The Late Movies: Films by Jem Cohen

Ransom Riggs

Jem Cohen is one of the pioneers of "experimental" documentary -- or "punk rock" doc, if you prefer -- and has spent his filmmaking career solidly outside the mainstream, working on shoestring budgets, making these very edgy, personal, lyrical films that don't feel quite like anything else out there. Coming up in the 70s and early 80s, one of the reasons he's called "punk rock" so often is that he claims that ethos as an inspiration, but also because he's been associated with a great many musicians and bands, and two of his feature-length films, Instrument and Benjamin Smoke, are portraits of musicians. (Also, each one took ten years to make.)

Given the insanity that's going on politically in our country right now, Cohen's film "Little Flags" might be the most appropriate way to kick things off:

This is a ten-minute excerpt from "Lost Book Found," my favorite film by Jem Cohen, and one I consider something of a personal inspiration. It's so mysterious and mythical and atmospheric, it makes me want to go out and shoot a film right now just thinking about it.

This is an excerpt from Benjamin Smoke, a film ten years in the making, about a radical, gay rock 'n' roller who lived fast and died young, and whose voice has been compared to singers like Tom Waits and Nick Cave and Lou Reed. I dig this song, and I like the ambiance of Smoke's town that Cohen captures.

Speaking of dead rockers, "Lucky Three" is a film of Elliot Smith playing three songs. It's really quite nice.

This is another clip from Benjamin Smoke. Smoke's looking a little rough around the old edges here. He passed away from Hep C in 1999 -- I can't imagine this was shot too many years before he succumbed. Strange, sometimes a-tonal, sometimes beautiful.

This is another Benjamin Smoke song. It's not part of any movie, but I think it's amazing, so ... yeah.

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