Being and Seeing with Jem Cohen

A Pigeon on a Spiral Staircase:
Being and Seeing with Jem Cohen
by Lynne Sachs

A few nights ago, on the first crisp evening of autumn, I emerged from a film screening at the Millennium Film Workshop onto East 4th Street in Manhattan with Jem Cohen.  Nested in the sublime clutter and cacophony of the Lower East Side, this block between 2nd and 3rd Avenue is home to some of the most innovative theater and film venues in New York City. It’s a dark, quiet, albeit decrepit, building that seems to hide its cinematic and theatrical secrets with a kind of futuristic pleasure.  As we headed east toward the subway that would lead us both to our homes in Brooklyn, Jem gasped, not really out of fear or even surprise, but rather as if an internal light had gone on inside his mind, awakening a memory he needed to release. “Wait,” he exclaimed, “let’s go this way instead. I want to show you the most beautiful building in New York City.”

How could I say no?

Now as I’ve already hinted, East 4th Street is hardly considered an architectural showplace, for even the most astute cognoscenti. I immediately flashed upon the rest of my evening, wondering how much time I could allow for this aesthetic adventure.  We crossed the street, mid-block, and stood just 15 seconds later in front of several typical rectangular constructions with four-paned windows and unadorned doorways. “See, there it is.”   I looked but I did not see.  “There, that white(ish) building with the exterior spiral staircase.”  And there it was. I’d walked down this block hundreds of times but had never observed this spinal cord-like staircase that climbed up the facade of an unassuming apartment building.  Sinuous, decadent and magically awash in light, the staircase gave fantastic elegance to the street. But this was not all.

Jem would never allow his “audience” (me) merely to witness this awe inspiring structure without revealing a moment of “ah, ha!,” Roland Barthes’ punctum, the time when a photographic image moves from the informational to the visceral to the emotional.  Jem recounted a night years before when he had stood alone exactly in the same place – 16mm Bolex and tripod in hand. As he admired the building at 62 East 4th Street, he noticed a pigeon preparing to fly from a window of the building. He quickly reached for the trigger of his movie camera.  Something large and ominous, however, distracted him at the same moment.  A black hawk was swooping down as if from the clouds.  This larger bird caught the hapless pigeon and devoured it.

“Did you get it on film?” I asked.

“No, I did not.”

But for me, Jem had captured that dramatic New York moment.  Like no other filmmaker I know, Jem Cohen has collected thousands of junctures, ruptures and sutures like this one – whether on film, on video or in his mind.  These visual treasures are his because he witnessed them, reflected upon them and remembered them in his life-long search for the essence of city life.

In the first few seconds of his film “Long for the City”, an 8-minute portrait of NYC poet, singer and songwriter Patti Smith, we look at the Manhattan skyline through a smattering of wispy grasses. Seduced by the optical possibilities of scale, Cohen’s camera makes this Walt Whitman-esque flora equal in stature to the imposing buildings perched behind.  This tension between nature and city continues to create sparks – both aesthetic and emotional – throughout the rest of the film.  While Smith ponders her fraught relationship with her New York City, she is always wondering if she belongs, where she will thrive. Like Cohen, Smith has unflinching devotion to the buildings that give New York City its visual textures.

“I saw passersby that didn’t really see me. I saw people defacing a beautiful building near my house with advertising. I saw myself 30 years ago.”  (Patti Smith)

Listening to Smith, we catch a glimpse of the city once again, refracted, earthen-flat, in a puddle on the sidewalk.  Both Cohen and Smith imbue the artificial structures and the nature that peeks from behind with an exquisite intimacy.

“Twigs, scaffold, gravedigger, pollen which makes me cough….” (PS)

We are all pigeons, I suppose, relishing in the treasures of the trashcan, destroyed by the violence of the skies, always capable of flying away, somehow here.

In the final image of the film, Cohen’s camera dwells tenderly on a corpulent pigeon on a cement ledge, not so different from the one he’d seen attacked in flight on East 4th Street.  Again, we hear Smith’s voice, somehow speaking for the two of them.

“Am I a country person or a city person?  I am always longing for the sea.  If I had to choose between the city or the sea, I’d choose the sea and long for the city.”

Lynne Sachs is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.  Her most recent film, “The Last Happy Day”, is an experimental documentary that premiered at the 2009 New York Film Festival.