While street photography may be a recognized genre, you never hear talk of ‘street filmmaking’. In cinema, urban portraits are commonly classified as either ‘city symphonies’ or ‘essays’. The former is an ode – one enthralled to verticality, made up of magnificent vistas of the sprawling city, film giddy with snappy editing rhythms that mimic the ravenous pace of daily life. Walter Ruttmann’s breathless Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s rooftop spectacle Manhatta (1921), even Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) all fit this style. The latter, meanwhile, is a rigorous critique à la Jean Vigo (À propos de Nice, About Nice, 1930), Chris Marker (Sans Soleil, Sunless, 1982, perhaps being his best-known example) or, more recently, Patrick Keiller (London, 1994) and Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003, and Get Out of the Car, 2010).
The symphony deals with emotion, the essay with ideas. These descriptions make you think of crowds or concepts, not of real people’s lives. Neither term describes a filmmaker constantly having their camera to hand to forage for forgotten city nooks or to transform celebrated crannies into something strange. Neither commutes immediacy or pays testament to a life of walking pavements. To paraphrase photographer Bruce Gilden: if you can smell the street by looking at the film, it’s a street film.
During 25 years of obsessively roaming streets around the world, above all in his native New York, Jem Cohen has created over 70 films in Super 8, 16mm and, most recently, digital formats. His shape-shifting filmography stretches documentary so as to encompass travelogues, newsreels, street diaries and imagined histories of real cities as well as fictional ones. Urban cine-poems are smuggled into stories about mall cleaners, portraits of musicians and, early in his career, into music videos. (Remember the nocturnal glimpses of empty car parks and sodium-tinged shop windows in his video for REM’s 1992 single, Nightswimming?)
Cohen’s cinema remains modest, free-wheeling and staunchly personal. In the 1990s, a generation of directors (David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek) graduated from music videos into feature filmmaking, but that wasn’t an attractive proposition for the defiantly independent Cohen. ‘Polluted rivers,’ he calls music videos. ‘But they don’t own the river, they just own the pollution.’ Counting (2015) is his most recent film. An homage to Chris Marker and a global travelogue encompassing six cities, it is only Cohen’s fifth feature-length production. As a result of his dedication to the short form, his work rarely gets seen on the big screen. (At the time of writing, Counting has no UK distributor.) Very few of his films are available on DVD, meaning that his recent retrospective in London – organized by the Whitechapel Gallery, the Barbican and Hackney Picturehouse – was an important event.
While Cohen collaborates regularly (particularly with musicians), for his short street films he is largely of the lonely, one-man-band school of filmmaking. I suspect that his blurred silhouette, wearing his trademark fisherman’s cap and holding a camera, is well known to New York’s surveillance sentinels. Roaming and filmmaking are normally incompatible. The former lives for time and chance, the latter fortifies itself against such dangers with contracts, budgets, large crews and so on. In 2005, Cohen’s wanderlust resulted in the 16mm film in his camera being confiscated by the transport police. The footage was never returned to him but, after enlisting the help of a pro-bono lawyer, eventually the empty cannister was sent back with the letters ‘fbi’ crudely written on it. He wonders what ‘Joint Terrorism Task Force’ made of the footage. Although it wasn’t a particularly amusing experience at the time, he laughs now thinking about it. As a protest, he plundered his archive and pieced together footage of parades, subway journeys and lyrical street views in the short NYC Weights and Measures (2006), warning against draconian government restrictions in the credits sequence.
Cohen’s short, flickering city scenes resemble a moving photobook as much as they do cinema. While he regularly pays tribute to film essayists such as Joris Ivens, Humphrey Jennings and Vigo, he is closest in spirit to the street shutterbug. Many of his subjects – rubbish, graffiti, signs, neglected architecture – are inherited from Walker Evans. His camera doesn’t glide effortlessly along the pavement; it is anchored to it, looking up – but, more often, down – at the shadows and feet of passersby. When faces appear, they likely stare back, as did the strangers that Leon Levinstein pushed his camera up close to in 1950s New York. Cohen likes a wet city (he is inspired by Ivens’s 1929 portrait of a dripping Amsterdam, Rain) and, taking heed from Eugène Atget’s nocturnal strolls, a murky one. Water and darkness make the streets more abstract, strange and lonesome. The blend of eerie music and sampled street hums and beeps that accompanies films such as Night Scene New York (2009) makes Manhattan feel like it’s underwater. Cohen vehemently avoids grandiose sights; if New York’s skyscrapers figure, they look like hallucinations in a twilight mist. It’s only at the end of his journey around Sicily’s Catania, in Blood Orange Sky (1999), that the town’s giant neighbour, Mount Etna, appears – and, even then, all we see is the quiet spectacle of a lava crack in the sunset.
Edgelands are Cohen’s terrain. In Le Bled (Buildings in a Field) (2009), he and the writer Luc Sante follow the road from Tangier’s airport to the city. It is lined with the ruins of abandoned but inhabited construction sites: concrete blocks that Sante’s narrator describes as ‘plaster cast buildings, like the playthings of giant children; imitation houses made as decoys’. They take care not to just revel in this ghost city, but explore its citizens too. Chain (2004), his investigation of America’s uniform suburban hinterlands, determines that mall plazas, escalators and car parks are all that’s left of public space. The soporific, numb manner in which Cohen captures this corporate sprawl and the consumers lost in it, takes its cue from his drifter protagonists: Tamiko, a Japanese businesswoman researching theme parks, dreams of a huge entertainment funfair of her own called ‘the floating world’; mall cleaner and chronicler Amanda imagines her workplace flooded. In 2004, Cohen was one of the few forecasting financial doom. Now, he regularly documents protests, from the Occupy movement (in his 2011 newsreels) to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations seen in Counting. He is one of New York’s – and America’s – most fervent contemporary cataloguers and critics.
What makes Cohen’s films more than just lyrical signposts to hidden city corners or revolts against an increasingly standardized urban landscape, however, is their human factor. Museum Hours (2012) is a film about a platonic friendship between a man and a woman: a rare thing in a cinema so obsessed with romance. As museum guard Johann guides Canadian visitor Anne around the galleries and streets, their brief encounter feels even more fleeting seen alongside the transient city scenes Cohen sketches. Psychogeography, for him, is about finding intimate moments that disrupt the anonymity of urban life: abandoned and inexplicable hand-written snippets, such as ‘baby disappear’ and ‘my time left’, which he notices scrawled on walls and lampposts in the 1996 short Lost Book Found (still his most remarkable and startling urban reverie). Nearly 20 years later, in Counting, Cohen continues to keep an eye out for small acts of resistance – whether it’s a man asleep while commuters flood past or a woman who rips off some, but not all, of a collection of fly-posted personal ads covering a large billboard selling cat food to make her own composition. Study the credit sequences of Cohen’s films and you’ll find reading lists and dedications (‘Remember Jean Vigo’, ‘Signalman: Walter Benjamin’) and the same strain of poeticism in unexpected places. My favourite note comes at the end of NYC Weights and Measures: ‘Thank you to the Man on the F Train who sang Schubert.’
Jem Cohen is a filmmaker who lives and works in New York, USA. His latest feature film, Counting, opened in New York in July.