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Filmmaker Jem Cohen On 35 Years Of Documenting Art And Music

Michael Flanagan
Jem Cohen at the Marfa Myths Festival, 2018.

Jem Cohen has made a career out of experimenting with the documentary form. The New York based filmmaker has utilized a variety of formats, including Super 8, 16mm, and video, across a filmography that includes over 60 works. He is perhaps best known for the 1999 documentary, “Instrument,” a labor of love that took more than ten years to complete. The film follows the seminal punk rock group, Fugazi, as they tour, record, and live their lives throughout the 1990s. Cohen has incorporated punk rock’s do-it-yourself approach into his own filmmaking style, never letting a lack of mainstream commercial success stop him from developing one of filmmaking’s most unique and impressive bodies of work. 2012’s “Museum Hours” found the director experimenting with a feature length film that blends elements of both documentary and narrative. It was nominated for and won multiple awards, and received a theatrical release in the United States and Europe.

More recently, Cohen was in Marfa, TX, for the 2018 Marfa Myths Festival, where he presented an edition of his Gravity Hill Sound + Image performance. The performance consisted of a live soundtrack to a unique combination of short films, some made specifically for the event. It served as a fitting end to a weekend that celebrated creativity, arts, and culture in Texas. After the festival, the filmmaker answered questions about his experiences in filmmaking, documented here in the following interview.

Michael Flanagan: Being that your filmography lists “Witness,” a document of the Butthole Surfers, as one of your earliest works, and that Texas Public Radio’s headquarters is just down the road from Trinity University in San Antonio, where that band began, I think this topic would serve as an appropriate starting point for this interview. What was going on in your life around the time you created “Witness,” and what was your relationship to the band?

Jem Cohen: I came to know of the band because I went to high school with Ian MacKaye from the bands Fugazi and Minor Threat. We were deeply involved in the Washington D.C. punk scene and it was our habit to discuss unusual phenomena in that world, and there wasn’t any phenomena more unusual at the time than the Butthole Surfers! In part because they represented a radical sonic extreme apart from what a lot of other punk bands were doing. Once Ian got familiar with them, he let me know right away that they were extraordinary. I saw them around 1985 and was blown away. I wasn’t so interested in the kind of perverse spectacle that the band could certainly deliver… what really affected us was that there was a wild sonic experimentation going on that felt very unusual and free, as well as being dark and funny. It was really mind-blowing at the time in a way that’s hard to encompass now because there have been a lot of crazy bands since then and a lot of sonic experimentation, but at the time when we were coming out of a hardcore scene that had a lot of set structure to it, the Buttholes felt very free.

I thought their shows were absolutely amazing and I’d never experienced anything like them. I was shooting Super 8 film at the time and I immediately started to try and document them. In a way as a filmmaker, what interested me about the whole thing that was going on was not so much, “Oh here’s this crazy band that I want to do fan stuff for,” it felt to me like looking into another world and there was a sort of anthropological aspect of it that I thought would be interesting on film. It seemed like it was sonically and experientially from outer space. It was a little bit to me like filming some tribal event that an anthropologist might witness, and that’s what I was sort of vaguely getting at. I thought they were experimenting in a way that opened up my sense of what punk could be and what music could be. This was all before a lot of things happened with the band that I started to find more problematic. There was a certain kind of very dark circus to that whole scene that I wasn’t interested in. There were a lot of drugs and there were a lot of people trying to push the band to be more and more outrageous. And then the band was also eventually dealing with commercial success. Eventually it became something that I wasn’t that into. But in those early days, I thought that they were very creative and I wanted to document it.

What was your early life like, and how were you initially exposed to filmmaking as a creative outlet for yourself?

I grew up in a family that had a lot of interest in the arts. My father trained as a painter and my mother wrote children’s books. We were always being taken to museums and being encouraged to do art making. My mother also had a previous husband who was an important street photographer named Sid Grossman. So there was a connection to this whole tradition of street photography, and that was important in my upbringing because it was part of family tradition. I grew up very much immersed in a lot of art stuff. When I went to school, I knew that I wanted to study art. I started doing photography and painting, but I already had the sense that I might be interested in film. As soon as I could, I started making slide shows with music and made a film. I started out pretty sure that filmmaking was going to be my world. I didn’t go to graduate school, so when I got out of college I started working primarily in the Super 8 format. As I tried to sort of get into bigger film projects I realized that it would be more practical and interesting if I followed the template of the punk rock world or the DIY path rather than thinking that I had to go to film school or be part of the industry. So because of my music scene experience in D.C. I had a template that allowed me to move forward on a very independent level without getting into a more traditional film school track or industry track. I was quite inspired by punk bands that weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. That was my path and I guess it still is in a way.

https://vimeo.com/38782238">Jem Cohen: We Have An Anchor from https://vimeo.com/empac">EMPAC @ Rensselaer on Vimeo.

What does punk mean to you and how does it figure into your filmmaking?

Whenever I’m asked that I usually quote Ian MacKaye, he always said “Punk is the free space.” He was indicating that we weren’t concerned with punk as a particular scene or music that came out of New York or London that had certain kinds of clothing or style attached to it. We were concerned with punk as the thing that happened to come along that opened our eyes to the idea that there were certain kinds of experimentation and certain political commitments that could be part of what you do, in whatever field you happen to be in. That’s what punk was and is to me, and it’s important to distinguish it, because people get hung up on safety pins in your nose and other trappings like that. Punk to me is listening to where John Coltrane ended up going or looking at a painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder. It’s about seeing work that is 

To me, Willie Nelson is punk, because he's always fought the status quo in creative, brilliant, and beautiful ways.

radical and exploratory, and trying to confront the status quo. It isn’t about one particular type of music or a group of people who were listening to it, it’s more an idea and a direction. To me, Willie Nelson is a punk, because he’s always fought the status quo in creative, brilliant, and beautiful ways. When I listen to that strain of Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Terry Allen, I find it very confrontational to what people expect from country western tradition. And though it’s not necessarily punk in the way it sounds, it is in the way it takes expectations and challenges them, turning them on their head and freeing them up.  

How do you feel about the current state of the filmmaking industry, and in what ways can it be improved?

I’m not really part of the filmmaking industry, and I don’t spend too much time worrying about it. When you use the word “industry” I tend to think of either big Hollywood or this whole degree to which so-called independent film has been co-opted into being a miniature Hollywood with its own red carpet shenanigans.  

What are its problems?

In order to feed an obsession on profit and celebrity, there’s a tendency to have to force films into certain successful templates, and that’s of no interest to me. That’s kind of obvious, and it’s been pointed out a good deal, so I don’t know that I need to go into a predictable tirade about big Hollywood movies or stupid indie stuff. It’s more important to point out that there are always alternatives to that. They’ve never gone away, they’ve always been there. They’re in the experimental world and the countless foreign films that don’t fall into that industry standard. And they’re also in any number of American films that just don’t fit the mold. I try not to get too hot and bothered about what the industries are doing because they do what they do, and I try to do something else. In a way, that’s just how it’s always been in every realm of human endeavor. I could get very depressed or distracted if I spend a lot of time obsessing over why when I pass by a movie theater that has seven screens, sometimes five of them have the same hit movie playing on them when there’s a really interesting “smaller film,” and the smaller film is actually a much bigger film in the sense of it being much bigger in its power or interest or creativity. I could get upset that that movie may have a hard time getting noticed. So that’s a big problem, but it’s also one that you can’t be stopped by. I try to turn my focus away from that being a terrible dichotomy and just concentrate more on how to make my work and hopefully people will get some access to it. And there are occasional surprises.

Who are some filmmakers, or even just artists in general, whose work you particularly admire and how have they influenced you?

There’s too many to name them all, but in photography you could say August Sander, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt. In film I could randomly throw out John Cassavetes, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, Peter Hutton, and James Benning. That isn’t to say that I don’t l love classic Humphrey Bogart movies, there is room for a lot of different approaches to things. I’m also very much influenced by music, painting, poetry, writing, and other things, as much as I am by film. For example, when I read James Baldwin, it’s just as important to me as what’s going on in the film world. I’m also very much influenced by landscape looking, just being someplace and really trying to feel it, it’s really maybe more important than anything else.

Can you talk about the inception of the Gravity Hill Sound + Image project?

I have a long history of working with musicians. I get a lot of inspiration from music and I learned a lot from the punk scene. I have collaborated with musicians many times, and in doing so I became fascinated by the ways in which sound and image collide, conflict, and create something other than what they are on their own. I also found that in the world of the movies, that relationship is often a very predictable one. In most soundtracks, the music is used to guide the viewer emotionally in very controlled ways. That is very limiting, but there’s all kinds of other things that can happen when sound and image are put together. I just wanted to explore that, and to challenge it.

So, Gravity Hill Sound + Image is a name for a mutating realm of possibility that involves projecting moving images and having musicians respond to them, and trying to do it in a way that neither the sound or image is dominant. We’re trying to do it in a way that’s not just jerking the audience around. The line-up can change, but with Gravity Hill there’s been a core of musicians that I’ve been working with that is made up of Jim White, who played with Dirty Three and many other groups, Georgios Xylouris, a master lute player from Crete, Guy Picciotto, who played with Fugazi, Vic Chesnutt, and Rites of Spring, and Jessica Moss, who was in a wonderful Montreal band called Silver Mt. Zion. It’s a way of trying to encourage audiences to look and listen carefully, and not just lean on predictable ways in which movies are often sound tracked. It’s challenging, and it’s something that I find very difficult to be satisfied by. But it’s really intriguing to try to see why it’s so hard to really take that into unexpected directions.

How did you get involved with the Marfa Myths festival, and what did your work there with Gravity Hill Sound + Image entail?

The festival initially contacted Guy Picciotto. They had heard about this show that we do. We were talking to them about doing it as a gig there, although we didn’t have any great intimacy with the festival before. But then it also became interesting to me to think about doing something site specific, having to do with the local landscape. I ended up flying down there a few days early and connecting with a local filmmaker, David Fenster, who’s worker I happened to be familiar with. I decided to do this rather reckless proposition of making a film that week and throwing it to the musicians, and concocting a soundtrack in a very short time. It was a blast, and the landscape is incredible in West Texas. I thought the new film might be 10-15 minutes long, but we ended up with a brand new 32-minute piece. But again, as with everything else, while the beautiful desert landscape is very beautiful and seems untouched, you find out that there are a lot of oil and fracking interests that are changing that landscape. And just like with the interesting venues and independent work, you can’t take the thing for granted. You find out there’s something that is endangered, and while I couldn’t really take that on in my work, I think that if you appreciate that landscape and you document that landscape then its inherently part of what you are doing.                                       

In regards to music, DIY culture has cultivated performance circuits for touring bands and independent distributors that make it feasible to produce, sell, and perform independent music. You seem to be a part of this DIY culture in the filmmaking community, though it does not seem quite as easily accessible as its musical counterpart. Why do you think this is, and how would you recommend that aspiring filmmakers access this culture?

I think that the main lesson is that you always have to have a very stubborn and fierce determination to support the truly independent work, venues, outlets, and festivals. You do that first on an individual level by what they call “voting with your feet.” If there is a choice to be made between giving your ticket money to a blockbuster that is going to do something relatively predictable versus something that is much riskier and more independent, then you just have to make that decision about where you’re going to put your time and money. A lot of it is just that simple, I think that people often take for granted that there will be some venue, film series, or program that offers this stuff up. But those venues cannot be taken for granted, it’s very difficult to keep them alive. To bring it to Texas, there are micro cinemas and things like that which exist there, but they only exist because of very hard work on the part of the people who run them. They need their audiences and they need that support. They also sometimes need the support of funding agencies and granting agencies, and then there’s that whole issue of what the government is doing, where it seems to be more accepted to be throwing endless trillions of dollars at completely horrific and wasteful military endeavors than it does to support the arts that are actually rejuvenating and positive in human history. There’s that broader question, but on a personal level I just feel like we all need to remind ourselves that we vote with our decision every time we buy a ticket for something. And I think that increasingly it’s important to realize that all of that activity can’t just be from the screens. That access to a rare film on a computer screen is important, but it’s very secondary to experiencing it in the way in which it was intended, which can mean uninterrupted in a dark room projected in the format in which it was created or at least in which the maker had some say in. It’s really a shame if that just becomes part of the incredible, but somehow secondary to direct experience that is the internet.

Visit Jem Cohen online.