Directed by Kabul-born, New York City-based multimedia artist Jem Cohen, Chain offers an intriguing concoction of documentary, fiction and avant-garde. (The 45-year-old filmmaker has adamantly stated, however, that the work itself isn't "experimental," and rightfully so.) Partly dedicated to master essayist Chris Marker, whose La Jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1983) certainly appear to have been a formal influence, Chain is primarily a composite of stationary shots which depict the numbing parallel effects of "globalization" on our physical (and emotional) landscape. The ever-proliferating chain stores, malls, hotels and other such places, the towering buildings and their vast concrete parking-lots, the arterial network of highways -- all shaped by our corporate and cultural imperialist desires to build and destroy and then build again, simply because we can.
"I was trying to get a grip on the nature of globalization, which is such a hazy, amorphous term," Cohen has said. "The film is not about America, but there's no question that we're largely responsible for how a lot of the planet ends up looking. So much of the world becomes a mirror of American business and culture and iconography." While attentive, knowledgeable and well-traveled viewers will gather so beforehand, the filmmaker reveals at the end that this work was shot across nearly a dozen states in the U.S., along with various cities in Canada, Germany, France, Poland, and Australia. Which means that the footage from a number of locations around the globe contributed to what is presented to us at a given moment as a singular locale, and the transition is practically seamless. (Surreal, isnt it?) And, to Cohen's credit, this repetition is rendered in a wholly affectless manner, which is perhaps the reason why its so affecting.
Chain was assembled over a ten-year period on 16mm (which is also the format Cohen employed in his 2002 three-projector triptych installation called Chain Times Three). Initially, the filmmaker's focus was only on the topography, but later on he decided to include a human element which demanded a fictional narrative of some form. (Cohen: "After I had been filming for a while, I became interested in how people navigate these spaces, who they might be, and what they might be thinking.") After wrestling with this concept for a short period, he developed two characters: one of a plain Japanese businesswoman who is visiting the states to research amusement parks for her corporation, and the other of a teenage runaway making a living in abandoned or incomplete structures. The nearly robotic voice-over narration from both of them propels the montage of stills.
Played by Miho Nikaido (Tokyo Decadence , Hal Hartley films), Tamiko is the single, 31-year-old mid-level executive who at the beginning of her journey is somewhat excited about the project, but as time passes, communication from her superiors starts to dissipate, leaving her adrift in endless succession of hotel rooms and board meetings. While Amanda (Mira Billotte, from indie rock band White Magic), the debt-ridden teen, never crosses paths with Tamiko herself, it's assumed that many other lost souls just like her do. That's because Amanda eventually lands an undocumented dead-end job in a motel, cleaning rooms and such. But in most cases, if she isn't seen in one shopping mall or another, trying to act like she belongs there (she holds an imaginary conversation from a broken cell-phone to fool any suspecting security guards), then she's found taping herself from a video-camera she discovered along the way. (The character of Amanda and her featureless milieu brought to mind films like Time Out  and Keane .)
In a positive sense, Cohen's rigorous formal approach also helped him formulate his characters. Someone like Amanda couldv'e easily been portrayed with emotional bearings, but he doesn't allow her (or Tamiko, for that matter) to overwhelm his underlying motifs. But at the same time, these two women feel like "real" individuals one could across at any time, anywhere, even though they happen to reside at two ends of a "globalization chain" which has more or less set them aside as generic waste. Now they simply have to come in terms with their environment, and find a way to fit in. And as much of a tragic tone Cohens well-composed impersonal shots of empty spaces encapsulate, they also try to make sense of their surroundings, thus generating a work which is conscientious without being labored.
Before this project, Cohen was mostly known for his two feature-length music documentary portraits: Instrument (1999) and Benjamin Smoke (2000). (The former was another long-in-the-making effort on hardcore punk band Fugazi, and the later dealt with the troubled frontman of Geogia-based Smoke.) Cohen has also worked on and for the likes of R.E.M, Elliot Smith, Blonde Redhead, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (the alternative Montreal-based band which provided the sound for Chain's bracing opening sequence.) Unlike many other so called "independent filmmakers," Cohen is a true independent artist whose vision is as uncompromising as his goals. Like Vincent Gallo and Kelly Reichardt, Andrew Bujalski and Ira Sachs, and many others like them, he deserves to be honored and cherished for who he is.
*CHAIN has been screened in the U.S. but it remains without a local distributor.