What a Jem
In director Jem Cohen's films, especially earlier efforts such as 1987's This Is a History of New York and 1992's Drink Deep, he manages to tell a story without letting on exactly what story he's telling. Meaning: He's definitely saying something, but it's up to the viewer to decipher what he's going on about. Rarely, if ever, does an actor appear to fill in the blanks or tighten the lasso around Cohen's camera work. He buries the narrative, letting each scene speak (or not) for itself.
For example, This Is a History of New York might be about how different aspects of the city -- a roving pack of wild dogs, manic street preachers raving about God -- conform to certain historical eras (medieval, prehistory, enlightenment), the names of which preface each sequence. But Cohen doesn't connect the dots enough to render that conclusion inescapable. He could merely be referring to the architecture in the city's five boroughs, or lack of it in some cases. Similarly, Drink Deep seems to be more or less a childhood memory: a handful of friends skinny-dipping in a creek (one of whom appears to be R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe), wasting an afternoon splashing around in the cool water. Yet, just when the film is coming to a close, just when you think you have it pegged, Cohen begins interspersing shots of a rainy day in the city, a pair of friends jumping puddles. What does it all mean? Well, besides establishing the generally accepted premise that playing in water is fun, Cohen doesn't do any more of the work for you.
And in his later films, such as last year's Blood Orange Sky and Amber City (both shot in Italy), Cohen's technique has only sharpened, as he presents seemingly randomly linked images -- the eerie stillness of the ocean, a statue of an elephant, flowers gently blowing in the breeze. They're found moments left open for interpretation. His camera turns real places into imaginary worlds, avoiding the landmarks for the people that live among them. The main difference, besides his increased attention to the tiniest of details (the simple symmetry of a fish market, for instance), is that his palette has expanded, from the grainy black-and-white of History of New York to the saturated colors of his Italian films. But it's clear with Amber City and Blood Orange Sky that films are still little more than cinematography and life, and that's all they really need. It can be either maddeningly frustrating or simply beautiful, and more often than not, it's the latter.
It makes sense then that Cohen would be the one to tell the story of Fugazi in Instrument -- perhaps his best-known work to date -- because the band has long made it known that its story is one that doesn't need to be told as much as it needs to be seen and heard. Cohen is well suited for the task, since he's always favored music over the spoken word, peppering his films with songs by Chan Marshall and the Butthole Surfers, even collaborating with Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous for Blood Orange Sky in favor of more traditional narration. The members of the band obviously wanted their music and Cohen's camera to do all the work, not their own voices; the only actual interview Cohen recorded with the band was a discussion about how they didn't want to be interviewed for the film. And, for the most part, both do their jobs admirably, though the scant amount of interview footage -- culled mainly from cable-access shows -- does have its place.
The most memorable of these instances is when singer-guitarists Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye sit for an interview for an eighth-grade class project in 1994, and it's perhaps the only time in the film where anyone in the band speaks up for himself. Sitting uncomfortably on a couch in the middle of a bastardization of a daytime talk-show set, Picciotto explains the group more clearly than ever before: "For about 30 years, there's been so-called 'protest music,' and not a lot of change, and I think we recognize the fact that if a band's going to act politically, that it has to be more in line with what they do as a band as opposed to what they say they do."
Over the course of two hours, Cohen shows more than enough of what the group does. But even though he follows Fugazi for a period of 10 years -- riding in the van on their various tours where every show seems to be a benefit for something, catching them in the studio or practicing at MacKaye's grandparents' house, shadowing their every move -- Instrument is much more than a typical documentary. It's an out-of-order scrapbook, veering back and forth and back again from the beginning to the end, from Fugazi's first show in a Washington, D.C., basement to the band's return there 10 years to the day. Somewhere in there, MacKaye chastises a dangerously rambunctious audience member by calling him "an ice cream cone-eating motherfucker." So it all works out.
The only concession to standard rock docs is also Cohen's only misstep: a scene toward the end of Instrument in which he interviews fans outside a Fugazi show in Knoxville, Tennessee. It comes off as little more than an homage to Heavy Metal Parking Lot, as Cohen asks an assortment of fans why they're at a Fugazi show. It's out of place, especially since only a few of the fans can name even one Fugazi song, and almost all of them claim they don't like the group anymore, if they ever did. The scene deflates the sense of importance that the rest of the film builds, though maybe that is the point. As with all of Cohen's films, you'll have to figure that out for yourself.
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