15 for ’15, by Scott Nye
The term “pure cinema” has become a bit diluted and simplistic over the years, but it’s difficult to think of a better use for it than with Jem Cohen’s Counting. Despite earning something skirting the edges of mainstream acclaim with his excellent 2013 narrative feature Museum Hours, his latest film sees him return to the documentary form, more closely resembling a sketchbook or diary. It also, thankfully, does not hold the viewer responsible for discerning larger patterns or themes, perfectly content to allow us the simple pleasure of observing life in a handful of locations (chiefly New York and Moscow, with stops in Istanbul, Porto, and Sharjah) across fifteen chapters. Something of a globetrotting, 21st century city symphony, Cohen explores the chaos of the modern world and the way countries act as institutions. But rather than contend himself purely with observation, Counting can become surprisingly intimate.
Often this intimacy takes the form of casual encounters – a woman bathing in the afternoon sun, snippets of conversations in a communal kitchen, a two-man band playing a private show on a rooftop. Most of the images Cohen finds were accessible to anyone on the street; these scenes require some additional access and consent. Even more jarring are very brief glimpses we get into Cohen’s family. We see a woman showering naked, hear a phone call telling him his mother has had a stroke. Is the old woman in the hospital bed, gazing longingly at the camera while surrounding signs encourage visitors to speak to her loudly, his mother? The very fact of its inclusion suggests so.
Such moments also paint the larger film in a different context, making it probable that every image contains personal resonance. Did he make these trips purely to capture these images, or did the images come secondary? The chapter format allows Cohen to organize his thoughts to a certain extent, but facts and impressions of one inevitably bleed into another. The first chapter on Moscow gives the impression of a rotting city, the remnants of a communist dream that hasn’t the ability to sustain itself. Later, we’ll see impersonators of famous Soviet figures and journey into an aerospace museum, tributes to a bygone world that promised an alternate present. They stand out for how clean they are, but there’s something slightly worn in the taxidermied dogs, and Stalin having a seat on a folding chair does make the fella seem a little less grand. New York, conversely, seems under constant renovation, its nearest tie to the past – Coney Island – totally deserted in the dead of winter. Only the homeless are left to keep Cohen company, providing a rare instance in which he’s even heard on camera, in a moment that could either be read as exploitative or empathetic.
His images are mostly fairly straightforward, a matter of pointing the camera in the right place, but occasionally he’ll allow himself some small effects. A reduced frame rate slows images down to a stutter, at one point making it seem as though a group of flags are frozen in the breeze. In its most dazzling sequence, Cohen films through two glass walls of a shop on a busy New York street, creating reflections within reflections, a mass of people moving in, out, and beside one another, while audio from congressional hearings on NSA surveillance plays on the soundtrack. Though this reads as a critique of the NSA, Cohen is also presenting us with their experience, a mass of tiny moments in people’s lives from which we hope to extract larger meaning. Especially in these reflections, we realize how little can possibly be ascertained when presented with so much, so fast, suggesting perhaps a fruitlessness in even attempting to survey.
The film is also just flat-out gorgeous, within the terms it sets. This isn’t a Samsara-esque barrage of symmetrical compositions and time-lapse photography. But his catch-as-catch-can approach creates a far more tender experience, the instinctive realization that this world is fading even as he’s filming. There are dozens more images and scenes that could be discussed here, some as mysterious as the larger construction into which they’re placed; small slivers of light interrupted by limbs are sticking with me most right now. Even without the ability or inclination to interpret every one of them, Counting is quite a pleasure to watch. Even the citation of Chris Marker (undoubtedly an influence, but such a titanic figure that one might be better advised not to invoke him) . The very nature of the film encourages one’s mind to wander, to ponder on small details, to drift through the expanse of curiosity and imagination. I don’t know Cohen’s larger purpose, or if indeed he even has one. But I thoroughly enjoyed traveling the world with him.
Counting opens in New York’s IFC Center July 31st; check in at Cinema Guild’s website for future playdates.