The City and the Cities

A luminous jumble, Jem Cohen's latest experiment in non-narrative urban portraiture captures, in its beauty and bad moods and consistent epiphanies, many contradictory truths of city life itself. Following up 2013's Museum Hours, a fiction film steeped in the magnificent reality of Austria's Kunsthistorisches Museum, Cohen's Counting is his most ambitious production yet, surveying in 15 chapters fresh particulars of New York, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul and other marvelous, inconstant places. What surprises (a little) and fascinates (a lot) are the town-to-town commonalities Counting invites you to appraise. The opening scenes of New York just last winter whirl the senses: Here, in unfussy you-are-there photography, is a gray overpass, snow falling on a Bowery restaurant-supply shop, a blood-flecked paper towel on a well-grimed floor tile, protesters shouting, “I can't breathe!”

Here's Douwe Blumberg's America's Response Monument, that equine sculpture about our resilience that's been just outside One World Trade Center since 2011, fenced off from the public during the endless construction. That unfinished project feels of a piece with the great yellow excavator machine that, elsewhere, Cohen's camera glimpses between the roofs of row houses. Like a snake shedding its skin, the city seems to be dying as it gives birth to itself, a phenomenon Cohen, endlessly inquisitive, observes again and again, across the world. What to make of the way Blumberg's sculpture, which is tied to our current national pride, is inaccessible, while those Cohen shows us in Moscow, honoring last century's idea of a workers' paradise, stand barely noticed out in the open, surrounded by damp leaves during a gray, grave Russian autumn?

In all the cities, Cohen studies housing, the ways we're stacked atop one another, and in many, he gets caught up with animal life: cats, of course, and, most memorably, a Labrador-like mutt standing still and silent beneath urine-yellow Istanbul streetlights. His approach to documenting a place comes close to most of our approaches to being in one—he films what he notices, where he goes, the kinds of things you might notice if you trudged through these blocks one night after work when you weren't looking at your phone. Much of Cohen's most arresting footage comes from commutes. He'll film his ascent of an MTA escalator and train his camera out of a train—or, in passages of shivery tactile beauty, out the windows of planes and cars, especially during weather of note. In a car in a pre-dawn snowstorm, the window becomes as arresting as the world outside it: In watery blue and gold, the city seems to melt against the glass.

For all that, Cohen's film follows no set approach. Occasionally, he'll risk didacticism: He scores scenes of New Yorkers reflected in shop windows, speaking on their phones, to audio of congressional hearings about NSA spying. Sometimes, he'll stop showing us common things, the life and traffic and architecture whose drift stands as synecdoche for the larger place, and indulge in local color: Putin and Stalin impersonators working Russian crowds like Times Square Batmen or a wintry reverie at Coney Island. Mostly, though, he trusts you to interpret what he's showing you, to take it in as you might on one of those days when routine falls away and you're overwhelmed by everything that has been built—and is still being built—all around you.

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