Milena Gierke: Films
Viewed at: Outpost Gallery (Norwich, UK)
Jem Cohen: Music Works
Viewed at: EPIC (Norwich, UK)
November 2009 saw Norwich host the final installment of the Aurora Festival, an annual celebration of the moving image that featured one-off screenings, thematic film programmes, installations, live performances, discussions and exhibitions.
The final Aurora, titled Common Ground, saw the festival split into a series of events spread across the Festival Week and a brilliantly communal Festival Weekend, in which artists, curators and audiences formed a ‘temporary community’ sharing food, ideas and viewing experiences. Sadly, owing to a combination of low funds and friends visiting from abroad, I was unable to make the Weekend events, but I did manage to catch a few screenings earlier in the week, including shorts programmes from Milena Gierke and Jem Cohen, and Cohen’s Instrument, a feature documentary portrait of Washington D.C. DIY stalwarts, Fugazi.
Milena Gierke: Films
First up was an informal session at OUTPOST Gallery hosted by Milena Gierke, in which the German Super 8mm artist screened a series of her shorts, which are mostly comprised of single 8mm reels, all completely silent and edited in-camera. Gierke specialises in a kind of preservation of mood via the capturing of time-specific images, either in time-lapse over extended periods or in the portrayal of specific moments in time, providing poetic responses to modern landscapes both public and private. Gierke projects everything herself, pausing between films to facilitate their rewinding and allowing the audience time to digest the images to which they have been exposed.
Highlights for this programme included Stündlich I, Februar – April 1991 (Every Hour I, February – April 1991), a fascinating conceptual auto-portrait in which Gierke turned the camera on herself for four-frames every hour over the course of several months, including black frames for every hour she is asleep. By the end of the piece, the four frames have expanded into longer takes as Gierke further explores both the passage of time and its inherent impossibility. A week-long time lapse of Gierke’s living space – complete with television – is another notable work, exploring similar themes in a moving still-life that calls to mind CCTV in the days before it became all-pervasive.
Other highlights include Membran (Membrane), in which bubble wrap forms a ‘protective’ layer on an inner-city balcony, a kind of manmade protection against a manmade environment, and Wigstock, where exhibitionism fulfills its desires in a drag-queen parade that appears quite Warhol/Morrissey-esque even before you catch a glimpse of the New York skyline.
Another of Gierke’s New York films, Beware of Jet Blast, Props and Rotors, documents a visit to a naval ship where sailors operate as part-time tour guides in this most touristic of cities. The programme also included a selection of shorter abstract subjects, from static shots of train windows to kinetic shots of tree shadows, all demonstrating Gierke’s comfortable intimacy with the Super 8mm format and her innate ability to find poetry amongst the mundanity of private life.
Jem Cohen: Music Works
New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen also finds poetry in the mundane, usually expanding his gaze to examine the impact of the commercial world on private lives, most notably in his excellent (and underseen) feature film, Chain. As well as more abstract explorations of the individual within urban environments, Cohen has made a name for himself examining the intersection between the private and public personae of musicians, and a selection of these films were presented at EPIC as part of Aurora 2009.
The fittingly informal screening, with a fair bit of interaction from Cohen himself, begun fairly unobtrusively with Moor (2006), an audio-visual collaboration with The Ex guitarist Andy Moor, and Free (2007), a simple one minute meditation of concepts of freedom in the modern age. Amongst the more traditional ‘music video’ forms on display here was Spirit (2007), Cohen’s visual accompaniment for Patti Smith’s fantastic rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, that features Smith cavorting around her apartment in glorious B/W Super 8mm.
The first real taste of the sheer visual power of Cohen’s imagery comes with Little Flags (2000, embedded below), a Fugazi-scored short utilising footage shot during an overly-patriotic 1991 ‘Victory Parade’ for the first Gulf War, but left unedited for almost ten years. Of course, New York’s propensity for a ‘ticker-tape’ parade results in an eerie foreshadowing of 9/11, with reams of paper floating between buildings in a foreboding manner only enhanced by the closing moments, in which a lone male elicits the oddly ironic chant of ‘let’s all celebrate 250,000 dead’.
Next up were a couple of Cohen’s early collaborations with R.E.M. which, I have to admit, I’ve always found a bit dull. Cohen might excel at capturing live musical performance and in the creation of moving image portraits of musicians, but he gave up making music videos with good reason. Not because he isn’t any good – after all, he’s probably better than most in the scheme of things – but simply because music videos are such a restrictive form of filmmaking and his eye is much better suited to more abstract forms, those gentler in tone and deeper in scope.
Aside from Little Flags, the standout on the night – and perhaps the highlight of all Cohen’s music-related films – was Lucky Three (1997, embedded below), a 16mm portrait of unspeakably talented Baltimore singer-songwriter Elliott Smith who, dogged by depression throughout his life, committed suicide in 2003. An achingly poignant portrait of a deeply misunderstood man, Cohen’s film reminded me of the introspective beauty of Smith’s music as well as this filmmaker’s innate ability to construct pitch perfect musical picaresques. In the same way that Little Flags provided a kind of ‘memory of the future’ in its ominous portrayal of the detritus of a New York parade in the days before 9/11, so Lucky Three provides a similarly poignant moment when Cohen lets his camera linger upon Smith’s recently emptied chair, a visual metaphor for a musician who is still sorely missed.
Throughout the screening – even with Cohen present – it seemed as though much of the applause was for the musical content, and not necessarily for the artistic merit of the filmmaker. And for a crowd that seemed largely unfamiliar with Cohen’s oevre, it was a bit of a pity that we weren’t treated to more of his non-music work. As fascinating as they are, presenting recognisable musicians in unfamiliar situations or settings, I have to admit that Cohen’s music works really do pale into relative insignificance alongside his more coherent, poetic visual examinations of the urban environment.
Even in his concert film collaboration with The Ex – of which the final film of the screening, IP Man (2006), was an excerpt – the most interesting element remains his interludes of New York at night, an electrifying portrait of the unmatched vitality and oppressive loneliness at the heart of every big city, and at the heart of Jem Cohen’s creative output.
Lucky Three (Part 1 of 2):
Lucky Three (Part 2 of 2):
As a quick postscript, I should mention that the evening was rounded out with a couple of live music performances, with Hoofus playing the kind of 8-bit electrobloop that wouldn’t have been out of place on Warp Records in days of yore, and Balaklava Kid & Dad, who absolutely rocked what was left of the crowd with a fuzzed out two-piece set of bluesy extraterrestrial garage mathpunk which made them, hands down, my new favourite Norwich band. Boffo!