Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / New York independent filmmaker Jem Cohen’s laconically moving Counting is quintessentially an artist’s movie. It is divided into fifteen segments, and owing to the absence of a script, their logic is obscure. This Delphic quality makes Counting similar to a solo painting or photograph exhibition. A title (e.g., “The Blues”) precedes each segment. A longer description of what has just been shown – including geographical locations (usually cities, such New York, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, and Porto), often more – follows the segment. It’s as though the viewer has looked at a painting assisted only by a wall panel, then consulted the artist or his proxy for a little more guidance, which naturally has been coyly and parsimoniously provided. The effect is a cumulative and subtle revelation of the artist’s worldview. Although the only direct reference in the movie to art and its consumers is a sequence on the Hermitage Museum that zones in on Malevich’s Black Square, Cohen’s confidence in art’s existential merit is very much in line with his more structured and equally insightful Museum Hours (2012).
Over the course of the film, themes emerge. One important one is stasis. The birds, cats, and dogs that Cohen films tend to be less agitated and more still than the people milling about them. The human activity that most concerns him – walking to work, carrying appliances, eating, tourism – is repetitive, practical, and bland, and no more momentous than that of the animals. Spicy frivolities like the Putin impersonator in Red Square are rare, and great achievements like space travel are experienced only vicariously, in a museum. His emphasis on the disruption of ordinary human life (as well as nature) by heedless commerce suggests the filmmaker’s own domesticity, however itinerant he is in his trade. In a later segment, Cohen is en route from Moscow to New York when his mother is stricken. He gets home in time to record some of her final thoughts. Splicing his roles as artist and son, these touching moments show Cohen’s devotion to both.
Neither a dramatic film nor a customary documentary, Counting delineates – and thus enshrines – the artist’s endeavor to make sense of what’s around him. Apprehending and understanding the world through making art, the film suggests, is as much about maintaining a disciplined commitment to a process – and therefore to discovery in general – as it is about crystallizing particular ideas. Cohen travels, he shoots his film, he edits it. Exactly what he attends to seems substantially intuitive or at least extemporaneously informed, though the cutting room allows him retrospectively to shape what he has recorded. Metaphorically, of course, that is life itself, and Counting displays Cohen’s singular dedication to life as art, and his faith that it is worthwhile.
Counting, A Film in 15 Chapters by Jem Cohen, 2015, A Cinema Guild release.
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