Jem Cohen's short films showcase atmospheric mastery

Monday, March 21, 2016 - 12:27am

The narrator in Jem Cohen’s film “Lost Book Found” says, “as I became invisible, I began to see things that had once been invisible to me.” Filming city streets unobtrusively with a single camera and plucking his narratives from months or years worth of documentary footage, Jem Cohen’s films do just that. His work hones in on small details, layering snippets of individual stories to build a distinctive portrait of city life.

A hybrid of documentary and narrative, Cohen’s films look to the landscape of cities — the streets, objects and debris tossed to the wayside — to understand their inhabitants. Other times, he separates individual people from the bustling crowd on the streets and focuses on someone walking, talking on the phone or simply standing, a poetic perspective on seemingly mundane daily life.

“Night Scene New York” roams Chinatown’s night streets. Pedestrians dash for cover from the rain in “Helianthus Corner Blues,” a poetic second look at an ordinary nuisance. Crossing the pond to London, “On Essex Road” is a watchful observation of everyday engagements with historic cultural markers.

The “Gravity Hill Newreels” chronicle the Occupy Wall Street protests in the fall of 2011. Unlike news media, Cohen’s films do not focus exclusively on the implications of the protest, but rather take the time to understand the protestors themselves. Organizers lead groups in reciting a protest manifesto, people crowd around tables lined with literature. We read various protest signs, see a nod of solidarity between strangers in the encampments, watch volunteers pass out coffee and pack supplies.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “The Passage Clock,” the films overlay imagery of Parisian architecture with a narrator reading through the various dictionary definitions of “passage” for a haunting exploration of motion and travel, evolution and loss, communication and archive.

“Lost Book Found” reminisces about a notebook wherein its author meticulously groups and chronicles spaces all over the city. It’s a history of New York City slinking through forgotten alleys and discount stores, using the relics of commerce to explain what the past was like and the direction it took.

Cohen’s shots are constantly in motion, restless with the taut energy that drives the people in them. A roving camera settles its eye on a subject as a smattering of pedestrians will dash across the foreground, temporarily obstructing the view. Hints of someone’s arm gesturing mid-conversation peek out from the edges of a frame. While Cohen pinpoints the beauty in individuals, it’s the public intersection where all their stories converge that is truly mesmerizing, and Cohen captures the atmosphere masterfully.

Yet in spite of the relentless movement, Cohen manages to pluck out the exact details needed to make time slow down. As viewers, we’re immersed into the lives of his subjects. We stream across busy sidewalks, overwhelmed with our own thoughts and the external stimuli bombarding us, but then we look up and catch the eye of someone passing us. Cohen’s work captures that split second of understanding that this is us and this is you, and we see each other, before we both whizz off into the next chapter of our individual lives.