So Sooner Comes the Trying: An Interview with Jem Cohen

Sometime in the year 2000, I went to NYU’s Cantor Film Center for a screening of Instrument, a documentary about the band Fugazi, by indie filmmaker Jem Cohen. Seeing it launched me into a directionless flurry of buying and shooting with Super 8 film cameras, a hobby I should really revive. This interview was conducted via a few email exchanges shortly after the Cantor Center screening, though I’ve lost the exact date since I lost all of my stuff and had to dredge this up on the Wayback Machine. Let’s just say it was a spell back, and two decades later, perhaps some things have changed, so please regard this as an historical document.

Jem Cohen has been working with film since he was a kid and has been known as a force in the world of true independent film since the 1980s. His body of work spans a vast thematic landscape yet is all bound together by a common thread of intimacy and subjectivity. His documentaries aren’t made to serve as objective, omnipotent “voice of god” pieces. They are often personally involved with the subject matter, and Jem’s love of what he is doing shines through in every frame. Few things have wowed and inspired me the way Jem’s work with film has. It’s a feeling akin to the day I first listened to Rites of Spring, or the time I spent living in a weird and wonderful world down in Florida. It was a great honor for Jem to take some time out to chat with us about Instrument—a documentary about the band Fugazi—about DIY film making in general, and about the band Journey.

How’d you get started with filmmaking?

I did animation and some super 8 as a kid, then got work in the summers for a husband and wife team that made firefighter and childbirth industrial training films (no joke), and learned a lot from them. I went to college, majored in studio art with a concentration in photography and film. I did slideshows with music, then left college and worked for that family again as a shipping clerk so I could use their film gear on my off hours. That’s how I made my first 16mm film.

You work with both video and film. Which do you prefer?

I prefer film. Film just has the “juice.” Video usually feels a little cold and clammy to me. I often release in video. I usually can’t afford to finish projects on film, even though I originate on it about 90% of the time. Also, I can only rarely afford to do sync sound. Still, I’d rather have 30 seconds of silent film documentation than a whole tape of video. Sometimes, I do love the compact ease of video and the instant audio. But something usually gets lost in the video translation. I’m sure I’ll have to use video more and more, but not without some big regrets.

How’d you land the REM “Nightswimming” gig?

I did an independent, daytime swimming hole film/video called Drink Deep, involving places in rural Georgia and Pennsylvania. Michael Stipe, who I’ve known for 15 years, took me to some of those places and knew the film, so since I’d done ‘dayswimming,’ I was a good candidate for “Nightswimming.”

Could you tell us a little about what went into the making of Instrument? It seems like it must have been terribly difficult.

First, there were years and years of relatively easy and fun Super 8 documentation. Then, discussion with the band about getting more concentrated and doing a project together, then increasingly complicated 16mm sync sound shoots. Occasionally I went out on tour with all formats – S8, sync-16, and video. After that came gathering archival material from a million sources, sending stuff to the band, editing sections — alone at first and then together with band members. There were meetings and a few tug of war matches and some hilarity, and year after year of piling up material and putting together more chunks and getting thrown out of cheap edit rooms by higher paying clients. Learning the insane ways that, for example, computer (Avid) upgrades can render all of your old footage difficult to access. More meetings and discussions and more years going by and editing nights and holidays and changing edit rooms six or seven times and losing focus and getting it back and more putting it aside to get paid work and finish other films.

Then there was having insanely long versions with no apparent way to organize or end them, and hashing it out some more, and getting some edit sanity help from David Frankel who had a modicum of objectivity — which I had mostly lost. There was maybe almost losing everything in an edit room with Guy [Picciotto] at 7am after cutting the final final final piece all night in an insane flash of weird ugly white light generated by the computer as it crashed for the 50th time. Finally, there was refusing to believe it could possibly be done until I saw someone walk by with a shrink-wrapped video.

How was working with Fugazi, both as a band and as friends of yours? Was it stressful to be putting childhood friends under a microscope, even one that was positive in it’s outlook?

It was a hoot. It was brutally difficult. Then it was a hoot again. It was a lot better than working with big record labels. I never had a microscope, but yes, it was sometimes very stressful. In the long run, it increased my respect for those fellows and their way of working.

This one is from a friend in Chicago. He said you might have an answer — what’s the story behind “Glue Man?”

Way back before the first Fugazi record was done, they were passing thru New York and came to my place in Brooklyn, and they played me a crude tape of a song they’d been working on in the practice room. It had no lyrics as of yet. It was heavy. I also showed them some raw Super 8 footage I’d shot from my window that I found to be very powerful and disturbing, and somehow we sensed a possible connection between the two. Actually, I may have shown them the film first that day – I can’t remember. The band went on home, and I was inspired to write some words relating to my film footage and to that music. Guy took those words, modified them and added some of his own, and the song “Glue Man” was created. I then went on to work on the film some more, and wanting to fuck with the whole notion of music video, asked Ian if he wanted to work with me on a soundtrack built from the studio masters (16 track) of the song. I also went and recorded Guy doing some readings from the lyrics. Ian and I then went into the edit room/audio-for-video joint and made the soundtrack to the movie. Like a music video, the thing was a film with the studio version of a song used as a soundtrack; unlike a music video, the song was all pulled apart and re-assembled, and there was no bullshit lip-sync, etc.

On an unrelated note, my brother Adam shot the cover of the first record. I think it could be the greatest live shot ever. On the inside sleeve, there’s a shot by Glenn Friedman that shows Adam just a fraction of a second after he took the cover shot.

What is your opinion of the Cinema of Transgression and the fact that it has, for so many years, been the face of punk rock filmmaking?

It was never the face of punk rock filmmaking for me. To be honest, I never could sit through much of it. I generally found it to be a weird mix of stupid and pretentious — things that were supposed to be dark and scary but seemed goofy and tiresome, things that were supposed to be down and dirty but then had their own air of elitism and artiness. I just couldn’t take it seriously and didn’t find it very strong or inspiring. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t see the right examples. The face of punk rock filmmaking for me was Cassavetes and Ulmer and The 400 Blows and James and Sadie Benning and someone’s document of the Bad Brains at CBGB and Dziga Vertov and Chris Munch doing his own feature – The Hours and the Times – directing, shooting, and recording sound. Transgression is Robert Bresson, not some guy on the Lower East Side shooting up for the camera or squirting fake blood from his arm.

How big an influence on Instrument was This Is Spinal Tap?

I loved the movie, never thought of it as an influence.

Why do you think so few people in punk circles try their hand at filmmaking, while everyone wants to be in a band?

Being in a band can be a lot cheaper and more immediate. Some musicians are born to make music and thankfully concentrate all of their energies there. But I don’t know if I agree with your question – now it sometimes feels like ‘everyone’ wants to make movies, particularly with the advent of DV. Hopefully, there will be good cross-over results, but sometimes it will still be a good idea for people to do one thing really well. Some bands make movies both inside of and on top of their music—Godspeed You Black Emperor!, for one.

Punk is a lot different than it used to be. What do you think of what it’s become?

Punk is many, many things. What it is and becomes, and what people call it are often very different things. Cassavetes didn’t like punk rock, but I say he made punk movies. Seeing bands play stadium shows usually isn’t very punk rock to me, but it might feel like it is to some high school kid who missed the late 70’s and doesn’t have a lot of friends with garages. Punk will alway crop up out of the good dirt, and the less attendant hype the better. Let the fashion people leave it behind and get back to the expensive sparkly handbags. Punk rock is Vic Chesnutt laying one down at home at 4am because he can’t sleep and he just made a great loop on his Casio.

A number of people wanted me to ask this one. We tell ourselves that somewhere Jem Cohen has reels and reels of smart, articulate, witty punk kids explaining why they like Fugazi and punk in general. Please tell us this is the case.

No, I have a few moments, and a couple of very articulate kids, but I really didn’t do a whole lot of interviews. I did a few shows, and we took out some of the most effusive comments and some of the most critical ones. We felt that like it or not, that was a fair cross-section—not just of the fans, but of the kids who just happened to be at those shows. People need to remind themselves that that is what we were documenting — a couple of parking lot responses on a couple of days, not the overall, most intelligent thoughts of the band’s fans. It is true that we weren’t all that interested in a long chain of people saying how great the band is. That would’ve made the band pretty uncomfortable in the context of a tape that THEY were releasing. I know it doesn’t seem to bother any of the other bands that put out movies about themselves, but that’s another story, and usually there’s a label heavily involved that has a big pat ’em on the back sales agenda.

What do you think of other punk rock documentaries, like Decline of Western Civilization 1 and 3, Another State of Mind, and I think there was one called The Beat that I never actually saw. I know it had the Cro Mags in it.

Believe it or not, I haven’t seen Decline — ouch — except for the Metal Years one. That was not a good documentary due to the corny editing, never letting anyone finish a sentence, etc. etc., but it is still a good and often hilarious and sometimes very sad document. Another State of Mind – again, not such great filmmaking, but great to have the document. Never heard of The Beat.

What sort of equipment do you use? Favorite camera? Facilities you’d like to recommend? Do you do much work on computers?

Lots of different gear. Favorite camera now is the Bolex, although I wish I had an Aaton as well. I use many Super 8 cameras, never really met one I didn’t like. I do all my editing on computers — Avid, Media 100, and Final Cut Pro.

Have you ever been emotionally moved by a Journey song?

Yes, I’m afraid so. Can’t remember which one. Did they do “Wheel in the Sky?” Thank God I never owned an album. I have never been moved by a Styx song though, except to anger and depression.

Independent filmmaking has become a pretty bizarre thing, with a lot of so-called indy films being backed by major studios. What has the effect of this engulfing of indy film by the mainstream had on actual independent filmmakers?

I think it’s mostly a drag. it certainly doesn’t seem to have encouraged bolder, more difficult, more unusual films.

Having worked somewhat in the mainstream with REM, is quasi-mainstream success something you’d welcome?

We feel that Instrument got great recognition. Someone put together a show in Antarctica. It has popped up all over the planet without us doing any of the usual film biz publicity. Someone is trying to translate it into Farsi to show it in Iran! I showed it both at squats in Italy and the Whitney Biennial, whatever that’s worth. Old folks went with their grandchildren to see it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It showed on the Sundance channel for whatever that’s worth after their ridiculous festival turned it down. If we look at the “numbers” and compare what it sold to what U2 sells, we could find that the numbers don’t compare. In terms of feeling like it is really available to whoever wants to see it, and feeling that we did the movie we wanted to, and feeling that a lot of viewers found it to be a good and difficult and unusual ride, we feel it’s been a terrific success.

What do you think of films in general these days?

Don’t see a lot of movies, except when I can get in for free at the festivals. There’s no such thing as movies in general, although there does seem to be such a thing as shitty ass Hollywood and shitty as pseudo-indie movies ‘in general.’ Kiarostami is out there making great films. Peter Hutton and Jim Herbert and James and Sadie Benning and other true independents continue to do their work. Chris Smith and Sarah Price made a great film with American Movie. It is pretty sad when American Beauty is seen as something rare and renegade, particularly when comparatively few people saw a genuinely telling and intelligent and epic view of our country — Todd Hayne’s Safe — one of my favorite movies ever.

I’ve noticed that you, Ian MacKaye, and Michael Stipe all have the same sort of hairstyle AND the same little toboggan cap. Are you guys part of a secret society?

No, but for $75 bucks, I’ll teach you the secret handshake.

What words of wisdom would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Unplug your TV. Work hard. Don’t read Premiere, or Variety, or Entertainment Weekly, etc. etc. see Abraham Rivette’s The March. See Buster Keaton, but don’t think you’re going to make a Buster Keaton movie.

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