Jem Cohen (director of Museum Hours): Interview
“I just wander around and shoot, and I make stuff out of that.”
I recently spoke with the American filmmaker Jem Cohen, most likely best known to TMT readers as the director of the free-form Fugazi documentary Instrument and for his famed 16mm live projections for Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He recently released the stunning documentary/fiction hybrid Museum Hours, his first foray into narrative feature filmmaking, and he’ll be orchestrating a performance of We Have an Anchor at BAM in Brooklyn today, his multi-screen digital/film evocation of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, which includes a live score from members of GY!BE, A Silver Mt. Zion, Fugazi, and more.
I chatted with Cohen in his home in Gowanus, Brooklyn over a faulty Skype connection, which peppered our conversation with the quiet anxiety of not being quite sure if information was getting across.
First, could you tell me about the genesis of We Have an Anchor?
The genesis is that it was commissioned by a place called MPAC, which is a media center in Troy, N.Y. They develop and bring to life experimental media projects and they were actually doing a series that had to do with texts. Anyway, I had been shooting off and on in Nova Scotia, particularly in Cape Breton, for 10 years and I had a lot of material and thought it might be nice to do an environmental portrait, which is a bit of a break from the more urban stuff that I’m usually associated with. And so that was the first iteration, a couple of years ago in Troy.
I’m always shooting, I’m always gathering material and I’m always pretty broke, so if there’s something that comes up that makes it possible to get stuff off the shelves and into the edit system, then that’s great. And in this case, it also allowed me to work with a bunch of musicians, many of whom I’d worked with before and one key one that I hadn’t, which is Jim White, who I’d always found to be a very interesting and extraordinary player. One of the joys of this kind of project is to be able to take a bunch of people that I know work well together and throw them in with somebody else that I think would be great with them.
[The connection dies.]
[The connection half-heartedly struggles to life. This will continue throughout, but will be left omitted.]
Oh, your image went away completely. Now, there’s just a caterpillar.
Yeah, that’s my caterpillar.
Well, anyway. Next question.
Place has always played a pretty big role in your films and I was wondering — there seems to be a sort of evolution in the way you’ve approached creating a sense of place from your earlier experimental works to Museum Hours, which is about a space in sort of a more traditional sense. What’s the overlap between the way you approach Vienna in Museum Hours to the way you approach Nova Scotia in this new project?
To me, honestly, it doesn’t really feel very different. Because I just wander around and shoot, and I make stuff out of that. And that’s really the bottom line, really. It may sound simple-minded, but that’s OK. There’s a tradition of street photography, which is really what I come out of, and it has to do with people being on the street with cameras and seeing what comes around the bend and then trying to make something out of it. A lot of that is a looser and more improvisational tradition than traditional filmmaking. So, even though I just made a narrative film, it incorporates a lot of documentary material and it incorporates a lot of this kind of haphazard wandering. It doesn’t really feel like a break in the path for me. Of course, it’s different working with dialogue and actors, but even there, there’s a very small crew and there’s a large degree of trying to incorporate the real world directly. I just do what I do.
The problem is that it’s becoming too easy to make spectacular, high quality images, and they don’t necessarily have any real power, they just look great — and there’s certainly a political aspect to that, because it has to do with the ease with which one can attain a sort of surface that can be too slick.
Actually, a Viennese friend of mine saw Museum Hours at the Vienna Film Festival and he told me he was a little frustrated after seeing the film, because he felt you’d done a better portrayal of Vienna than he’d yet seen an Austrian filmmaker do.
Well, that’s nice to hear. All Austrians don’t feel that way. They say, you know, “Why did you make my city look so cold and grim?” But there’s always a city underneath the city. Wherever I’m shooting, I try to recognize that beyond the things that everybody knows from a distance, there’s just a real place where people go about their daily business, and that’s interesting to me. And so, I just don’t make a big distinction whether I’m wandering a field in Cape Breton or in a market in Catania or on the road with a band and I’m looking out of the window. It’s just where I am at that moment and trying to gather it in in some way.
Going off that — your methods may be similar, but there are real differences between these spaces. And in your films, it seems that you have political themes both run across your body of work and yet are differently articulated due to their specific spaces and their particular effects.
Yeah, exactly. I’m not saying that the spaces are the same, I’m just saying that the process is not all that different for me. The places are greatly differentiated by whether or not there’s been corporate takeover. And corporate takeover has reached almost everywhere, but Cape Breton is to a large degree is free of it. And that won’t last forever, but it’s one of the reasons that I like to be there, because I don’t have to look at advertising and I don’t have to look at chain/franchise/logo saturation. It’s a pleasure. But I never separate this sense of place from a sense of politics, because politics, for me, are how we live in relation to powers that are molding how we live.
I want push this question of politics a little further. There’s been some debate behind the scenes at Tiny Mix Tapes recently — after Godspeed’s new album came out, there’s been a discussion about the role and utility of political naiveté in music. In the case of Godspeed, there’s a feeling that, OK, they’re telling us that corporations are ruling us, but is this really news? The other view is that there will always be something interesting in finding new forms through which to articulate these ideas, despite the fact that they do remain somewhat continuous over the course of radical politics and radical culture.
So, I guess in the context of the personal being political, or in this case, space being political, what space do you see for naive politics, or, alternately, how might you like to term that differently?
Well, first of all, to call it naive when the problem remains the same — it’s not naive to indicate that there’s a massive issue that isn’t going away. The word “naive” seems in some ways kind of strange to me. If I could be really critical of that, I would say that just as people are expecting new products, they want new messages and new analyses. So, that kind of sense of, “We’ve heard this already, give us the new thing” implies a kind of capitulation to that whole capitalist sell — where we always want a new fashion, we always want a new magazine cover, and even when it comes to a political idea, we want something that we haven’t heard before. But the reason why some Marxist ideas still have currency is because some of them still apply with great power. There are other wrinkles that are perhaps more problematic or in some ways outdated, but if you look at some basic premise like alienation of workers from what they do or the kind of planned obsolescence that fuels a capitalist economy — those are entirely potent, relevant ways of looking at the current problems. So, on a certain level, it’s natural for people to feel like, you know, OK, I’ve heard that message, can you give me a new reading, but when you look at a band, especially one like Godspeed, I would say that their primary relationship is sonic. They’re not academics, they’re not political economists. I feel that the last record is pretty incredible sonic experience, and the new Silver Mt. Zion record, for example, is quite different from anything they’ve done in the past… I think we need to be a little bit leery of writing something off just because it doesn’t sort of fulfill new-product expectations.
I also will say, in terms of the word naive, that I embrace a naive approach to both politics and music, in the sense that naiveté can also mean bringing a childlike view of things or accepting things with a degree of un-jaded wonder, and I think that’s integral to what Godspeed always wanted to do, to suggest that there could be times and places where in spite of great societal disaster and, for lack of a better word, repression, we can still make a joyous din and embrace it without being jaded about it, without being embarrassed to feel strong emotion or to let oneself go in a kind of storm of sound.
Even Calder Williams recently described Godspeed as “salvagepunk,” which I liked.
Yeah, that’s a nice name. It’d be nice if there were bins in record stores with that.
That kind of sense of, ‘We’ve heard this already, give us the new thing’ implies a kind of capitulation to that whole capitalist sell — where we always want a new fashion, we always want a new magazine cover, and even when it comes to a political idea, we want something that we haven’t heard before. But the reason why some Marxist ideas still have currency is because some of them still apply with great power.
If you’re going to embrace a form of naiveté in the face of apocalypse, there could be worse terms for it.
I think that’s what Fugazi always did, but in a difference sense. I always felt like, as per their song “Reclamation,” that was always part of their project, was to try to pull something out of the wreckage and to carry on. With regards to doing the same thing over and over, there were people who were just eternally jaded about the band, who wrote off the whole band as some kind of boring, repetitive, Marxist clique, when the reality was that it was a group of hilarious goofballs who also had a lot of legitimate anger and a lot of astonishing musical activity. What can I say? There are a lot of people who don’t think politics should be in music, and as far as that’s concerned, they’ve deprived themselves of the Minutemen, and fuck them.
And there are other people who feel like they want every band to be a kind of perfect spokesperson or spokes-vehicle for complicated, ongoing political appraisal, which in itself can be a full-time job, and there are people who do it and do it well, so we can’t expect everybody in every band to have to make a decision between letting go of all of their politics or being perfectly articulate about them all the time. But I don’t pretend that there aren’t complexities and contradictions. To me, there are difficult contradictions posed in Godspeed opening for Nine Inch Nails in big venues, and I argue with the band about those things. But it’s not such a simple equation and I think it’s good that people argue about these things. The real problem is when people find reasons to disengage entirely, and that seems increasingly to be the course with a lot of cultural phenomenon.
So, let’s talk about your end of We Have an Anchor. I know it’s collage again and there’s going to be some overlaps with your previous work, but can you describe the particular aesthetic choices you’re making — since many of us, myself in included, won’t get a chance to see it?
Yeah. With regards to We Have an Anchor, there’s a kind of collaboration, but it’s guided. And it’s the same for Museum Hours, there’s a lot of improvisation, but it’s guided. There’s scenes where one person is speaking scripted dialogue and the other person is free to riff on them, but often we’d discussed in advance that there were things that need to be touched on. It’s the same way with the music. With the group I had for Anchor, I’d bring them fragments of traditional music and music from other parts of the world that relate in an interesting but oblique way, and then we listen to these bits and pieces and I say, “Would you maybe pull this apart?” or, “Would you riff on that?” or maybe develop this using some sort of relationship to this beat or whatever.
So it’s kind of both amorphous and quite detailed, but then I usually back off and let them run, and in the case of We Have an Anchor, I brought a core group of Guy [Picciotto, of Fugazi] and Todd Griffen and Jim White up to Cape Breton for a week and we holed up in the basement of a house in the middle of winter and they kind of soaked in the environment and jammed. Then they would play things for me and I would select bits and pieces to extrapolate on, and then that kind of process extended out to the larger group. But I am a control freak; there’s no point in pretending otherwise, and I’m very obsessive about how music and image work together, so I can’t just hand something off and be OK with it. I have to get in there and wrestle. But I like to at least do that with people who I trust.
And the visuals?
It’s not a film, per se, it’s a hybrid. It’s somewhere in-between a film and concert, but it’s not fair to describe it as a film, because I would never — I don’t think that I would feel right about releasing the same thing as a film. It’s meant to be experienced live. There may be a single-channel version of it at some point, but there are multiple projections, there is a lot of in-frame compositing, and it’s also very much a kind of attempt to deal with analogue as something that can be brought into the digital realm without it being an either/or proposition. Because there’s a lot of film material, a lot of 16mm and now a lot of Super-8, that I’m really trying to celebrate for their particular qualities, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the technology of HD and DCP and that kind of thing.
I’d like to press that film digital question. Can you talk about the future of film and digital? How do you think they can coexist in ideal forms and what are, maybe, the less ideal forms? And for the sake of keeping things consistent, I’d like to ask if you think there’s a politics that’s being articulated within this divide. I have one friend that’s told me that my shooting with digital puts me on the side of the capitalist pushing for ever-new technology.
There’s a tradition of street photography, which is really what I come out of, and it has to do with people being on the street with cameras and seeing what comes around the bend and then trying to make something out of it… So, even though I just made a narrative film, it incorporates a lot of documentary material and it incorporates a lot of this kind of haphazard wandering.
Well, it doesn’t make you that, but you do have to [be] part of that empire, because the technology is ever-changing, and that’s to some degree because it’s very important for the corporations that you be buying new things every six to eight months. So, it’s become patently absurd and very frustrating to try to keep up, but, on the other hand, it’s absurd to pretend that digital hasn’t made a certain high degree of image quality accessible to almost everybody. It’s certainly had a democratizing effect. So, I don’t think there’s any simple answer there.
If you were shooting video in the last 15 or 20 years, with very few exceptions, the image quality was disappointing, the resolution was disappointing, and unless you really got creative about dealing with that, it just felt kind of dismal, compared to what film had been able to do. Now, I think that that game has changed, and the problem [is] that it’s becoming too easy to make spectacular, high quality images, and they don’t necessarily have any real power; they just look great. And there’s certainly a political aspect to that, because it has to do with the ease with which one can attain a sort of surface that can be too slick. Those are things that we have to grapple with. But I can barely afford to shoot film as it is, and I have to keep making things, so I have to just roll with the punches. I can’t afford to be a purist about it, in both a literal, financial sense and also in a practical aesthetic sense. I just have to make things and there are all sorts of tools that make that possible and also difficult, and I just have to navigate that.
So, with Museum Hours, the exteriors were shot Super-16, but with a Bolex, so I was able to do that without any real assistance or crew, because I’m very familiar with that tool, and then the interiors were digital, and that makes things possible that I would never have been able to do in film, and that includes being able to shoot in a relatively dim museum without any lighting, and I’m happy that I’m able to use digital technology. And with the Anchor project, I’m happy that I can take four film frames and drop them into a digital field and have them all running together in a kind of wonderful way, and that’s something that’s part of the new universe of what I can do at home with a nonlinear digital editing system, and I’m glad for that. I’m fine with mixing all of these things, but I will be heartbroken when film is actually extinct.
Well, thanks so much for dealing with this awkward technology situation we’ve had here. Oh, by the way — you included a shot of me in one of your Occupy newsreels, where I’m doing something that I guess could be termed illegal, if only in that particular context. So, thanks for including that.
Oh no! I hope that didn’t get you in trouble.
I don’t think it possibly could have. I’m not identifiable and it’s not too dramatic. It’s just one shot. I was happy to see it.
Just to circle around to what we talked about before, to naiveté — Occupy was in many regards utterly naive, and if it wasn’t naive, it wouldn’t have happened. Because many people like me would have said that it was just not possible to take over a public space in that way, and we were wrong. And I’m not worried about it dying — it was a first step, and the frictions that came out of it, both within and without, were things that had to happen. You get a sense of perspective on these things with you get older, I think.