The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Jem Cohen Day *

* (restored/expanded)


‘Jem Cohen hates indie films. “Indie is like a bin in a record store that people can reach into and go through to find Arcade Fire.” He winces. “It’s the work of people who want to make big movies, but don’t have the means. There are a million fucking indie films out there – all recognisable and comfortable. It’s actually easier to stand out by making something weird and idiosyncratic out of necessity, rather than through trying to please some establishment.”

‘Independence in film: that’s a different matter. Over the course of 30 years, Cohen, born in 1962, has built up a striking body of work – intuitively edited, sonically rich assemblages that evoke places and the ghosts of places, spots and fragments of time, the stolen and sometimes subversive poetry of daily life, snapshots of social defiance, visions of ragged beauty. It is the aesthetics of salvage, often made using supposedly obsolete formats such as Super 8 and 16mm, that preserve the traces of memories, dreams and communities that are often overlooked in the American mediascape.

‘Cohen is sitting in the kitchen of his ground-floor apartment in what, when he moved in 16 years ago, was Brooklyn’s scruffily industrial Gowanus neighbourhood. Outside his window, where until recently homes for low-income locals stood, a 14-storey condominium is going up. “The light is blocked and I find that very bleak,” he says. “But I can’t respond to that with defeat or only sorrow.” This is typical Cohen: blending grief and defiance, elegy and quiet resistance. It’s understandable coming from someone who found his stride “when I realised I had nothing to do with the film industry and they wanted nothing to do with me”.

‘Cohen brings to his films the sensibility of a rueful outsider. Lost Book Found was made in 1996, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani had begun slicking up New York into the brandscape it resembles today. It is a ghostly, supremely atmospheric series of images that capture faded deli signs, local shopfronts, and the shadows of old neighbourhoods. Assembled from footage shot over a number of years, and looking as if it has been exhumed from some archaeological mound, the film boasts a narrator who declares: “As I became invisible, I began to see things that had once been invisible to me.”

Chain, from 2004, is a moody hybrid of documentary and fiction about two women: a motel-cleaner getting by on a minimum wage and a Japanese scout travelling through the US in search of potential theme-park sites. Influenced by Nickel and Dimed, undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about her attempts to get by as a low-wage worker in America, the film is a highly recognisable evocation of the loneliness and centre-less nature of post-industrial life.

‘The more recent Museum Hours, meanwhile, starred the singer Mary Margaret O’Hara as a Canadian tourist visiting Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. It homed in on details in famous paintings to create a luminous meditation on art, friendship, Vienna and even palliative care. While recognising that it sounded “impossibly rarefied”, the Guardian called it “one of those rare films that may change the way you view the world”.

‘Cohen’s earliest years were spent in Kabul, where his father worked for the US Agency for International Development. “Theoretically, I don’t have any graspable memories of Afghanistan, yet I think the landscape you initially encounter is imprinted in some special way. I always felt like someone who moved around a lot. I depend on travel because it throws the eye into a state of constant discovery.

‘“Later, when we settled in Washington DC, the Vietnam war was constantly in the background. I was going to peace marches and feeling dubious about what my government was doing. It was the Watergate years. I had none of that, ‘My country: love it or leave it.’ I went to a DC public school. Most whites had abandoned them and I’d watch the white kids who were left getting the shit kicked out of them. But soon I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. My mom set up clubs. She reported teachers who were blatantly racist to the school’s governing body, who shared her letter with the teachers. They immediately tried to sue her for $250,000. The American Civil Liberties Union defended her. Only at the last moment did the teachers drop their case.”

‘Music was as important as film for the young Cohen. He grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones, then later to John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, in whose experimentalism he gleaned “an idea of American possibility that had to do with radical individualism”. DC was a stronghold of punk and hardcore – and home to the band Fugazi, about whom he made Instrument, filmed over 11 years and released in 1999. Their DIY ethic, zine networks and inclusive ethos (they insisted on cheap tickets and shows for all ages)has informed his own film-making. In recent years, he has collaborated with other independent bands such as The Ex, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Dirty Three for whom, he says, “the common denominator is some kind of dedication to freedom”.

‘Despite making 70 films to date, and boasting an ever-growing international profile, Cohen has received only one American grant since 2004. “There’s little governmental support for what I do in the United States,” he says, citing as a possible explanation his lack of interest in “a dominant strain of the so-called documentary movement that’s based around advocacy. Foundations want to be able to turn to their boards and say, ‘We changed something. We proved somebody was innocent. We rallied this community.’ There’s an increased pressure to have documentaries conform to certain formulae regarding three-act structures, character, satisfactions of the storytelling arc.”’ — Sukhdev Sandhu





Jem Cohen Films
Jem Cohen @ IMDb
‘ Jem Cohen watches the world through a camera lens’
‘Looking and Listening: Jem Cohen on “Counting”‘
Jem Cohen @ Video Data Bank
‘Jem Cohen Explains Why ‘Museum Hours’ Will Help You Grapple With Art and Life’
‘Jem Cohen: Punk-Rock Nature’
Jem Cohen interviewed @ Tiny Mix Tapes
Jem Cohen @ MUBI
‘Just Hold Still: A Conversation with Jem Cohen’
‘Filmmakers and Their Global Lens: Jem Cohen’
‘Jem Cohen by Lucy Raven’
‘Counting Echoes with Jem Cohen’
‘There’s Too Much Music in Films’
‘Forget story, plot and character’
‘Jem Cohen discusses his newsreels about Occupy Wall Street’
‘punk is the word on the door’
‘Is Jem Cohen the best underground filmmaker you’ve never heard of?’
‘Jem Cohen on Chris Marker’
‘The right combination of sound and image: Jem Cohen and Guy Picciotto’



Jem Cohen’s Ground-Level Artistry

American Originals Now: Jem Cohen: Curious Visions

Jim Cohen Interview 2005

Jem Cohen: Doc Talks 2012




THE WHITE REVIEW: You once described the culture of music videos as ‘a polluted river’.

JEM COHEN: Well, I used that analogy when introducing work at a recent London screening, a benefit for the Horse Hospital. I was showing a new film that incorporates a song by the Evens, and because I’ve had a lot of problems with music video I wanted to open up why, in spite of reservations, I was putting my images together with a song. So I came up with that line. The truth is, I have a history of collaborative projects with musicians and a few of those were made under the rubric of music video gigs, but I never considered myself a ‘music video director’ and I always found that to be a troubling designation because, generally, I deeply dislike music videos. I was loath that night, and I’m hesitant now to spend a lot of time repeating a spiel which I think can get obvious or redundant about why I don’t like what happened to the conjunction of music and film, largely because of the music video ‘industry’.

So, as a form of shorthand, I just said: ‘Music video is a very polluted river, but they don’t own the river, they just own the pollution.’ By that I meant that the distortions imposed by a commercial industry needn’t dictate how filmmakers conjoin sound with image. There are lots of other routes to take. For example, I just did a project with Jim White {from Dirty Three and Cat Power, among others} and George Xylouris, a live document of them playing, actually making music. It has some other material cut in, but it’s primarily a truly simple record of musicians actually doing what they do, whereas music videos have almost never been a record of musicians doing what they do. I’m not saying there weren’t creative or interesting music videos; I grant that there were a few, but why such a minority?

Last year I did WE HAVE AN ANCHOR (2013), the multi-projection piece about Cape Breton which has a big band; before that there was EVENING’S CIVIL TWILIGHT IN EMPIRES OF TIN (2008), for many years I’ve made films for the Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows, and so on. The union of film and music doesn’t have to be advertising or cliche-ridden or insulting to musicians or women or whoever they’re usually insulting. Sometimes I want to use music in my films; though just as often I don’t want any – MUSEUM HOURS, for example, has no score in the body of the film. But that choice should be my free consideration, outside of the taint of the ‘music video’ label, in the MTV sense of the term. So, it’s one part of my history but I do feel the need to clarify. I avoid making commercial work in general. I don’t like the idea of making ads. Some could argue that music videos done for hire are commercial work and that, by default, one doesn’t have complete control over them, but I still think there’s a line that can be drawn. And anyhow, music videos are such a small part of what I’ve done.

THE WHITE REVIEW: Music is, in a sense, present in MUSEUM HOURS. The narrator is a self-described former punk, stating at the beginning of the film, ‘I’ve had my share of loud, so now I have my share of quiet.’

JEM COHEN: Punk was one of life’s great portals for me, from very liberating high school encounters with radical entities like the Cramps and Bad Brains to renegade history and economics lessons sung by the Mekons, the Minutemen, or the Ex. I don’t think punk can or should be pinned down as just a youth thing or a loud/fast thing. I see punk spirit in Thoreau’s refusals to conform and in photos by Helen Levitt. I like to think that the museum guard’s punk days may have served to open his mind more than to narrow it, and I believe that humans are humans regardless of the age they live in, or of their own age. Ways of seeing tend to come around. Heavy metal fans, for example, have a predisposition to understanding Hieronymus Bosch.

THE WHITE REVIEW: Many of your Occupy Newsreels feature some of the live music from Zuccotti Park {the site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp}, or from the assemblages further uptown.

JEM COHEN: Music is always a beautiful part of resistance movements; a great, necessary tradition.

THE WHITE REVIEW: Is that something you wanted to chronicle for the purposes of reviewing two, three, four years down the line? ‘Newsreel’ has a certain connotation.

JEM COHEN: The term was intended with a grain of salt. I made no pretense of objectivity or ‘news’ – though most actual newsreels and news aren’t at all objective either, of course. I also just wanted to participate, to be one of the numbers when heads were counted. But I do have a great urge to document, and that’s kind of my way of experiencing a lot of things. I started to go from the very first day but was initially disappointed and put-off. Then Occupy latched on and stuck and I got very curious and started going and shooting as much as I could. It was simultaneously thrilling and fascinating and frustrating. Eventually I had a conversation with the programmer at the IFC Center movie theatre, and he asked what filmmakers were doing.

I expressed that there were about a million cameras there, that some people were doing on-site, collaborative advocacy pieces while others were coming in from outside
. I assumed there’d be a lot of long-form documentaries, although few seem to have seen the light of day. But when he asked, ‘What about newsreels?’ I said, ‘Well, if I make newsreels, will you show them?’ And he said ‘yeah.’ That was very exciting. I started turning them around right away, and having them projected in five theatres at the IFC, and they ran for the months that Zuccotti Park existed. So I had to quickly explore the idea of what newsreels had been and could be, and mine also became a way of tipping my hat to a tradition that was important to me, of other filmmakers who had done politically engaged work that was generally not propagandistic, work that had a lot to do with both observation and radical form, people who weren’t just making kind of predictable advocacy-tools that are often a bit formulaic. Because, let’s face it, formulas can be affective, at least in terms of grabbing viewers, but they don’t usually make for really good films.

One thing that happened that I thought was both interesting and disturbing was that some people, probably with good intentions, wanted to make very slick pieces in support of Occupy – to put up on YouTube and stuff, basically commercials for the movement. They looked like ads, which isn’t surprising since some were made by people who worked in advertising. They made me very uneasy. I understood that people were trying to speak the language they thought would have the maximum mass appeal, and they might have been right about that. But I think it’s a problem to speak commercial language when you’re trying to be part of a resistance that’s inherently against market dominance and the corporate mindset. To make something that looks like a Coke ad but happens to be for Occupy, is, well, it might get a lot of hits on so-called social media, but there’s still a problem there. I tried to stay outside of both that territory and the strictly advocacy-based approach, and since I was working solo, I was thankful that my work didn’t have to be vetted by anybody, including the non-commercial media collectives – God bless them, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they were down there doing very important, gutsy work – but that wasn’t the role that I chose. I did collaborate with Guy Picciotto on the music.

Commercialism does have a vernacular. It has particular forms. If you’re going make stuff because you are interested in and believe in what Occupy was at least trying to get at, or circling around, or, in their own varied ways, attending to, then isn’t it more appropriate to try to do it in the spirit of the thing? And that resistant spirit is something that can guide you towards a new, different vernacular. I shouldn’t say a ‘new’ one, actually, which neglects a whole tradition and seems too definitive. A radical approach can and maybe should be an uncertain one, because uncertainty relates to ambiguity, even to embracing a kind of ambivalence that can be part of a healthy movement. If you don’t recognise the ambivalence and the frustrations then you’re not being realistic and you’re going to be very, very disappointed when the movement crashes. Because it’s going to crash. And then it’s going to get back up. But you can’t help it get back up just by pretending, by glossing over the beautiful ambiguities that the world is really made of.

THE WHITE REVIEW: But those contradictions are very hard for people to face, aren’t they?

JEM COHEN: I don’t know; are they hard to face in my newsreels? I think they’re in there. They aren’t dominant, but they’re present. You see tired, frustrated people, people taking some avenues that are problematic. And you see beautiful, romantic innocence. And you also see difficult work and intelligent logistical solutions that lead to the complete transformation of a piece of New York geography that, before Occupy, no one could imagine being transformed in that way. A genuine reclamation of space; an embrace and investigation of what it means for space to become truly public. I tried to show a lot of different things, but you’re not told the meaning, you’re not told, ‘This is all great or all terrible.’ You’re not told, ‘Look at this and you’ll come away thinking this’. And when I used music, it doesn’t just tell you what to feel.

THE WHITE REVIEW: It’s funny discussing this while there’s a Chris Marker retrospective up the street. You’ve paid homage to him before, correct? What about the Dziga Vertov Group?

JEM COHEN: One of my newsreels was dedicated to Marker (aka Krasna Sandor) and one to Vertov – I was thinking about them as individuals rather than of the Vertov Group – Godard and Gorin and that crew, so, yes and no. Vertov – one of my favourite filmmakers – intended and was expected to make propaganda but he was such a creative, complex filmmaker that he migrated towards something else, and eventually he paid the price. He was too free-thinking to make socialist-realist propaganda in the way the Comintern or whoever wanted. His plan was to invent a new language for cinema, in extreme opposition to what he saw as a constrictive, commercialised set of forms that had been created by, you know, the power and entertainment structures of his day. He was trying to turn that on its head while serving the revolution, and he did a pretty great job of it for a while, but then it got him in trouble. And that in itself is very instructive, not to mention heartbreaking.

When I went down to Occupy with Vertov on my mind, I wasn’t just naively thinking, ‘wow, I wanna be a revolutionary filmmaker making films for the revolution’, I was thinking about the history of how revolutionary movements often fall prey to their own dogmas and constrictions. It doesn’t mean there aren’t great propagandistic films; Santiago Alvarez, for example, is a filmmaker I deeply love and dedicated another newsreel to: a hardcore propagandist, but also an incredibly creative, wonderful filmmaker.

THE WHITE REVIEW: This idea of ‘subversion’ is in vogue, now and forever, but actually when you look at his films there’s no double meaning. It is what it appears to be – there’s no ‘trick’ or ‘hidden meaning.’ You included Alvarez in your A class at the International Center of Photography, ‘Documentary as a Poetic Force’.

JEM COHEN: I tried to run the gamut, showing things that could be considered straightforward, like excerpts from Polgovsky’s LOS HEREDEROS (2008), to examples that are almost immeasurably self-reflexive and complex, like Rouch and Morin’s CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961); wildly different ends of the spectrum. You have a carefully stripped-down, observational work by Chantal Akerman in contrast with {Vertov’s} MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), which is turning somersaults, discovering itself as it goes. They’re all political films. Overall, I’m interested in a tradition of what I call lyrical documentary, and in my course I use the word ‘lyrical’ in part because I’m interested in the way Walker Evans used the word ‘lyric’. Evans is pivotal in that he’s simultaneously able to completely respect the ‘thingness’ of what he’s looking at as a kind of cold fact, while on another level he’s an artist elevating those facts so they become something other than just pieces of the real world. They become something else: they become Walker Evans pictures.

He uses that word ‘lyric’ and it’s not quite the same as ‘poetic’. I love poetry, but I’m not talking about more labored attempts to be poetic. A lot of what I’m trying to indicate is just that there is a tradition, a thread. People have this strange tendency to think we are just now discovering hybrid genres, and they often neglect a history that goes, certainly back to Marker, Rouch, Varda, Watkins, but also to Vigo, Vertov, Ivens, back to the beginnings of cinema, really. It was always complicated.


JEM COHEN: Well, not obfuscation, but experimentation. More interesting filmmakers always wanted to make their own language and get away from the formulas that sometimes imprisoned the other arts. A lot of them were politically engaged, and wanted a cinematic language to embody that, and many wanted to include ambiguity in the work. None of that is new.


21 of Jem Cohen’s 70 films

This Is a History of New York (1987)
‘The film starts off with one of the most thought provoking opening shots in recent history. The camera approaches a giant concert wall and stares silently through a gaping hole. Beyond the wall we see a construction site. Our view is limited by our perspective, but the camera squeezes as much as it can out of the shot. And then it fades to black. The sequence remains an enigma in our minds as the film continues. What does it mean? My guess is that Jem Cohen wanted to point out that no matter who we are we have a unique vantage point on the world. Just like a camera, we can only see what we are shown. Our lives have predetermined that each individual will see the world differently. When there are 100 people in a movie theater, 100 different movies will be seen, even if they all witness the illumination of the same strips of celluloid. This speaks to the title of the film. Notice that it is a history, not the history. Cohen makes no claims that his is the definitive definition of New York City. Instead, it is his history, his film, his vision of New York.’ — Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear

the entire film


Talk About The Passion (1988)
‘An alternative music video featuring R.E.M., and directed by Jem Cohen. A poetic and passionate indictment of a world where out-of-control military budgets are paid for at the expense of the impoverished.’ — Video Data Bank

the entire video


Glue Man (1989)
‘This short film by Jem Cohen was made in collaboration with the rock band Fugazi. Cohen co-wrote the Fugazi song “Glue Man” and singer/guitarist Ian MacKae co-directed the film. Originally shot on super 8 mm. film.’ — Archivegrid

the entire film


Drink Deep (1991)
Drink Deep is a lyrical vision of friendship, hidden secrets, and desires. Cohen uses several types of film image to add texture to the layered composition. Beautiful shades of grey, silver, black and blue echo the water, reminiscent of early photography and silver prints.’ — MUBI

the entire film


Nightswimming (1993)
‘After seeing my film, Drink Deep, which revolved around rural swimming holes, R.E.M. asked me to make the video for “Nightswimming.” We wanted to make something erotic that broke away from the crass formulas of MTV–to offer different kinds of bodies, male and female, and to extend the liberating possibilities of “skinnydipping” to people altogether outside of the predictable demographic. Later, when the band was collecting pieces for a home video release, I asked if I could expand the project into more of an independent film, and to include a section that would retain the spirit of the piece, but without music. (It was always my intention to pull “music videos” as far away from being commercial promos as possible).’ — Jem Cohen

the entire video


Lost Book Found (1996)
‘The result of over five years of Super-8 and 16mm filming on New York City streets, Lost Book Found melds documentary and narrative into a complex meditation on city life. The piece revolves around a mysterious notebook filled with obsessive listings of places, objects, and incidents. These listings serve as the key to a hidden city: a city of unconsidered geographies and layered artifacts—the relics of low-level capitalism and the debris of countless forgotten narratives. The project stems from the filmmaker’s first job in New York—working as a pushcart vendor on Canal Street. As usual, Cohen shot in hundreds of locations using unobtrusive equipment and generally without any crew. Influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin, Cohen created “an archive of undirected shots and sounds, then set out to explore the boundary” between genres. During the process, Cohen said, “I found connections between the street vendor, Benjamin’s ‘flaneur’, and my own work as an observer and collector of ephemeral street life.”‘ — Video Data Bank




Lucky Three (1997)
‘The 1997 documentary short Lucky Three details an intimate session with the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Smith performs three songs here, two of them original and one a cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen”, and they are all put together with a genuine affection for the music and the subject. The performance was recorded in a small studio and features Smith playing his songs solo, with just his voice and acoustic guitar ringing out. This footage is intercut with video of the singer smoking outside in the rain and of cars driving down a busy street, lending the music a plaintive visual accompaniment. It’s a very powerful work, especially when one considers Smith’s eventual fate, and that is in no small part due to Cohen’s perceptive and deeply felt filmmaking.’ — The Seventh Art

the entire film


Instrument (1999)
‘A collaboration between filmmaker Jem Cohen and the Washington D.C. band Fugazi, covering the 10 year period of 1987-1996. Far from a traditional documentary, this is a musical document; a portrait of musicians at work. The project mixes sync-sound and 16mm film.’ — Snag Films

the entire film


Little Flags (2000)
‘Cohen shot Little Flags in black and white on the streets of lower Manhattan during an early-’90s military ticker-tape parade and edited the footage years later. The crowd noises fade and Cohen shows the litter flooding the streets as the urban location looks progressively more ghostly and distant from the present. Everyone loves a parade—except for the dead.’ — Video Data Bank

the entire film


Nice Evening, Transmission Down (2001)
‘A portrait of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkus.’



Benjamin Smoke (2001)
‘An incredible depiction of one of the best musicians and songwriters you’ve never heard of, Benjamin Smoke winds its way through stunning performances by Smoke’s band and insightful, hilarious, sometimes devastating interviews with him via gorgeous 16mm cinematography that beautifully captures the Southern Gothic tones of the narrative.’ — Denver Film




The Foxx and Little Vic (2002)
‘Brief documentary featuring and about legendary songwriter Vic Chesnutt with T.Griffin and Catherine McRae.’

the entire film


Chain (2004)
‘Jem Cohen’s prescient and insightful 2004 feature is a profound investigation of the new ‘non-places’. A hypnotic, highly original work about what it’s like to live in the global corporate landscape. As regional character disappears and corporate culture homogenizes our surroundings, it’s increasingly hard to tell where you are. In Chain, malls, theme parks, hotels and corporate centers worldwide are joined into one monolithic contemporary “superlandscape” that shapes the lives of two women caught within it. One is a corporate businesswoman set adrift by her corporation while she researches the international theme park industry. The other is a young drifter, living and working illegally on the fringes of a shopping mall. Cohen contrives to turn the entire planet into a stretch of New Jersey commercial property–a universe that feels entirely real yet has the distinct smack of J.G. Ballard otherness.’ — Whitechapel Gallery



Blessed are the dreams of men (2006)
‘Moving towards an unknown destination, a group of anonymous passengers float through an unidentified landscape. Built from Cohen’s archive documenting his travels, the film can be seen as a curious parable. The film’s subheading refers to the Old Testament, Daniel chapter 11, verse 40: “And at the time of the end shall the king of the south push at him: and the king of the north shall come against him like a whirlwind with chariots, and with horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter into the countries, and shall overflow and pass over.”’ — Video Data Bank

the entire film


Building a Broken Mousetrap (2006)
‘Perfecting their style for over 25 years, weaving together punk, jazz, world sounds, and noise, The Ex are a force to be reckoned with. Renowned filmmakers Jem Cohen (Fugazi’s “Instrument”) and Matt Boyd capture lightning in a bottle, creating a whirling dervish of a film with all the patented furious intensity the band is known for. Shot at NY’s Knitting Factory on September 11, 2004, this film is a celebration of life and activism, intertwining exciting live music with construction site footage from NY and Amsterdam, protest footage from the Republican National Convention, and city footage. It’s the blurred line between building and destruction. Features eight songs; four shot in 16mm, four in DV.’ — collaged

the entire film


Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008)
‘The recent release Empires of Tin (100 min, 16mm and DV, 2008) is a document of Jem Cohen’s program of projected films for live music performed on closing night at the Viennale (Vienna Film Festival) in 2007, which was entitled Evening’s Civil Twilight In Empires Of Tin. With his past films, such as the moody Benjamin Smoke, the amazing portrait of Fugazi in Instrument , the wandering lost pet Chain and a big number of shorts, Cohen has carved out a strong following in the art film world in New York and with hip crowds who love the non-traditional film-poems – a format music videos should be dominated by, but only dip in frequently. With Empires Cohen is in full force, capturing buildings in decline, definitely physically, possibly morally, as well as various citizens lost in our modern world. An all-star musician lineup consisted of Vic Chesnutt, members of Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto, T.Griffin and Catherine McRae. The music ranges from controlled echoes and the daunting lyrics of Chestnutt to war-inspired noise, an effective orchestra of our times reflecting on timeless images. A narrator reads from one of the inspirations for the piece, Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetsky March, speaking about lost souls and the horrible effects of war, destruction and monarchs.’ — Filmmaker Magazine

the entire film


Le Bled (Buildings in a field) (2009)
‘A collaboration with writer Luc Sante made in Tangier, Morocco, a city where neither of us had ever been. En route from the airport to the city center, we found ourselves amazed by the landscape outside of the car windows; a massive construction project under way in all directions. While not in itself unusual, we were by struck dumb by the epic scale and seemingly incomprehensible plan of the development and were drawn to return together to this puzzling zone.’ — Jem Cohen

the entire film


Anecdotal Evidence (2009)
‘A musical portrait of Vic Chesnutt and company recording the song, CHAIN. The piece was shot during the recording session for the album, At the Cut, at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal, and features appearances by musicians including Efrim Menuck, Guy Picciotto, Jessica Moss, and Chad Jones. CHAIN was written by Chesnutt after viewing Cohen’s feature film of that name.’ — Video Data Bank

the entire film


Museum Hours (2012)
‘“Kunsthistorisches. It’s the big old one.” This is how Vienna’s massive, venerable, lovely and, indeed, elderly central art museum is termed in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, and it neatly sums up the film’s warm, casual attitude toward weighty cultural institutions while serving as a way of reframing formerly perceived paragons of elitism in a more democratic manner. It also indicates the way that Cohen, an American outsider, and his two main characters—Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian woman in town to hold vigil with her cousin Janet, who’s in a coma, and museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), who initially helps Anne with her tourist map to find her way around Vienna—playfully use the lingo of tourism as both a lingua franca and a way of breaking down any cultural barriers. Cohen’s blistering in-between film, Chain (2004), took on the alienation factor in both international travel and massive commercial developments like mega-malls as they affected a pair of characters, one being a female Japanese businesswoman visiting the US. Museum Hours, which is infinitely more optimistic, also explores the zone of the commons and how it affects two people, but in this case, both the public museum and the Viennese streets foster the film’s central human subject: a genuine friendship, one of the rarest subjects in the movies.’ — Cinema Scope




Counting (2015)
‘Hewing closely to the tradition of documentary as diaristic essay, Jem Cohen’s Counting moves from New York to Sharjah as the cinema eye ruminates on street life, destruction, displacement and disparate urban portraiture. Divided into 15 chapters, Counting seldom forces any conclusions, drawing on the viewers’ emotional responses to its alternately lyrical structure and literal depictions — the removal of Brooklyn’s iconic Kentile Floors sign among them.’ — Filmmaker Magazine



Chuck Will’s Widow (2017)
‘Jem Cohen is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, in the way that, say, James Salter and Grace Paley are writers’ writers. He has made more than fifty films in little more than thirty years. Cohen’s new short film, Chuck Will’s Widow is based on a chapter in author Sam Stephenson’s biography, Gene Smith’s Sink. It’s September 1961, and W. Eugene Smith has recorded, with the myriad reel-to-reel tape machines set up in the “jazz loft,” a mysterious mimic of a Southern swamp bird, whistled five stories down on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue’s desolate flower district in the middle of the night. “There’s a chuck-will’s-widow out there,” murmurs Smith.’ — The Paris Review





p.s. Hey. ** Marilyn Roxie, Hi, Marilyn! I would absolutely love that guest-post, yes. That kind offer gets a (permanent) green light, thank you! And my total pleasure on the support. ** JM, Hi. Well, experimentalism has certainly been marginalised and turned into a cult thing, but what’s cool about that is there’s an actual underground happening in this media-centric world wherein it almost seemed like there couldn’t be a vibrant underground. ** David Ehrenstein, Lovely Art Blakey trip, thank you. Yes, of course that news is big news here too. No one here seems surprised. Almost the whole US is seen as being suspect when viewed from outside of itself these days. Much amusement at the related US-based pronouncements that ‘Polanski’s career is over’. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Slow going still on the pain, ugh, although you walking around, even with the need to rest, is promising. Yeah, I feel big time for you, and I feel like I can almost feel your pain for real because I probably have albeit in a slightly different spot. I think yesterday we figured out a solution to maybe resolve Episode 3’s problems, and, if so, we won’t miss the deadline by much, and, no, I don’t think we’ll get penalised or anything. Did your visiting friend bring pain relief and maybe even fun? I really hope you’re feeling a significant upward change today. My end, super busy, yeah. Yesterday we had a big meeting, and Eps 1 and 2 and the ‘intention note’ are finished, and now it’s all about righting 3’s ship, which will basically eat my entire day today. I can not wait until this is over. Then we’ll get at least a week or two break before ARTE weighs in with whatever work they want. Tell me how your day was, please? ** Steve Erickson, I have not watched ‘Real Violence’, no. Oh, I think it’s more interesting and more interestingly difficult that he plays the perpetrator. Wow, ‘Downtown 81’. Granted, I haven’t seen it since its release, but it certainly isn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. I imagine it must be cool enough to see the vintage performances now. How did it sit with you? Cool about the Garrel! Everyone, News and stuff from Steve Erickson. Harken. ‘For the next week, you can watch Philippe Garrel’s ACTUA I, a 6-minute documentary about the events of May ’68 (including police use of chemical weapons against the protesters), on Le Cinema Club. Two different retrospectives of films related to the protests and their politics begin in New York next Friday. [Also,] Here’s my review of INFINITE FOOTBALL, a Romanian documentary playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series tomorrow.’ ** _Black_Acrylic, Thank you kindly, Ben. Oh, the launch was last night! Congratulations supreme! I’ll go ambient out on your mix. Everyone, As part of the international launch of the crucial new compendium book re-upping the issue of the Yuck ‘n’ Yum zine, Mr. _Black ‘DJ Ben ‘Jack Your Body’ Robinson’ _Acrylic played an ‘Ambience’ mix, and, presto, you can already hear it via Soundcloud. Do. Here. ** Misanthrope, Thanks, bud. Much appreciated. Nope, hadn’t heard about that bear thing. You’ve seen Herzog’s documentary ‘Grizzly Man’? I think you’d like it. Hard to talk logic and biological fact to hardcore animal people, god love them. I hope watching a bear maul a man to death was inspiring for your novel work. You are an even odder one than I, Mr. Wines. And good luck with ‘Avengers’. I assume it’ll do what it’s supposed to do. ** Bill, Thank you, thank you! Yes, I saw your email, thanks a lot, I’ll sort that out. Enjoy your hopefully job-free weekend. ** Paul Curran, Hi! Thanks a lot, man. Ha ha, I do remember that about me being Dennis N. + A. Cooper. You know what? Not bad. I think I’ve moved more into the Alice Cooper half as I’ve gotten older. Hot there already? Do you have favored mountains? Have you and your kiddo gone to Fuji-Q? It’s so great. Zac and I will definitely go when we get there. Come with us. And have a mountainous weekend whether actual mountains are involved or not. ** Okay. I decided to resuscitate Jem Cohen Day for your weekend. He’s a pretty great filmmaker, and the post offers a pretty good bonanza of his work that you are invited to enjoy or something else. See you on Monday.


  1. Dóra Grőber


    Thank you! I’m getting better and better (do you ever have the feeling that if you say this out loud, something bad will happen right away? haha). I didn’t need to rest during our walk today and I could sit in a chair relatively normally too for at least an hour! Yaay!
    I’m so glad to hear you found a possible solution for the Episode #3 problems! I hope you’ll be able to finish it during the weekend! (And as we’ll talk on Monday next: could you finish it?)
    Do you have any special plans for the few weeks while you’ll be waiting for ARTE’s response? Are you planning to work on your new film?
    Yes, it was really nice to see my friend yesterday. I forced some drag conversation on him, haha. I’m still heavily obsessed with Aquaria. And I also found a London-based drag artist I’m falling for, hard and fast. Charity Kase. Here’s my favorite look so far. I can’t express how much I love this.
    As for my weekend… I’m planning to spend today in the daze of these very obsessions and tomorrow with Anita.
    How is/was yours? I hope you’ll have some time to rest and/or do something fun beside the TV script work!!

  2. David Ehrenstein

    The U.S. is regarded as suspect by its own citizens too. The POTUS is a narcissistic sociopath whose every outrage is displayed on a daily –sometimes hourly basis. Yet he remains in power. “We the people” have never run the government. Only the “elite” families and now the corporations. Jem Coehn s a marvelous filmmaker who deals with this culture from a unique view. He’s a perfect example of what Manny Farber called “Termite Art.” I’m especially fond of his “Benjamin Smoke” which is one of the best films about AIDS that I know.

  3. Steve Erickson

    BENJAMIN SMOKE & MUSEUM HOURS are excellent, and as you can see from this interview, he has his own uncompromising aesthetic which is well thought-out. I thought CHAIN only came together when you find out in the closing credits that the mall scenes, which look like they were shot in one place, were actually shot in a dozen cities over several continents. I only learned he made a documentary about the Ex years later. I have seen Cohen at NYC film screenings frequently.

    I made a last minute decision not to see DOWNTOWN 81 because I developed a migraine and my allergies kicked in – at the very least, I would’ve needed to buy a Kleenex box to sit through it, and I realized I would probably not have much fun watching it.

    My birthday is May 18th (I turn 46). I asked my parents to get me the new Liz Phair GIRLYSOUND TO EXILE IN GUYVILLE box set and TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN on DVD. I am going to visit them for the first time since last Thanksgiving on the 25th, after two trips canceled due to my back pain last December and then my mom breaking her knee in February.

    Today, I’m seeing Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary VICTORY DAY, which depicts the ceremony commemorating the Russians’ victory over the Nazis held in Berlin. I am confused who the audience for it is, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s program notes give me the sense that it’s a piece of Soviet kitsch that persists after the end of the USSR and despite the fact that it’s performed mostly by Germans. I am also seeing Alan Rudolph’s first film in 17 years, RAY MEETS HELEN, tomorrow.

  4. Steve Erickson

    Have you done Brad Renfro Day here? I seem to remember one. Anyway, I thought you’d appreciate this article: It gets to something you’ve touched on about how adults objectify beautiful young people. If this article’s accurate, he filmmakers Renfro worked with seemed to fetishize his “edginess” and life as a “bad boy” without realizing that a boy who started shooting heroin at 12 needed help, even if they didn’t know the exact details of his drug use.

  5. Cal Graves

    Hi Dennis,

    How have you been my friend?
    There’s been a lot of interesting post these last few weeks, that I keep coming back to. Thank you for that. Your work on the blog is much appreciated. Im gonna spend a good chuck of the day watching these films. They look so fun.

    Just about finished w this semester so i should be around more often in the comments. Other than school I havent been up to much. Writing. Trying to see some movies. Reading. Do you like science fiction? For some reason, it strikes me that you dont. If you do what favorites do you have? Im reading one of Delaney’s sci fi books and it’s pretty spectacular.


  6. Marilyn Roxie

    Excellent, I’ll get it to you soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2021 DC's

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑