[URBANTH-L]FILM REV: Jem Cohen's _Chain_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Sat Jan 29 12:48:12 EST 2005

Chain - A Film about Urban Sprawl

All the world's a car park
How do you make an interesting movie about urban sprawl? Jessica Winter
meets director Jem Cohen

Tuesday January 25, 2005
The Guardian

 The full power of Jem Cohen's feature film Chain doesn't hit until the
closing credits, which reveal that the movie's anonymous landscape of chain
stores and highway interchanges was shot in seven countries and 11 American

 Chain takes as its subject and setting the homogenised interzones of
privately owned public space - shopping malls, hotel complexes, theme
parks - that multinational corporations have remade in their own
global-branded image, letting regional colour fade to a concrete grey. A
hybrid of fiction and documentary, and a brilliantly discomfiting twist on
the "location shoot", Chain is also something of a Ballardian horror story.

"I was trying to get a grip on the nature of globalisation, which is such a
hazy, amorphous term," says the Brooklyn-based 42-year-old, who shot Chain
on 16mm film over seven years. "The film is not about America, but there's
no question that we're primarily responsible for how a lot of the planet
ends up looking. So much of the world becomes a mirror of American business
and culture and iconography." (None of Chain was shot in the UK, though the
movie looks an awful lot like the Lakeside centre in Thurrock.)

Perhaps best-known for his music videos for REM and Elliott Smith, Cohen has
spent much of his career compiling what he calls "city portraits", including
This Is a History of New York (1987) and the extraordinary east-European
travelogue Buried in Light (1994). With Chain, however, he has assembled a
mosaic of the worldwide urban sprawl. "Whenever I would shoot places that I
liked, often old neighbourhoods that were disappearing, I was always framing
things out - putting McDonalds to my back or getting some billboard out of
the frame - and I was starting to feel like I had to deal with the new
stuff," he says. "In the mid-1990s, I started to collect these landscapes,
and I found that I could travel anywhere in the world and shoot footage that
you couldn't identify in terms of where it came from. I thought I could join
all of that material together into a 'superlandscape'."

Wandering this underpopulated superlandscape are Chain's two protagonists.
Amanda (Mira Billotte) is a young American wanderer who lives in abandoned
housing and floats between menial jobs; she keeps a diary in the form of the
video-letter she composes for her sister. Tomiko (Miho Nikaido) is a
businesswoman on a fact-finding mission for an unidentified Japanese company
that wants to convert a steel mill into a leisure park; when the firm
unaccountably ceases contact with Tomiko, she's left idling in her hotel
room and roaming the edges of vast roads built solely for cars. "She's like
an astronaut in space on one of those tethers," Cohen says, "and the tether
gets cut."

The two women, equally alienated, take turns narrating Chain in tones as
unnervingly flat and featureless as the spaces they inhabit. "The movie was
turned down by a lot of the major festivals, particularly the north American
ones," says Cohen, "and I would get comments like: 'Your characters are
monotone and uninteresting.' They completely missed the point. The
characters have been forced into a monotone existence by circumstance." As
Chain proceeds, these women take on deeper hues of ambiguity and pathos, as
when the quiet Amanda suddenly bashes out a song in a retail-park piano
store before she's swiftly shown the door.
The dirge-like overture to Chain is a small masterpiece of controlled
cacophony, provided by Canadian soundscapists Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
"The opening music had to be scary, like you're in a car headed for a
slow-motion collision - this sense of impending catastrophe that doesn't
come in any kind of Hollywood way," the director says.

In a deftly incongruous move, Cohen also deploys the traditional That
Lonesome Valley, performed by the Carolina Ramblers String Band. "I wanted
these little whispers of American folk music, this specifically regional
music in a context where there's no regional character left."
Chain's production was something of an underground operation. "You're simply
not allowed to shoot in any of these places," Cohen says. "It had to be done
in, let's just say, a very discreet way. The nature of the production ties
in with the subject matter of the movie, because you're dealing with
surveillance and security and the degree to which the corporate presence is
embedded in the landscape and controls people's activity, including that of
the film-makers.
"You're not allowed to show logos, even in a documentary, which I find
absurd because you can't film the world without showing logos. And you just
can't shoot in a mall, any mall, particularly post-9/11 - everybody uses it
as an excuse all the time."

Cohen has become an archivist of public space at a time when much of that
space has been colonised - and de-historicised - by corporations and
transient consumer desires. But the heavy hand of the American fear factor
is a new and unwelcome influence on his material, as he discovered on a
recent train journey from Washington, DC, to New York.

"I've been shooting from train windows for 20 years, and recently I was
stopped on a train and surrounded by cops who actually confiscated my
footage for national security reasons," Cohen recounts. "I was really
freaked out. I was shooting with an old hand-cranked 16mm Bolex, for God's
sake. This kind of crackdown imposes a police-state mentality that is useful
for public control. It's incredibly disturbing and it's happening to a lot
of people: artists, tourists, anybody. And it's strange, because this
incident has the effect of politicising this lyrical landscape footage."
(Chain's video footage of emptied-out office interiors takes on an added
dimension when you discover the offices belonged to Enron.)

Since completing Chain, Cohen has taken his camera on the road with
Amsterdam band the Ex, and is now "getting little whispers of the next big
project", he says. "I have a pretty large archive of material of Times
Square and 42nd Street, from the mid-1980s through the Disneyfication
process to where it is now, and I'm starting to suspect that I could do a
period feature film on the cheap by using that archive."

If his Times Square project comes to fruition, it would mark Cohen's return
to memorialising lost corners of urban life. Chain, meanwhile, documents
commodified spaces so bland and omnipresent that we hardly bother to
perceive them. "I hoped that people would feel they were seeing these
landscapes anew, because I find them so strangely invisible to us," says
Cohen. "When I started Chain they were putting up a Wal-Mart about every
four days, and when I finished it was about every day and a half. These
places are so big, they're everywhere, but who really looks at them?"

7#183; Chain screens at the Curzon Soho, London W1, on February 8, followed
by a Q&A with Jem Cohen. Box office: 020-7734 2255

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