'Counting': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Melancholy and hypnotic

New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen follows his widely admired 'Museum Hours' with a return to his roots in urban portraiture.

After flirting with conventional narrative while at the same time remaining true to his characteristic mode of detached observation in the absorbing 2012 feature Museum Hours, Jem Cohen returns to more customary experimental terrain with the lyrical documentary Counting. A wintry montage of the density and detritus of urban landscapes with defiant glimpses of nature, the film travels from New York City to Moscow and St. Petersburg, from Istanbul to Porto to the Emirate of Sharjah. In an abstract yet eloquent juxtaposition of images it finds common threads in each place. Plus cats.

The feline motif is as much an affectionate nod to Chris Marker as the dedication of the last of the 15 chapters that make up Counting, titled Skywriting, to the late French cine-essayist. An earlier segment, called A Day is Long, is playfully dedicated to Anton Chekhov. It surveys Moscow street life as civilians bustle obliviously past imposing monuments to soldiers, leaders and workers, and includes a humorous vignette in which an old woman carefully removes promotional flyers obscuring the face of a kitty on a poster advertising pet food.

This is the kind of contemplative cinematheque piece that washes pleasurably over you, inviting the viewer to tune in or out, to free-associate or locate the subtle connections and recurring themes as Cohen trains his restless, inquisitive gaze on faces and features that represent a wide spectrum of life.

Travel figures throughout; many of the chapters open or close with bleary footage shot from the windows of planes, often continuing with subway rides. Places of worship appear repeatedly, from Russian churches to mosques, as do storefronts and shopkeepers. Some chapters are barely more than moments, such as #3, capturing the afternoon light on a visitor’s face in Cohen's Brooklyn apartment.

The cycle of demolition and construction is another feature, particularly in New York, where the onslaught of new luxury condo blocks altering old neighborhoods is unrelenting. One of the most evocative sections goes to the end of the F train line at Coney Island, where signs on the deserted amusement park make empty promises of "Wonder" and "Thrills," while hot dog and cotton candy vendors have packed up for the winter. Gulls congregate on the empty beach as a ship seen through heavy sleet takes on the appearance of a ghost vessel. In the same section, a sprawling Jewish cemetery is shot like a city unto itself.

On occasion, the meaning behind the images is quite pointed, but more often Cohen trusts the viewer to draw his or her own impressions, keeping onscreen interstitial text to brief explanatory info or a poetic line or two. Shots of an abandoned video store in Sharjah seem to suggest a filmmaker thinking about memory, and the threatened disappearance of certain forms of his medium. Images of plastic bags flapping in the wind tie the film to Cohen's earlier work, notably Lost Book Found.

Some references are quite explicit, like a chapter titled Three-Letter Words, in which New Yorkers talking on their cell phones are shot reflected in windows while evasive answers are heard from the congressional hearings on NSA citizen surveillance. Protest movements are another recurring focus, including footage of recent "I can't breathe" demonstrations in New York following a grand jury's refusal to indict a police officer for placing an unarmed black man in a lethal chokehold.

The Russian chapters vary in tone as much as those in New York, including comical views of Stalin, Lenin and Putin impersonators at tourist sites like the Kremlin Wall; an exhibit devoted to the Soviet space program, with taxidermy astro-dogs; and a gorgeous section at the Hermitage Museum that returns to Cohen's contemplation of the relationship between people and art, lingering memorably on Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square."

Considering Cohen's extensive collaborations with musicians (Patti Smith is an executive producer here), non-source music is used sparingly but provides deft modulation of tone. Diegetic music figures throughout, however, notably in a brief New York chapter that shows eclectic performers across the city, including a Chinese subway busker playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on a traditional stringed instrument.

Nature is another constant, whether it's a snowfall, a tangle of tree roots forcing their way up through concrete, deflated balloons hanging from branches like dead fruit, or pigeons, sparrows, Istanbul street dogs, and those enigmatic cats.

Aside from a brief on-camera glimpse or two and some overheard words here and there, Cohen maintains his position purely as an observer, but an affecting personal note enters late in the film when he gets a phone call in Moscow to say his mother has been hospitalized after a stroke, prompting him to fly home.

As a visual artist, Cohen is not interested in the perfect composition or the most arresting image so much as he is in capturing the fragments of contemporary life, both lasting and ephemeral, in a universe of unanswered questions. His unconventional work is invariably a beautiful, slow-yield experience.

Production company: Gravity Hill Films, in association with Cinema Guild, C41 Media

Director: Jem Cohen

Executive producers: Patti Smith, Ryan Krivoshey, Graham Swindoll, Peter Sillen, Brendan Doyle, Paolo Calamita

Director of photography: Jem Cohen

Editor: Jem Cohen

No rating, 111 minutes.