How do you make an interesting movie about urban sprawl? Jessica Winter meets director Jem Cohen
Tuesday January 25, 2005
Everywhere and nowhere ... a scene from Chain
The full power of Jem Cohen's feature film Chain doesn't hit until the closing credits, which reveal that the movie's anonymous landscape of chain stores and highway interchanges was shot in seven countries and 11 American states.
Chain takes as its subject and setting the homogenised interzones of privately owned public space - shopping malls, hotel complexes, theme parks - that multinational corporations have remade in their own global-branded image, letting regional colour fade to a concrete grey. A hybrid of fiction and documentary, and a brilliantly discomfiting twist on the "location shoot", Chain is also something of a Ballardian horror story.
"I was trying to get a grip on the nature of globalisation, which is such a hazy, amorphous term," says the Brooklyn-based 42-year-old, who shot Chain on 16mm film over seven years. "The film is not about America, but there's no question that we're primarily responsible for how a lot of the planet ends up looking. So much of the world becomes a mirror of American business and culture and iconography." (None of Chain was shot in the UK, though the movie looks an awful lot like the Lakeside centre in Thurrock.)
Perhaps best-known for his music videos for REM and Elliott Smith, Cohen has spent much of his career compiling what he calls "city portraits", including This Is a History of New York (1987) and the extraordinary east-European travelogue Buried in Light (1994). With Chain, however, he has assembled a mosaic of the worldwide urban sprawl. "Whenever I would shoot places that I liked, often old neighbourhoods that were disappearing, I was always framing things out - putting McDonalds to my back or getting some billboard out of the frame - and I was starting to feel like I had to deal with the new stuff," he says. "In the mid-1990s, I started to collect these landscapes, and I found that I could travel anywhere in the world and shoot footage that you couldn't identify in terms of where it came from. I thought I could join all of that material together into a 'superlandscape'."
Wandering this underpopulated superlandscape are Chain's two protagonists. Amanda (Mira Billotte) is a young American wanderer who lives in abandoned housing and floats between menial jobs; she keeps a diary in the form of the video-letter she composes for her sister. Tomiko (Miho Nikaido) is a businesswoman on a fact-finding mission for an unidentified Japanese company that wants to convert a steel mill into a leisure park; when the firm unaccountably ceases contact with Tomiko, she's left idling in her hotel room and roaming the edges of vast roads built solely for cars. "She's like an astronaut in space on one of those tethers," Cohen says, "and the tether gets cut."
The two women, equally alienated, take turns narrating Chain in tones as unnervingly flat and featureless as the spaces they inhabit. "The movie was turned down by a lot of the major festivals, particularly the north American ones," says Cohen, "and I would get comments like: 'Your characters are monotone and uninteresting.' They completely missed the point. The characters have been forced into a monotone existence by circumstance." As Chain proceeds, these women take on deeper hues of ambiguity and pathos, as when the quiet Amanda suddenly bashes out a song in a retail-park piano store before she's swiftly shown the door.
The dirge-like overture to Chain is a small masterpiece of controlled cacophony, provided by Canadian soundscapists Godspeed You! Black Emperor. "The opening music had to be scary, like you're in a car headed for a slow-motion collision - this sense of impending catastrophe that doesn't come in any kind of Hollywood way," the director says.
In a deftly incongruous move, Cohen also deploys the traditional That Lonesome Valley, performed by the Carolina Ramblers String Band. "I wanted these little whispers of American folk music, this specifically regional music in a context where there's no regional character left."
Chain's production was something of an underground operation. "You're simply not allowed to shoot in any of these places," Cohen says. "It had to be done in, let's just say, a very discreet way. The nature of the production ties in with the subject matter of the movie, because you're dealing with surveillance and security and the degree to which the corporate presence is embedded in the landscape and controls people's activity, including that of the film-makers.
"You're not allowed to show logos, even in a documentary, which I find absurd because you can't film the world without showing logos. And you just can't shoot in a mall, any mall, particularly post-9/11 - everybody uses it as an excuse all the time."
Cohen has become an archivist of public space at a time when much of that space has been colonised - and de-historicised - by corporations and transient consumer desires. But the heavy hand of the American fear factor is a new and unwelcome influence on his material, as he discovered on a recent train journey from Washington, DC, to New York.
"I've been shooting from train windows for 20 years, and recently I was stopped on a train and surrounded by cops who actually confiscated my footage for national security reasons," Cohen recounts. "I was really freaked out. I was shooting with an old hand-cranked 16mm Bolex, for God's sake. This kind of crackdown imposes a police-state mentality that is useful for public control. It's incredibly disturbing and it's happening to a lot of people: artists, tourists, anybody. And it's strange, because this incident has the effect of politicising this lyrical landscape footage." (Chain's video footage of emptied-out office interiors takes on an added dimension when you discover the offices belonged to Enron.)
Since completing Chain, Cohen has taken his camera on the road with Amsterdam band the Ex, and is now "getting little whispers of the next big project", he says. "I have a pretty large archive of material of Times Square and 42nd Street, from the mid-1980s through the Disneyfication process to where it is now, and I'm starting to suspect that I could do a period feature film on the cheap by using that archive."
If his Times Square project comes to fruition, it would mark Cohen's return to memorialising lost corners of urban life. Chain, meanwhile, documents commodified spaces so bland and omnipresent that we hardly bother to perceive them. "I hoped that people would feel they were seeing these landscapes anew, because I find them so strangely invisible to us," says Cohen. "When I started Chain they were putting up a Wal-Mart about every four days, and when I finished it was about every day and a half. These places are so big, they're everywhere, but who really looks at them?"
7#183; Chain screens at the Curzon Soho, London W1, on February 8, followed by a Q&A with Jem Cohen. Box office: 020-7734 2255