Time and Place and 'Counting'

In Counting, observation is transformed into a set of questions, ethical and aesthetic, political and practical.


Director: Jem Cohen
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Guild
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-04-11 (Doc Yard)
"And I also wanted to make a film that by its own form questions the ways that documentary, even as it gains currency in the culture, is increasingly boxed in and expected to hew to formulas."

-- Jem Cohen

"Duane Reade". The orange neon name splits the movie screen, a pharmacy below and black sky above, with a squad of gym members on treadmills above, maybe ten or 11 runners stretched across the screen in continual, pulsing motion, going nowhere. The shot is mesmerizing, banal, passing, pressed together with street noise, a muddle of sounds mechanical and indistinguishable.

The shot lasts a few seconds. It appears in a section of Counting, Jem Cohen's gorgeous meditation on time and place. The section, called "The Blues", offers brief moments in London, Moscow, and New Jersey, 2012. Before Duane Reade, you see other signage, flyers glued to blue walls, asking whether the NSA killed JFK and MLK, and then a Daily News headline announcing a "Creeping Menace". After Duane Reade, a plane flies across a sky streaked with clouds and then a patch of pavement, scratched with the words, "Trump is a monster." In 2012.

Time and place.

Counting pulls together pieces of stories, arranging them so you make sense of them, so you create stories even as you reflect on them. The film -- which screened on 11 April at the Doc Yard, where it was followed by a Skype Q&A with Cohen and film journalist Erin Trahan -- observes patterns and behaviors, offers images and ideas that you might in turn rearrange. At once immediate and fragmented, ongoing and intricately connected, the movie's many stories intersect and swerve off, seduce with incredible light and exquisite composition, and reveal your responsibility in the process. Its 15 sections form networks across cities including St. Petersburg, Istanbul, New York, and Sharjah, streets where taxis and backhoes and pedestrians coexist.

As different as the locations might be, they also rhyme. As compositions, they share colors and angles, gestures and shadows, movie references and subway bands. Whether the camera looks down on sidewalks or up at buildings, makes use of doorframes and windows, paintings and mirrors, travels on trains and waits on subway platforms, whether it lingers on cemeteries, Putin and Stalin impersonators or cats (an homage to Chris Marker, who died while Cohen was working on the film), it complicates the very act of looking, the choices you make each moment, to watch or turn away, to pause or move on.

That's not to say the movie doesn't frame those choices. Watching New Yorkers on a sidewalk through a storefront window, you notice that most of them are on their phones. This mundane activity, so beautifully composed to suggest multiple sorts of reflection and fragmentation, is reshaped when the soundtrack adds the Senate Intelligence Committee's Ron Wyden asking, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all, on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Comes the answer, now so notorious, from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence in 2013: "Not wittingly."

As striking as that phrase was and remains, and as pedantic as the film's use of it may be, the sound here doesn’t so much change what you're seeing as it offers you another way to think about it. Yes, you might wonder who's watching you on or through your phone, or why you might worry about that possibility. But you also might ponder your own part in a culture premised on self-policing, on cautions and redactions. In Counting, observation is transformed into a set of questions, ethical and aesthetic, political and practical. What's at stake for whom in recording and reproducing, in accumulating data, in making art?

Just so, counting is also a choice, a means of discovering and communicating and naming. "Where you from?" Cohen asks a guy in a wool cap, standing on a snowy sidewalk. "Right here," he says, "I'm from the Bronx." And so you realize, again, that "right here" can be anywhere, depending on the time, depending on who's asking. The film collects moments in museums and kitchens, at construction sites and at street protests ("I can't breathe"). "I walked in a city I didn't know," reads an intertitle, as the black screen cuts to a group of boys with backpacks, in front of the Madras Grocery, smiling and gesturing at the camera, then a series of images, tree roots growing over concrete and plastic detritus, life expanding, past and future entwined, a tree that serves as shelter for the homeless.

You don't know who might live here, but you can imagine. The film offers this unlikely structure alongside more deliberate versions, mosques and shops and apartment buildings. Observing is a form of consuming, recording an effort to order, editing an act of imposition and also, as you come to recognize in this film's many allusions, an attempt to expand possibilities. As you might think again about what you know and remember, what you anticipate and want, you can see here -- right here -- where you are and can be.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.