In a small screen at the back of the Whitechapel Gallery, a group of keen cinephiles awaits the address of Jem Cohen, a veteran New York-based filmmaker who has made more than 70 idiosyncratic works over three fruitful decades on the job. It’s an early part of a two-month retrospective entitled Compass and Magnet, with events also taking place at the Barbican and Hackney Picturehouse.
Cohen has produced diary films, city portraits, essay films and collaborated with an extraordinary list of musicians – crossing and blending disciplines with pioneering spirit. On this occasion he’s introducing Museum Hours, perhaps his most accessible and well-known work to date.
“You can walk into a museum and in its way it can miss,” he tells us. “Something has to come together, things have to meet…”
And they do. The film is a subtle and moving expression of enormous ambition. Ideas about time, image, memory, art, artefact, displacement, friendship, experience, history and much more, are hung on a sweet narrative thread that runs through the corridors of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and out into the streets of Vienna.
The following evening, Cohen takes leave of an East End pub to chat for an hour. He tells me more about the film: “It refuses to follow certain rules about what a narrative is and how a narrative is supposed to function, and it insists that the environment, the locations, the ideas and the characters are all equally important.”
This kind of approach is indicative of Cohen’s dedication to making films that don’t lock into one specific form; Museum Hours is particularly interesting in this regard.
Arriving in an unfamiliar city to tend the bedside of a dying cousin, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is comforted by a chance meeting with a kind museum attendant (Bobby Sommer). One would be forgiven for expecting a romance, but as the lure of familiar storytelling takes hold, Cohen quickly pulls it away and the piece shatters into something far more interesting: a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction that’s both affecting and real.
Those familiar with Cohen’s wider body of work will recognise the importance of music, which is heavily hinted at in the casting of musician O’Hara, whose character sings quietly but crucially.
“Music has always been absolutely vital to me since I was a little kid, but I’m not a musician so I had to find other ways to get at musical experience,” he says. “I’m often inspired as much by music, painting or poetry as I am by other cinema, but I also think it’s something that film can aspire to – it can be a kind of music.”
He goes on: “It’s something that’s woven into our lives – it doesn’t have to be something that only celebrities get to do. There are a lot of people who sing in their kitchens and might sing very beautifully, but we’ll never get to hear them. It’s the act of doing it that might help them to be in the world, and I think that’s very much what’s happening with Mary’s character in the film.”
This elevation of the finer details permeates much of Cohen’s work and is a particularly key element of his observations of the city – whichever city that may be.
“I just feel strongly that there is always a city that is entirely separate from the one tourists are led to, and that goes for any city,” he says. “In terms of Vienna, I was just reflecting my experience, going on random walks and tube rides, or opening the door of an unknown bar and stumbling onto one of the film’s most important locations.”
Raised first in Kabul and then Washington DC, Cohen moved to New York in the mid-80s, “when it was just at the tail end of a very rough period”, he explains. “It’s problematic to romanticise a city that is in rough shape in terms of crime and infrastructure falling apart. But there was a sense of mystery and possibility that had to do with people of all kinds going to New York to be able to have some freedom.”
He continues: “It’s kind of a great dark magnet throughout history where people could get away from parochial, predictable circumstances and enter into this sort of wild place.”
He then draws a comparison between the rise of real estate in New York and the current property crisis in London. But he is quick to stress the resilience of cities like these – both of which he is very fond.
“New York, when I ride the subway, is still an incredible mix of people and that’s what makes it an interesting place above all. And I feel the same way about London. I don’t see that they are really going to able to scrub New York and London entirely clean, but god damn they will try.”
There is passion and sensitivity in almost everything Cohen says, and he delivers his thoughts with care and precision. With this in mind, it seemed strange that the Guardian should describe him as somebody who categorically “hates indie films”.
“I don’t hate indie films,” he says. “‘Indie’ is just one of those words that has become sort of meaningless – it’s not about something that one needs to hate, it’s more about it not meaning anything. It’s like using the word ‘alternative’ in regard to music – it just doesn’t have any particular concrete value anymore to say that.”
And what if people want to call his films indie? “My filmmaking is done as far from commercial Hollywood as possible, but I haven’t been part of the Sundance world either. So by some standards I’m kind of invisible. But if you keep at it for 25, 30 years and make 70 films, sooner or later people realise you’re there. I don’t really care that much what people call it – if they need to call it indie then that’s not a big deal.”
And finally, I ask, why call the season Compass and Magnet?
“The main reason is that it amused me because I’m lost all the time,” he says. “For someone who travels a lot and films all the time, it’s just kind of funny and absurd that I am so poor with directions. And magnet of course is just because the basic premise of doing one’s work is to find out what things in the world call out and what things one is attracted to – what things stick.”