The United States of America
To this day I remember a poster that hung on the wall of my twelfth grade political science classroom. It said, “Don’t be a frog in a well.” The teacher, who had learned the expression while traveling in China, said that it was an old saying about how people see the world. A frog in a well has no perception of the world outside of what he can see. The point of the saying and the poster was that we should not be limited by our own personal worldviews. But does having an individual worldview constitute a bad thing? Shouldn’t independent perspectives on the world be studied and cherished? To those naysayers, I would like to point out the film This is a History of New York, a twenty two minute long experimental film shot on Super 8 stock by Jem Cohen. In it, Cohen used footage that he had amassed over several years to reconstruct his beloved home into a visceral mindscape of unimagined splendor and unspeakable beauty.
The film starts off with one of the most thought provoking opening shots in recent history. The camera approaches a giant concert wall and stares silently through a gaping hole. Beyond the wall we see a construction site. Our view is limited by our perspective, but the camera squeezes as much as it can out of the shot. And then it fades to black. The sequence remains an enigma in our minds as the film continues. What does it mean? My guess is that Jem Cohen wanted to point out that no matter who we are we have a unique vantage point on the world. Just like a camera, we can only see what we are shown. Our lives have predetermined that each individual will see the world differently. When there are 100 people in a movie theater, 100 different movies will be seen, even if they all witness the illumination of the same strips of celluloid. This speaks to the title of the film. Notice that it is a history, not the history. Cohen makes no claims that his is the definitive definition of New York City. Instead, it is his history, his film, his vision of New York.
And what is his history? It is a reconstruction of human history as seen through the eyes of New York City. The opening shot of the construction site can be seen as the Big Bang, or the birth of the universe. Afterwards, the rest of the film is divided up into sections that are named after the various ages of humanity. The first is entitled “prehistory.” One would imagine that this would involve pictures of Manhattan Island from before the settlers arrived. Maybe he would include old paintings and even a rare photograph. Instead, Cohen treats the audience to images of ferns blowing in the wind, the undersides of bridges, and abandoned locales next to the docks. The buildings are decrepit and full of graffiti. Construction equipment rumbles along in a matter reminiscent of woolly mammoths and bumbling brontosaurs. A few men are shown cavorting in the background as if they were involved in ancient rituals.
The next section is entitled “Hunters and Gatherers.” Cohen focuses on men and dogs scavenging the ruins. Bands of police patrol busy streets as if searching for prey. Beautiful rich women carry bulging bags from expensive department stores. We cut to “The Medieval Period.” Sounds of Gregorian chants accompany vistas of construction projects. Street preachers scream like prophets at passersby. Hard rock interrupts the chants as images of the mentally ill pervade the streets like men in explosive religious trances. We see leagues of the homeless sprawled on the ground in a kind of angelic splendor as a heavenly choir of monks sings of their ascension. In “The Golden Age” the screen is filled with the intricate designs of classical architecture. Statues of men long forgotten stand like the skyscrapers that pierce the sky in an almighty challenge to God himself. “Industry” harkens the coming age of progress by dwelling on the destruction of the old guard in the form of an old tenement building burning to the ground.
“The Age of Reason” dwells on Wall Street as we examine well dressed traders hurrying along to their next meeting. Sounds of the stock exchange can be heard like echoes of Paris salons where wealthy men and women discussed issues that would influence the rest of history. Long streams of the intellectual and material bourgeois stampede down the street. Finally, “The Space Age” abandons us with shots of old spaceships that serve as archeological tombstones in parks and industrial graveyards. A homeless man regards the camera as if challenging us to understand what we are seeing. After staring at New York through new eyes, it is finally staring back at us.
Perhaps many of you will think that I am overestimating this film and am making a mountain out of an allegorical molehill. Maybe these are simply random shots of footage compiled by an eccentric hack. That would be wrong. I fervently believe that every frame of this film was carefully selected and organized by Cohen. In an interview with Cohen, Rhys Graham explains, “Many of his films are purely subjective because they posit a unique way of looking at the world approached through his own camera-eye. In this sense, his films have the tone of memory, of words and images recalled, or of the act of sifting through personal archives.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the film itself is a kind of response to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, a city portrait comprised of footage taken in cities like Odessa and Kiev. Both sought to redefine how the audience sees the world by using the camera as a kind of perfect eye that could explore, experience, and portray reality in a more truthful manner than any human could.
So does Cohen succeed in redefining reality? I believe that he does. This is a History of New York completely warps its viewer’s perceptions. It dares to speak in allegories and metaphorical images. René Magritte once famously wrote, “This is not a pipe.” Well, Cohen responds by saying, “Well, neither is this building a building. This homeless man isn’t a homeless man. This city isn’t a city.” To Cohen, New York is a museum, a testimony, and a witness to the collective human experience. He uses his camera to open our eyes to his vision, his reality, his history of New York.