Jem Cohen - Chain (2004)

“In order to understand the arcades from the ground up, we sink them into the deepest stratum of the dream”—Walter Benjamin

Dedicated to Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings, and namechecking Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed in the end credits, Jem Cohen’s extraordinary feature Chain is a glimpse of the future, here and now. Call it “Present Shock.” A melancholy photo collage of chain stores, malls, and conglomerated concrete spaces unfurls as a single, anonymous ambiance, a desolate spiritual limbo that could be anywhere. Anywhere and Everywhere, in fact. The end credits reveal the film was shot across 11 States, France, Germany, Poland, Australia, and Canada.

Chain is a movie in establishing shots. Except that these shots serve the opposite purpose: obscuring and disorienting— dis-establishing, if you will. (Let’s note in passing that another term for the establishing shot is the “linking” shot.)

On this formal level, perhaps the most pertinent Marker influence is La Jetée (1962), his famous sci-fi in stills. Cohen may use a 16mm camera and a camcorder, but his films (which include the muso portrait Benjamin Smoke [2000] and a number of shorter city portraits like Amber City [1999] and Lost Book Found [1996]) have always been evocative of the older photographic tradition, governed by the impulse to record daily reality as it happens, shooting on the fly, as the mood takes him. The “meaning” of this footage is divined later, in the assemblage, and through Cohen’s impressionistic, poetic soundscapes (Cohen has also been linked with underground and alternative music groups like Fugazi and Godspeed You Black Emperor!).

Beginning in this same fashion, Chain collates material shot over a ten year period—20-40 hours of it in total—some of which also found its way into a 40-minute three-channel installation work (Chain x Three, 2000, with music by Godspeed). About halfway through the process, Cohen began to think of incorporating fictional narrative elements, which are much more pronounced here than in his earlier, Marker-like introspections.

Not that there is an over-arching narrative design here. Rather, we get two shadow narratives. In one, Japanese businesswoman Tamiko (Miho Nikaido) researches American amusement parks for her Tokyo-based company, which is planning a park of cherry trees in perpetual blossom (one of a number of sly satiric digs). At first she is honoured by the assignment, but gradually comes adrift as communication from her employers dries up and she’s abandoned to an endless parade of hotels, flyovers, and lonely public spaces.

In the other strand, teenage runaway Amanda (Mira Billotte) scratches out an existence, squatting in abandoned or unfinished homes on the edges of a mall. She likes to hang out near shops even if she can’t afford to be a consumer herself. In another mordantly witty detail, Cohen shows her conducting endless imaginary conversations over a dead cell phone to legitimize herself and allay the suspicions of the mall’s security guards.

On some level both these women are where they want to be. The consumer paradise exerts its own magnetic attraction, yet they seem numbed, passionless, only half awake. Two lost souls incapable of making a connection. Most of the dialogue comes in the form of interior monologues, disembodied voiceovers rendered all the more automaton-like in Nikaido’s strongly inflected accent.

Coming across a lost video camera, Amanda tapes a series of letters to her sister about her life—not that she seems likely to send them. Filming in the darkness using the camera’s eerie green night-vision she looks like a ghost—and though she eventually lands a minimum wage job, there’s little reason to hope it will revitalize her.

What’s scary and depressing is that 20 or 30 years ago Chain would have looked like a nightmare movie. Today it looks so much like a documentary that some audiences assume it is one. It's precisely this synthesis of the real and the imagined, the poetic and the pedestrian, which makes the film so intriguing. A bricoleur by intuition and political conviction, Cohen has stitched together a very personal response to the impersonal forms of late-capitalist culture: the homogenous globalscape of concrete retail and theme “parks”; the Muzak of cold-callers’ unanswered voice-messages. Perhaps it is in the nature of such a culture to reject such a singular, discomforting, meditative mirror image of itself.

Cinema Scope: The film reminded me of dystopian science fiction, but a science fiction of the present.

Jem Cohen: I’ve been travelling around with the film, and in some places it’s more futuristic than others. Edinburgh doesn’t look like that yet, but last week I was in Houston, Texas, and everywhere you look there is a mall. At the same time, I should say, I didn’t go out of my way to make a depressing movie. It would have been very easy to take pot shots, to make fun of shopping malls. But I didn’t want to be superior, or to condescend to the people who are stuck in that world. That was one of the hardest things to pull off.

Scope: What brought you to the mall in the first place?

Cohen: Well, the film uses footage I shot up to ten years ago. I shot for four years without even broaching the question of narrative at all, just taking on the topography. In the past I’ve done city portraits of places I like in New York or Eastern Europe, but I realized I was focusing on disappearing spaces, old neighourhoods, and I was framing out what should be inescapable: the malls and chain stores which are so monolithic they’re almost invisible to us. So I started collecting these urban spaces on my travels—then I had the idea of joining them together.

Scope: Which is a pretty frightening comment on globalization.

Cohen: I didn’t want it be a parlor game where you’re ticking off these places, recognizing Potsdamer Platz or Vancouver or wherever. That could be gimmicky, if it was all about just making a generic landscape. But it’s pretty remarkable how seamless it is. That you can do a shot cutting from Atlanta to Berlin and there is no sense that we’ve changed location. No matter where I went in the world I could always be shooting this film. It’s a little bit harder in Italy, but it’s just a question of time, I guess. It’s perverse too. I would go somewhere quite lovely and they would ask me, “What to do you want to see?” and I’d go, “Take me to the mall!”

Often with my filmmaking I take a political abstract, like capitalism or globalization, and look at it from ground level, rather than an academic or political point of view. Just to see how people are living this abstraction. Someone asked me at a screening yesterday about my role in this as an American, and although it goes beyond America, a lot of things in the film are (or were) primarily American exports. We didn’t exactly invent the shopping mall, but the way the mall exists now is American, it comes up in the 50s in California and spreads across the country, and then across the world. When our government talks about exporting freedom and democracy I think often we’re talking about making a world that looks like the one in this movie. I mean, a new Wal-Mart goes up every day and a half!

Scope: And the mall as a space seems to turn people into zombies—it’s like Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Cohen: Yeah, I remember when I was a kid I was really excited by that idea and then when I saw the film I was disappointed they were more concerned with the splatter aspect than this wonderful metaphor. The average visit to a mall is four or five hours. People are not just popping in to pick up something they need. These places are so carefully engineered to be a magnetic, disembodied experience where people will buy things they had no idea they wanted. To me they’re disconcerting, and I have a hard time being in them for a long time, they’re very disorienting. On a sensory level these spaces are doing weird things: the lighting is so brutal, and they have these drop ceilings. Visually they’re hard to organize—it’s very hard to shoot in a mall (even if you were allowed to and given time to set things up). It’s hard to get a composition that isn’t shattered.

Scope: And the defunct mall you find feels kind of like a ghost town.

Cohen: I was really lucky to come across one that was being torn down. You get these blessings some times. It was a small town in upstate New York and security wasn’t very tight. I was able to wander around—I was sure I was going to get thrown out. I felt like I was Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971). It was so spooky: there was that one store that was powered up and lit. I snuck closer waiting for the people inside to see me, but they never did. That’s another thing I wanted to reflect in the movie: the constant fall and decay and obsolescence of the malls. They’re never made to last.

Scope: There is also something very ghostly about all the night-vision footage with Amanda.

Cohen: I am drawn to that feature on the video camera, I confess. But it is spectral, and I think she is a kind of a ghost. So many people in the service economy are invisible. I see her as this little spook on the highway, talking into a dead cell phone. Is she really going to send this video letter to her sister? I don’t know or care, really, but I think on some gut level we all need to talk to somebody. She may not be aware of it, but that need is there.

Scope: Four years ago you put together an art installation, Chain x Three.

Cohen: Yes, the installation is a triptych. It lasts 41 minutes and shares about 20 percent of the same footage. The three screens work quite well for this material. Instead of cutting from one country to another, you can create a panorama across the three screens. It has intimations of other narratives. You don’t see any other actors, but you have voiceovers coming in and out, and there’s a lot more music, so it’s a very different experience. But I have to say the feature is probably a bit closer to my heart.

Scope: Why did you decide to incorporate narrative elements?

Cohen: After I had been filming for a while, I became interested in how people navigate these spaces, who they might be, and what they might be thinking. It was a big leap for me. I was afraid of narrative for a long time—I have such a problem with acting that isn’t believable. I mean, you can get a lot of pleasure out of watching Sean Penn transform himself and still be Sean Penn, and in the context of a normal narrative, even if things aren’t spot on, you can get away with a lot because everybody is in this bubble, this cocoon of narrative. But when you make a film that is half documentary the risk is that the documentary elements make the narrative look false—you’re shattering that bubble. It’s not easy to pull it off. I’m not completely sure that I did, but I gave it a good run.

Scope: So how did you go about developing the characters?

Cohen: Well, I started reading the business pages for the first time in my life. I wanted to deal with people, but not to make the people more important than the other elements in the film. You know how they stick B-roll footage on DVDs now? I’ve often thought I’d rather be watching that interstitial material than the film itself.

I met Miho Nikaido (who was in Tokyo Decadence [1992]) in New York, and she was interested in working with me. And I was reading a book on Japanese business practices at the time—in fact I read a book by a woman whose company was converting an old steel mill into Space World, or something like that, and who sent this woman out to study American theme parks. So all that went into the character. As usual, I was working backwards.

Scope: The other main character is Amanda, played by Mira Billotte. How did you find her?

Cohen: Originally I was thinking of four or five characters, and she was going to be one. I wanted the people to be in the space, not critical or sarcastic. Like I said, I didn’t want to be superior. So I had a rough idea of this character, but then I thought how awful it would be to go the normal casting route—I didn’t want five billion headshots of dolled up young women desperate to be the hot young actress, you know? I didn’t want anyone “cute.”

There are things that are hard to ask for in the traditional channels: I wanted a certain kind of toughness. It’s great that her skin isn’t perfect, that sort of thing. Then I was talking to my friends from Fugazi, my “executive producers” (which is a joke term to us), and their immediate thought was she’s probably in an underground band. They suggested Mira, she was in bands out of Baltimore, Maryland, and Guy [Picciotto] had produced some of her stuff. They said she has an interesting presence, and she’s had a pretty rough life. Not much money. Very self-determined but kind of hard to read.

She had just moved to New York and I met with her. She didn’t have any particular interest in acting. I figured let’s give this a try, do a couple of little things. I didn’t know at the time I was going to expand it out as much as I did. Listening to her songs was what really sold me, and watching her perform. The voice that comes out of the body, it’s very startling.

Scope: Was there a script?

Cohen: There was never a script I could have handed to anybody, and the actors never got it. I would give Miho a few pages of her voiceover so she could work on the English pronunciation a little bit, but there was never a full script. Halfway through I couldn’t have told you how I was going to end it or what the structure would be. All of that is discovered in the edit. But at the same time it is carefully written. There isn’t much improv in the traditional sense. Once in a while with Mira she is telling me about her life and I am either using it directly or we’d modify it as we shot, to make it fit with this character. Because we were using the video camera for those sequences, that was very inexpensive to shoot. I’d had this idea that she would find a video camera, and the tapes inside it would lead us into other narratives. But the only stuff that survives from that is the footage from inside Enron—which is genuine, by the way. But otherwise I became so interested in these two women, I let the rest go.

Scope: And how did you work with the actors?

Cohen: Because I don’t have a casting director, a wardrobe, or a make-up person, the first thing we did was we’d go shopping. With Tamiko we went and picked out businessy clothing. With Amanda it was more second-hand stores. I remember the first thing I said to Miho was “I’m not really interested in acting. See that guy coming out of a building over there, smoking? That’s what I want. I am much more interested in having you sit on a bed and have it be totally believable than I am in having you perform some big drama about how your parents hated you.” And she was great. Incredibly patient. We worked on this for three years on and off. She couldn’t cut her hair for three years!

Scope: Some of Tamiko’s voiceover is shocking. I’m thinking of the line about how the races mix in America; when she observes, “Without a pure race it will be harder to have a pure business plan.”

Cohen: That line comes directly from a speech by a Japanese CEO who came over to America a few years ago and said that, not realizing how controversial it would be. I gave it to Tamiko because I didn’t want her to be too simple. I mean, you meet likeable people who will shock you by saying something incredibly racist.

Scope: It sounds like even the “fiction” elements in the film are factual!

Cohen: I brought the documentary material towards narrative and vice versa, so that they meet in the middle. It’s a little bit uncomfortable for some people, but I like that. I do feel like the conventional narrative/star system Hollywood form is bankrupt. The people who inspire me are the Dardennes and Kiarostami. Four out of five “normal” movies I don’t have any interest in. But narrative is wonderful. Human interaction is endlessly fascinating. So we do need to forge some new channels, and I think there is something about approaching it with a documentary mind that’s fruitful. It’s interesting territory.

Scope: It seems to be happening from the other end too: documentaries are using more fiction film techniques—which may be why my companion assumed Chain was a documentary for at least the first half of the film.

Cohen: It makes me very happy when people take it for a documentary, but on the other hand I am concerned that we’re headed towards “docu-tainment.” The cutting is getting so hyped up now: like that surfing doc, every single shot was flipping around doing digital somersaults—like an audience wouldn’t sit still for surfing?! You’ll hear executives telling documentary filmmakers that they should have this and that happening by the third act—it’s really acceptable for them to talk about it in these dramatic terms now. That makes me very uneasy.

Scope: Which brings us to your own relationship with the mainstream, which you brushed against, I guess, with your music videos for REM, Sparklehorse, and Elliott Smith, among others.

Cohen: These were musicians who were interested in the same things I was. Once I saw where the industry was heading I walked away. I haven’t made a music video since 1996. I never did any fashion work or advertising or shopped myself around. But if I watch MTV now it makes me feel awful—it’s just things to sell other things. I don’t want to add anything to the pile.

Some very talented people say it doesn’t matter—it’s all creativity. But I think there’s a difference between creativity to express something from inside you and creativity that’s been modified to make people in a boardroom happy—your creative vision modified for The Gap. Admittedly, I don’t have a family to support, so one day I may change my tune. But I want my tune to be my tune, you know?

Scope: You told me that it doesn’t look like Chain will get distributed.

Cohen: It’s disappointing. I’ve had some good screenings, but not with distributors, and I didn’t get into some festivals I hoped to. It would have been nice to get this film seen in the malls. See, I never look at myself as being experimental or avant-garde. I make films about the world we live in. Why should that be more inaccessible than the films that have nothing to do with it?

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