“If I can get people to read those poems, and to stare at the ocean for a really long time, I feel pretty good about what we did…”
So often with silent films I have seen musicians improvise their way around a pre-existing narrative but with Jem Cohen’s ode to Nova Scotia's Cape Breton, the images evolved alongside the composition. Cohen prepared some sequences before showing them to the musicians but then responded by cutting in tune with the resultant score.
Cohen once professed that there is too much music in some films and he usually edits in silence or with naturally occurring sounds, but this is not so much of a departure for a man who earned his reputation through music videos for bands such as REM and, most notably, noise funsters Fugazi. The crucial difference is the parallel processing of editing and scoring which lead to an end product that is truly inter-dependent.
The score was composed and played live by a stellar array of alt musical talent including the violins of Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and her Thee Silver Mount Zion band mate Jessica Moss. They were joined by the esteemed Efrim Manuel Menuck also of Godspeed who is the vocalist and guitarist of Silver Mount Zion (and Ms Moss’ partner… keeping up?) and Fugazi’s guitarist Guy Picciotto, who was also a producer on Cohen’s first feature film, Museum Hours (starring the unique Canadian signer Mary Margaret O’Hara).
|The ensemble performing in New York|
The sound was anchored (pun intended) by the fluidly-crisp drumming of Jim White (Dirty Three, PJ Harvey etc.) and T. Griffin (from grime-folk combo The Quavers) on keyboards and another guitar. Whilst Mira Billotte, from White Magic, provided vocals plugging the score into local folk and hymns, starting with a crystalline solo of “What Wondrous Love Is This?”
None of the group, or Cohen himself, is from Cape Breton but what we got was an outsider view of this lonesome place – an alternative travelogue from musicians and a director who try to find the difference in the norm. Cohen has been coming to the area since the nineties when he went there on a Fugazi tour and became entranced with this town on the edge of Canada, battered by economic ill-fortune and an unforgiving environment.
As one of the rare voices in this mostly-silent film said, unless you’re from the island you will always remain from outside, you will always be “from away”. This is a phrase I’ve heard in the far North of England and Scotland, evidence of a shared linguistic heritage but also an echo of the geological links: Nova Scotia is part of the same range that runs through to the British Isles – separated by tectonic shifts long ago – and it still looks very familiar – the wind-lashed barren grey cliffs, the trees bent against the elements and the endless sea rolling in from the thousand mile horizon.
The film was originally commissioned and produced by the New York Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in 2012 and, it ticks all of those boxes: especially the E and the A. It’s a meditative art instillation, part film and part gig with Godspeed-esque drones leading into crescendos of noise: a kind of post-rock chamber music.
|Falling back into nature...|
Cohen edited together miles of your actual film shot over a long period. One section shows a derelict wooden house over a period from 2000 to 2008, 10, 12… gradually falling apart; finally defeated by the elements as it falls back to nature. This is accompanied by some lovely lines from Trudeau and Moss, who are such clear players especially in the company of amplified guitars.
There are excerpts from a variety of local poets and Cohen achieves his aim of getting us to read them. The accompaniment is restrained during these moments and there is remarkable control over the mix of images, screen sound and score: on a Tuesday night after work these things can easily slip from your grasp but the whole is absorbingly greater than the sum of its individually-interesting parts.
There are some tall tales from a young fisherman as he nurses a pregnant cow whilst an antique dealer raises a smirk or two as he tries to verbalise how he feels about a giant wrench held by a “very strong” man (you had to be there) but he nails a deeper truth when he explains how temporary the items he deals in are… As the artist friend of Cohen later says, when she first arrived she soon learned not to fuss over the harsh conditions but just to get on with life: petty considerations drifted away when confronted with a more physically demanding - simpler – daily routine.
When I go walking in the Scottish islands the same thing happens: you just focus on getting from A to B even when, as another commentator noted, there’s no straight line.
Ultimately the “narrative” of such a work is difficult to pin down – it’s a mix of the specific with the symbolic but you are left with a clear impression of Cohen’s outsider view. For him Cape Breton is a simpler existence, not in a romanticized way but in the very real fact of its relative isolation and physicality. This is not Tuscany or Coney Island but a sparsely populated economic backwater with stunning views.
The film began and ended with three screens – I haven’t seen that since Gance’s Napoleon – it’s what the stunning Breton horizon’s deserved. The band wound up to its meatiest theme and the two violins soared to a conclusion. Would I like to go to Cape Breton? I feel I’ve already been.
|Efrim Manuel Menuck and Jessica Moss at the New York premier|
The band played direct to screen throughout, almost as if the film was conducting them. Menuck’s groups play extended compositions using orchestrated rock sound – strict discipline as he once joked on stage – not in an old school progressive way in order to mimic classical music, but in an extension of the tonal possibilities of the guitars, bass, drums, strings combination.
By co-incidence the new Godspeed album, cheerfully entitled Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, was released yesterday (I’m listening to it now). I’ve always thought that their shows resembled soundtracks for their disjointed, impressionistic back-projections (the reverse being the case…) and now Menuck, Trudeau and friends have taken that next step: a fascinating development all round.
|Mr Cohen and his camera|
The hall was sold out so hopefully there’ll be more of this to come: a nearly-silent film with a truly sympathetic modern rock accompaniment. Jem Cohen leapt on stage to take a brief but rapturous bow as the band exited stage left, Jessica Moss breaking ranks to smile and wave at the crowd.
There’s more about Godspeed – who are touring soon - on their site and Silver Mount Zion here whilst Jem Cohen’s site is here. Museum Hours is available onAmazon and I look forward to this work getting a release on digital media.