely by filming on the streets of a certain city during a certain period (he ends each chapter with the name of the city and the dates during which the footage was filmed, creating a slightly gravestoneish feel, as in “New York City, 2012-2014”) Cohen’s imagery becomes politicized. Istanbul’s Taksim Square appears; graffiti in Manhattan reads “Trump is a Monster”; a Stars and Stripes is picked out on the subway; and of course, with his street-level gaze, Cohen sees homelessness and poverty at every corner, with the poor often occupying public spaces that the wealthy, the busy, the employed simply stride through. At other times, the film becomes distinctly personal, as in a phone conversation that plays over images of the unfriendly architecture of Moscow, in which an unspecified accident or illness of a loved one demands Cohen’s return home.
Home is New York City to Cohen, and that’s oddly clear from his imagery. In short segments in Brooklyn we get rare interior, intimate shots as wintry light filters in through a window and plays across a woman’s face. Even in the less domestic scenes on the streets of Manhattan, there’s a familiarity that informs Cohen’s camera, a sense of the filmmaker on his home turf. As well as many other dichotomies that characterize this filmic photo album, there’s a clear sense of the concepts of “home” and “away.”
The images are not romanced — occasionally they seem deliberately ugly or banal, but often they work their own kind of beauty. Cohen favors reflections, the better to create a sense of depth, of the palimpsest that is life in any modern city. And the rhythm of the film dictates what we see too — sometimes an image that seems the essence of ordinary becomes interesting purely because he holds on it for longer, forcing us to find things within it that we would not have seen at first. But coercion is not really the order of the day here. Non-narrative in the most freeing sense, “Counting” invites you to participate in a loosely structured game of free-association, and makes no attempt to tell you what it all means or to favor the conclusions or philosophies of the filmmaker over those of the viewer.
Apples and oranges are things we’re frequently told not to compare (which is kind of odd when you think about it, considering they’re both fruit and, given the choice most people would probably be able to express a clear preference), but it’s been a long Berlinale, so indulge me. It may have been due to seeing them just a few days apart, but throughout “Counting” I thought repeatedly of Terrence Malick‘s “Knight of Cups.” It’s a comparison that reflects on both films: it shows just how far Malick has ventured into the non-narrative arena that I had the similar impression here of a filmmaker assembling a lot of fleeting memories and ideas with no real hierarchy in an attempt to rescue them from the swift-moving currents of time. But “Counting” could be seen as the more honest film, without any bombast or aestheticized gloss, and it makes a lot more room for the viewer, lacking Malick’s slightly panicky propensity for whispered fragments of often contradictory philosophy. Perhaps “Counting” even goes too far in this regard: it can feel too under-explained and you have to be in a very particular mood to engage in the effort of creating every shade of meaning for yourself. But if you are in that mood, it’s a generous experience, the opposite of didactic that invites contemplation rather than contention, despite the many cats it features, set among even greater numbers of pigeons. [B]