Sound And Vision: Jem Cohen

Contributing Writer; The Netherlands
Sound And Vision: Jem Cohen

In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we take a look at several music videos directed by Jem Cohen.

Jem Cohen's style solidified almost from the get go. His hazy and haptic imagery, with a lot of textural grain lends a dreamlike quality to what otherwise is an observing documentary style. In his films there is some leeway to that style, easily flipping between fact and fiction, diary footage and essayist observations. Films like the masterpiece that is Museum Hours mix the three -documentary, fiction and essay film- into a hybrid blend. His films land upon certain truths, often by chance, sometimes by using earlier shot footage and recontextualizing them into a fictional framework to lend a depth and vision to them. A foraging elderly lady in Vienna at a flea market can suddenly remind us of Brueghel, as seen in Museum Hours, and everyday life becomes art with Cohen's light but confident touch.

Starting with music videos in his early career, his video for R.E.M's Talk About the Passion (below) is more overtly political than most of his other works. While ever the observer, Cohen can become political, like in the concert film/ documentaryThe Ex- Building A Broken Mousetrap from 2006 that splices footage of the Dutch band performing with footage from elections and current day New York, to make a political message about the state of America's two-party system. Still, it is all between the lines, whereas Talk About the Passion drives home its point clearly. It is much more overt than later stuff, bringing to the surface the message about homelessness and the misguided spending of the government on things like warfare, when people at home are starving. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe has stated that the song itself was about hunger, but that this wasn't overt enough in the lyrics. Jem Cohen's visuals, for one time, are blunt and in-your-face, deliberately so. It's a good video, but I prefer the sprawling and hazy nuance of Cohen's other works.

The grainy footage and overlay of imagery in the editing show up in later R.E.M and Cohen-collaborations like Country Feedback, Belong and E-Bow the Letter, the latter of which pushes the bokes and grainy textures of the light to a dazzling extent. The best music video he made for R.E.M though is the one for Nightswimming (also below), that already takes a direction towards a fictional storytelling that can be seen in films like Chain and Museum Hours. Together with the impressionistic lyrics of the song he hits on something of importance when it comes to the texture of his imagery: they have the texture of memories. Ghostly and ephemeral. Hazy like time, and fleeting like water. Dark as the night and bright as the sun.

There is a fly on the wall quality in this fictional stuff, that is also present in his documentary works like Lucky Three: An Elliot Smith Portrait and Fugazi-Instrument. The latter, especially, shows something of Cohen's approach, going into a direction were he shows everything with great nuance, warts and all. There is a lot of focus on fans who think Fugazi are selling out, for instance. Cohen lets his camera guide him to places that other documentarists might edit out, for fear of losing grasp of the story. For Cohen, the story is in the losing of the grasp. It is in the sprawl of details of every day life. His best documentary, Benjamin Smoke, almost scans like southern gothic fiction, with Cohen hitting on profound truths especially in the moments his camera just wanders. The music video for Cat Power's From Fur City (also below) is a companion piece to Benjamin Smoke, with Cat Power performing an hommage to the then recently deceased artists known as Benjamin, who was the central character of the documentary.

Evening's Civil Twilight In Empires of Tin, a longer performance piece by Vic Chestnutt and Silver Mt. Zion filmed for the Biennale, deserves a mention too. It is a piece where Cohen proves himself to be also sort of a curator, as he was as hands-on with the selection of the footage (mostly from Cohen's own video diaries) as he was with the gathering of the performers. At the same time he was also a producer for Vic Chestnutt's album North Star Deserter, proving Cohen to be as adapt at music curation as filmmaking.

In his last video for R.E.M, the one for Oh My Heart, footage shows up that was also repurposed for Museum Hours. Cohen often reuses some of his images. Often they take on different meanings in different projects, but they also show that there is not much change in the visuals of his work. That is not to say that there is a lack of evolution. Not at all. Instead there is a sense of timelessness. His immediately recognizable sense of style sets him apart from his peers.

One of those peers though, is Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch, ever the admirer of Cohen, asked him to provide visuals for two songs from his own band Sqürl. Instead of Jarmusch doing the direction, his friend Cohen made two different pieces that show two different sides of Cohen's work. One is for Berlin '87 (finally below), which repurposes footage from Cohen's own video diaries, some of which made it into films like Buried in Light, made around the same time. In the press notes, Cohen stated: "Roaming Central and Eastern Europe soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, backpack crammed with Super 8 cameras, I was deeply moved by the landscape. I couldn't have guessed some of the footage would surface over a quarter-century later in a film for Jim and Carter's band. They work hard to forge their expansive sound, with its indomitable beat and secret harmonics. Glad I had that backpack, and to be of service."

The second video Cohen made for Sqürl, the one for John Ashbery Takes a Walk shows Cohen's current, more sparse style. It is clearly a vision from the same director, but stripped back and more clean in it's visuals. Gone has some of the texture and haziness, but the keen eye of the observer is still there. Cohen teaches us, in both his music videos and films, to look around. And if we look closely enough, and with attention, the world may open up to us. Our memories and the present might intertwine, and new memories might be formed. Just watch.

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