Jem Cohen - Building a Broken Mousetrap (The Ex) (2006)

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Building A Broken Mousetrap
(Made in collaboration with Matt Boyd)
Camera: Jem Cohen, Peter Sillen, Matt Boyd
Edit: Matt Boyd, Jem Cohen

DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT

SUMMARY:

This film centers around one performance, when Holland-based musicians, the Ex, visited New York to play a concert. This performance is intercut with city scenes, first from Amsterdam and then New York, of construction sites, street life, and protests against the Iraq war and the Bush administration. The construction site scenes relate to the band's dedication to music as a realm for collaborative building and creative destruction. The protest scenes, which include shots from the Republican National Convention that had just taken place in NYC, serve to foreground the band's essentially political nature.

Nonetheless, the core of Mousetrap is the music made at a particular moment. Some documentaries seek to teach or explicate. This one exists primarily to answer a different question: What was it like? (Some might call it a "document," rather than a documentary). It also has elements of the cinematic tradition of the city symphony. In any case, we had no intention of making a traditional documentary film.

In regards to this project's place in the realm of music and the moving image: in an arena dominated by pop star celebrities, lip-sync music videos, and ad-agency branding of rock-n-roll as a "lifestyle commodity," the film hopes simply to remind people of another, more grounded reality. It is that of musicians at work, seeing how far they can push their interplay and their instruments. This is not a promotional film. It is a music film. I believe in this distinction.

THE EX
The Ex have played, in a few incarnations, for over 25 years. They can be fairly described as a punk band, having been involved in the European anarchist/squatter underground that flowered in the 1980's. That said, they have always insisted on exploding genre expectations, especially through influences and collaborations with improvisational and "folk" musicians from around the world. In recent years, they've been particularly involved with African music, touring and recording with bands from Ethiopia and the Congo and forging previously unimagined musical connections. Mousetrap includes an homage to Konono No. 1 (from the Congo) and an Eritrean folk song.

THE APPROACH
The film encourages viewers to look intently--to partake in the way that the music unfolds and the musicians integrate, balancing chaos and control. We believe in the long take, so that people see not just what happens at key moments, but what happens before and after. The camerawork is, like the music, a subjective reaction to unfolding events. Our work as shooters is that of an improvisation with no retakes. We also tried to discover unorthodox ways to mix in the city footage and sound, so that what is captured is not only the band playing in the club, but the energy of the city around them.

The film was done as a non-commercial project; not at the bequest of a record company, or even of the band. The Ex cooperated in full and mixed the multi-track audio, but as filmmakers we were given entirely free reign. On the night we filmed, they also allowed my crew and I to join them without limitation in a space smaller than many New York bedrooms. This made the shooting particularly difficult and particularly lively. I, for one, was always on the brink of disaster, which was, perhaps, appropriate. The project is raw. We shot what we could afford to in 16mm (part 1) and did the rest in dv.

BACKGROUND: WHY MAKE MUSIC FILMS?
In the case of the Ex and this project, I am continuing a line of work (Instrument, Benjamin Smoke, Lucky Three) which explores music done outside of the mainstream and the music industry. I would argue that these projects explore music-making as a form of resistance culture. These films examine musicians that I believe are making music out of necessity, clearly due to motives other than hype and money. They are musicians who have developed strategies of survival that indicate that work outside of the mainstream is possible and, in its way, crucial.

On another level, I simply value watching people work, especially when they do it this hard; there is a filmmaking impulse here which is in some ways anthropological, and in other ways purely celebratory.

I am happy to say that after over 20 years of shooting bands, this performance by the Ex is as fierce and passionate as any I've ever seen. We feel very lucky to have captured it.

Jem Cohen

Although shot primarily in 16mm film and dv, Building A Broken Mousetrap is available only in video formats: Digibeta, DVCAM, Beta SP.

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at 7:34 PM