As Occupy Wall Street entrenched itself in Lower Manhattan last fall, avant-documentarian Jem Cohen began paying regular visits to Zuccotti Park to collect HD footage and quickly turn around brief, deftly winnowed portraits of the movement. Further uptown, the IFC Center in Greenwich Village ran Cohen’s “newsreels” before their movie programs, and established a Vimeo page solely for exhibiting the first five Gravity Hill NEWSREELS in their rightful 21st-century place— amidst the cacophony of images generated by and about Occupy, freely transmitted and amplified online.
Cohen’s atmospheric shorts distinguish themselves among the din of Occupy videos by an alert but restrained formal register—carefully constructed, intuitively cut, strikingly composed. (Cohen has the ability to concoct on-the-scene frames that are highly refined but not constricted, poised not posed.) The videos are observational— ethnographic even—and are less expository dispatches than airy patchworks, rhythmical distillations of Occupy as it was on the ground. One short shows Zuccotti swollen with visitors during the day; another, set at night, bustles with scattered rituals and routines. The withering October 29 nor’easter is captured, hatches battened.
Clusters of occupiers sweep Zuccotti, settle into tarps, casually caucus with one another, pile in for general assembly, and brandish heartbreaking and blood-boiling handmade signs at the perimeter. NYPD mobile command units and surveillance towers loom, passersby snap photos, traffic signals and vendor carts flicker on streets that hem the park, indifferently desolate in nighttime. The shimmering trunk of One World Trade Center (aka The Freedom Tower) inches imperceptibly skyward all the while. The NEWSREELS soundtracks are clouds of ambient chatter and chanting, wind rippling through tents and ponchos, shuffles of a gathering march and idling riot cops, and the dull roar of Manhattan going about its business in the near distance. There is usually a meditative, asynchronous interlude, such as a Herman Cain soundbite, or some Joe Hunter blues.
The October march on Times Square perhaps reveals the series’ greatest strength, nimbly skirting didacticism. The streams of protesters and the megalithic consumer monuments of 42nd Street overlap one another, in fleet, precisely edged compositions. What is made vivid is not the obvious, inciting juxtaposition, but the picture of Manhattan as host to estranged bedfellows, each deaf to the other’s stubborn claims.
The Web’s blizzard of Occupy clips is apt accompaniment for a movement so multiform and often inassimilable. But the proliferating OWS footage has tended to be swallowed up in the frantic subjectivity of crowds or to deflate scenes of upheaval against Gotham’s severe geography. Divvied among the claustrophobic streets and vertiginous architecture, lower Manhattan can make even a few thousand determined protesters look pretty shiftless. For better or worse, one of the many things OWS has refused to account for, or assign itself, was a visual language with which to convey the scale and seriousness of its actions, at the very least. The NEWSREELS seem to hover within this very gap between narrations—channeling the space of a city mingled in protest to give a sense of OWS as part of the life cycle of Manhattan’s streets.
In using HD, Cohen expressed reservations about the risk of giving his images a slick, “cinematic” veneer. But the wobbly, pixelated “rawness” of amateur video is just as much an encumbered vernacular, loaded with its own connotations and expectations. Plenty of veteran filmmakers, from Jonathan Demme to Ken Jacobs, also trained their cameras on OWS, and however memorably, came away with what amounted to singular, first-person encounters with the protest, rather than careful reckonings. Cohen’s calculated tone and technique pretend towards neither a knowing remove nor an induced intimacy. Cultivated and precise as the films are, they seem so in the service of broadly sidestepping any presumption to ascribe OWS a fixed, deliberate image. Broadly sympathetic but systematically cautious, the NEWSREELS are artful enough to cut a clear line through the fray, and mindful enough to leave its multiplicities intact.
© 2012 by Jesse P. Finnegan