Directed, Written, Cinematography, and Edited by: Jem Cohen
Produced by: Gravity Hill, Estuary 2016, METAL
Executive Produced by: Gareth Evans
Official Selection of the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival
Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
“I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories”
The act of reviewing a Jem Cohen film is redundant, since his movies are themselves reviews of lived experience in new settings. Cohen has become the avant-garde’s version of Frederick Wiseman, turning his exploration of different environments around the world into typically beautiful documentary portraiture.
Unlike Wiseman, however, whose films wind up looking like those pictures where every pixel is composed of some other little image, Cohen favors abstraction over cohesion, fluidity over rudiment. In some cases – and this is particularly true of his latest project, the Sundance and San Francisco International Film Festival selection World Without End (No Reported Incidents) – his movies leave you with the taste of copper, unfulfilled and pleasantly baffled as to the source of his muse. Like all tastes, a fondness for Cohen’s films is an acquired one; but once attained, highly rewarding.
I can’t say that having seen Cohen’s most beloved projects, including Benjamin Smoke, Museum Hours, and Counting (another SFIFF choice), is enough to welcome you into this idiosyncratic filmmaker’s world. Certainly the man himself is impressively flexible, often working as editor, cinematographer, director, and producer on his works, which have been exhibited at MoMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
But World Without End lacks a certain coherence that made Museum Hours, an almost sacred depiction of glorious Vienna and its world-class art, so reverent and satisfying. Here, Cohen takes as his subject the town of Southend-on-Sea, a seaside village just Northeast of London. What must have been days of interviews, travel, and sightseeing are compressed into just under an hour of lyric visual representation, much of it enchanting to the eye.
In the town, which some prefer to identify as being within the city of Essex, the citizens hold a potpourri of positions.
Cohen enters a hat store, where an old-school gentleman describes the classically English varieties that litter his shelves; and he speaks to an award-winning Indian restaurateur, who pridefully forces his staff to pose for an awkward group photograph. It is Cohen’s gift as a director that he never misses a visual opportunity: ever watchful, his camera captures unwitting children as they skip and scurry through mud canals along the Thames.
Cohen approaches Southend with a hint of amusement, his characters – which include a swank woman in a hotel room, two worn down record producers from the pre-punk era, and as always for him, the mannequins in shop windows – behaving at various levels of goofiness. Like Mark Cousin’s I Am Belfast, World Without End pivots on the bawdy earnestness of its human figures. Each little use of foul language or some local idiom creates a shock because, just moments ago, Cohen seemed honed in on the behavior of Southend’s seabirds.
This attention to environmental specificity spreads into the viewer, too, who will seek in this micro-feature a central idea or theme from frame to frame. As with Counting, Cohen’s editing is intuitive and almost anti-psychological, rejecting even the most basic explanations of his intent as a documentarian.
It is here that this approach becomes frustrating. As the filmmaker strolls through Southend, equipment in tow, he ventures where his incredible eye takes him, regardless of whether the footage he gets there fits in with some broader strategic concept of final assembly. Graffiti, in all its static artfulness, fascinates Cohen as much as clothing stores, dog-walkers, and the sky. There is no plan of travel, and that is how Cohen likes it; but for viewers unprepared to go with the flow, engagement is nearly impossible.
Watching this film, I fell somewhere in between the filmmaker and a casual viewer: I was neither lost or baffled by its poetic approach, yet I also could not decipher any clear emotional responses in myself. It would be a mistake to regard Cohen as a humanist, like Wiseman, or even an ethnographic artist, like Lucien Castaing-Taylor or Walker Evans (to whom Cohen is often compared). This movie is inquisitive and curious about Southend-on-Sea, but it is not emotional, expressive, or winning in any way. It is a depiction of an environment, and when it ended, I felt completely cold and untouched.
What purpose is there in visual poetry except to make one feel, you might ask? It is to make one think, and through constant dogged contemplation – an essential time-suck for even Cohen’s most formalistic work – to beget empathy. In that regard, this new work is a sterling success: it is intelligent, challenging, and largely indecipherable.
As an entertainment, however, it will only suffice for Cohen’s stalwart fans and for museumgoers, with whom it will inevitably find its safest home. Its selection to festivals like Sundance and SFIFF makes sense considering the filmmaker’s long-time association with legendary artists like Patti Smith, R.E.M., and Vic Chesnutt. Ultimately, World Without End (No Reported Incidents) will make fine programming for those who want to prevent Alzheimer’s, but don’t want to do crossword puzzles or play sudoku.