A couple of years ago, I decided to take a break from New York, and headed out to Tempe, Arizona for graduate school. I imagined I was moving to a quaint little college town perched along the edge of the Sonoran Desert, dotted with vernacular straw bail houses, maybe, or adobe ranches. What I found instead were traditional suburban subdivisions flanked by ferociously green sod lawns (and millions of gallons of water siphoned from the Colorado River to water them), and endless stretches of highway punctuated with superstores: a Wal-Mart on one corner, Target on the next, the recurring ironic presence of Applebee’s (your “neighborhood” bar and grill, available almost exclusively in neighborhood-less zones). Though the Phoenix area was all a big grid and not hard to navigate, I found myself consistently lost, as I could never tell quite where I was. And except for the occasional view of leopard-patterned desert hills, there were no clues that I was even in Arizona. It seemed like I could have been anywhere.
This “anywhere effect” is the subject of Jem Cohen’s newest film, Chain (2004). Shot over seven years in enclosed shopping centers and strip malls and hotels in 11 States, plus France, Germany, Poland, Australia, and Canada, Chain tells the story of two women—one a squatter, the other a corporate drone—who navigates these generic landscapes, devoid of regional differences, compressed into one homogenized reenactment of a place. One of the actresses, Miho Nikaido, is a professional actor (the corporate drone); the other, Mira Billotte, is an underground musician. And while their journeys are conceived by Cohen, the degree to which the film—a mixture of documentary footage, semi-scripted scenes, and recorded oral histories—is documentary or narrative is known only to him. Expect some recalcitrance if you want him to illuminate the formula.
“I don’t really want to talk too much about the nuts and bolts because I think it spoils the experience to a certain degree,” says Cohen. “What I find most satisfying is that people who go to the movie are unsure as to where the documentary slips off and where the narrative begins.” When Amanda, the drifter, rattles off her low-wage jobs in voice-over, very often, Cohen says, she’s just talking to him about her life. And when Tamiko, who’s been sent to the United States by her Japanese company to consult for a steel company considering a transformation into a theme park, quotes the dogma of her bosses, saying, “Without a pure race, it will be difficult to have a pure goal for business,” she’s actually quoting a corporate speech Cohen read about in the paper; he studied the business pages, along with books like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed for both inspiration and research.
He does offer this about his process: “I usually work kind of backwards, partly from pre-existing footage where I find narrative cues, and then I write very carefully, and so some of it is sort of stumbled upon and some of it is very carefully crafted.” He continues, “I shot for years just looking at these places and not really thinking about their narrative aspects. It’s that process that makes it half a documentary film. Half of it is undirected footage of the real world; it’s documentary footage.”
These real-world corporate spaces—regional malls and parking lots—are as much characters in the film as either of the women, who wander through these worlds without ever interacting. And although many of us navigate these kinds of environments on a regular basis, we may not understand their emotional and social impact. How many of us have experienced the disorientation of disappointment upon entering a new city only to find that it looks just like the place we left? As regionalism disappears, and this corporate architectural conformity raises up to replace it, what does it mean for our culture?
While he’s not going to answer the question of the film’s purpose directly (“The purpose of art is not to direct people toward certain kinds of action,” he says. “That may be one of the side effects of art, but for me it’s not the purpose. That’s the purpose of propaganda.”), Cohen hopes Chain will at least get our citizens asking it. Like documentary in its purest sense, Cohen presents a situation, a landscape, an experience, with the hope that an audience will develop an environmental awareness and examine how these spaces affect their own lives and their worlds. “A shopping mall in a movie is usually given to you as a kind of shorthand that very crudely, in a sort of cartoonish way, says ‘suburbia,’ and that kind of shorthand is not working,” Cohen says. “It’s not encouraging any real connection or contemplation or confrontation with these realities.”
Chain’s subject matter is increasingly relevant, not just because of the ubiquity of corporate architecture, but because of recent events, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that force our culture to examine how we think about place. “They’re talking about is New Orleans going to be a theme park version of itself; are all of the poor people going to get swept away, literally and figuratively, so that there can be a kind of cleaner, safer, tourist-friendly version of this regional extraordinary place?” he asks.
Cohen sees parallels between a society that builds disposable architecture and one that treats its citizens as disposable as well. “These places are so sapped of not just regional character but of historical quality. They’re not supposed to age,” he says. “When they start to age, they just get rid of them and put up a new one, and you’re faced with a world in which things don’t age, and what does that do to people when they’re surrounded by things that have no evidence of time or decay? Isn’t that connected in some way with a society that doesn’t want to look at old people in general?”
Cohen has been making films—very much in longhand—for more than 20 years. He began his career as a shipping clerk at a mom-and-pop industrial production company that made 16mm training films for firemen and mothers-to-be. Whatever the subject matter or form, there is a consistency in terms of tone and theme: His films focus on forgotten everyday spaces, overlooked faces on the fringe, and attend to them with a kind of patience that those of us inculcated by MTV-style rapid cutting might have a hard time adjusting to. His 2000 film Benjamin Smoke captured the life of the Atlanta underground musician, druggie, and drag queen known as Benjamin, whose ravaging by AIDS parallels the encroachment of condos and yuppies on his formerly industrial, working class neighborhood of Cabbage Town. The year before, Cohen made Amber City (1999), a collage of sorts about an unnamed Italian city, and in 1998, the Fugazi documentary portrait Instrument.
To fund his projects, Cohen spent ten years working as a “prop boy” in the commercial film industry, working on “features and bad television,” he says. “Working on those kinds of big movies basically just taught me what I didn’t want to do: make big movies; spend a lot of money; have armies of people freaking out; not have time to get anything right.”
His inspiration came neither from traditional Hollywood films nor from what we’ve come to see as traditional documentaries. He feels he has more in common with the Lumiere brothers or Robert Flaherty—the father of the dramatic reenactment as much as the father of documentary—than any mainstream filmmakers. “I never had any particular desire to do traditional documentaries or traditional narrative films, and I don’t really consider myself an experimental filmmaker, either. If people would describe Hollywood and most indie features as conventional film, or as film where you know how it’s going to come out, or star-obsessed film…when they start to be accurate about what they do, then they can start calling what I do experimental,” he says. “I don’t see why people who don’t toe that kind of line should be ghettoized into that little zone of experimental filmmaking.”
It’s hard to describe Cohen’s films without reaching for the word “experimental” though—they defy traditional categorization. Some have called them “essay films,” which is less objectionable to him but still not descriptive enough, since they often include narrative elements. “[Experimental is] not a very useful term to me. I think it scares people away, but nobody really knows what it is. It’s about as useful as the word ‘alternative’ in the context of music,” he says. “It has a similar initial meaning, which is now so co-opted and denatured that it doesn’t really mean anything. I think I make accessible films, and that’s not usually what people say about experimental movies.”
And yet he is experimenting. With Chain’s long takes, its patient, exhaustive montage of big box stores, and lack of traditional plot—though the characters do change, there is little of that elusive narrative arc—Cohen is convinced he’s made an accessible film. “Chain is very down to earth,” he says. “It’s about the mall that you go to and I go to. It’s about the shitty job that you once had or I once had, or many, many other people we know have had or will have, and it’s about the corporate presence in our lives that we’re all finding to be unavoidable. Yet, somehow to make a movie about that, some people will construe it as arty or pretentious or difficult. I think it’s exactly the opposite.”
That American audiences—and more importantly, American media outlets—have not yet realized the accessibility of his films, and particularly Chain, is a continual source of annoyance to Cohen. “Why is it theoretically more accessible to make a movie about people trying to kill each other while things explode around them, or life on another planet, or some kind of lifestyle that few of us will ever access?” he asks. “I’m totally puzzled by how things have been warped into that norm of storytelling.”
Certainly there is a connection between the corporatized architectural landscape of Chain and the sometimes close-minded world of the film industry; we come to have expectations of what a film—or a building—should look like after being fed the same formula for so long. “That’s what the film is about: It asks certain very simple questions about why we assume that certain things are natural,” says Cohen. “The same way that we assume that Wal-Mart is a natural part of the landscape, people assume that a blockbuster is the natural mode of filmmaking. It’s not the natural mode; it’s a perverse mutation.”
Unfortunately, our cinematic expectations are so ingrained that some in the industry might describe Cohen’s film that way. The problem, Cohen says, is not that audiences reject his genre-bending movies, but that distributors and even festival judges don’t realize their value—how many artists’ projects have been turned down because the backers just don’t know how to market it?
“[Audiences] might be thrown by some ways that the film is made; they might be confused about the film’s gray area between narrative and documentary, but I’m not having problems with the audiences. It’s just a matter of how you can get the movie in front of the audiences,” he says.
Though Chain has enjoyed success at many film festivals, in America and abroad, as well as a run at the new IFC Center in New York, Cohen still feels like his mode of filmmaking is not properly appreciated. If the term “experimental” is ill-fitting and misleading, “independent” really does apply to Cohen. His films are fiercely independent (another title Cohen thinks has been watered down into meaninglessness), though not in the way of Sundance, say—he has love neither for the indie world nor the commercial industry, seeing very little difference between them. Nor do American film festivals appeal to him much, either. He is, as they say, “big in Europe.” That phenomenon is partially explained, Cohen thinks, by the European sensibility to film, a different set of artistic priorities that make room for films like Cohen’s.
“We don’t have anywhere near the quality of festivals that they have in Europe,” he says. When I point out that we have, at least, an ever-increasing quantity of film festivals, he informs me that, “every town having a film festival is not a solution, because a lot of those towns are thinking more in terms of boosting the local economy and trying to attract a couple of stars to walk into their gala opening. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re really concerned about filmmaking or independent filmmaking or having filmmakers talk about real things.” Cohen has little patience for the culture of film festivals or the mystique around independent filmmaking. “It’s about who gets into the party and how big the goody bags are and the media frenzy around sales,” he says. “It’s primarily about whether or not something sells and that’s just not where I come from, and it’s not where I want to end up.”
To be fair, though, even as Cohen lambastes the mainstream, he’s certainly waded in it, making music videos for bands like REM and Sparklehorse—bands that have been lumped into that category, “alternative,” which he so dislikes. But that’s part of his independence; he makes decisions about what projects he wants to take on, unguided by the strong arm of studios, or agents, or marketers. “I want to keep making movies that I have control over, without compromising them,” he says.
Chain is no compromise, even if the documentary elements bend to accommodate the narrative ones, and vice versa. It is, in a way, its own animal, and it is this that pleases Cohen most. “Every time I show it, somebody thinks it’s a straight documentary,” he says. “And that’s just the best review I could ever get.”