Video Data Bank at 25: Videos by Jem Cohen | Chicago Reader

Video Data Bank at 25: Videos by Jem Cohen

This program, the fourth in a series marking the 25th anniversary of Chicago's renowned Video Data Bank, presents New Yorker Jem Cohen (whose latest documentary, Benjamin Smoke, is screening this weekend at the Music Box). What could be his finest video, Lost Book Found (1996, 36 min.), focuses on the underside of New York City: the narrator finds a journal full of enigmatic ledger entries, and his voice-over description of it (“potential versus kinetic energy was written with lists of . . . liquor stores”) is paired with images (a montage of liquor stores) in a way that turns the ledger into a guidebook, providing him with a bizarre taxonomy of the city's less celebrated sights. The film is dedicated to Walter Benjamin, who often wrote about the fabric of large cities, and Ben Katchor, whose surreal explorations of New York in the comic strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer predate Cohen's story. Blood Orange Sky (1999, 26 min.), a portrait of Catania, Sicily, shows some characteristic touches (like the image of a crushed metal can in the street), but it's too much of a travelogue, its pleasant inventory of images (a fish market, the faces of townspeople, Mount Etna streaming lava) accompanied by mood music.

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