Jem Cohen is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, in the way that, say, James Salter and Grace Paley are writers’ writers. He has made more than fifty films in little more than thirty years. Mention his name to anyone with knowledge of the movie industry and the responses are almost always sighs of admiration for his visual poetry and documentary essays and for his trademark independence and artistic integrity, demonstrated in films like Instrument (1999), a film ten years in the making about the band Fugazi; Benjamin Smoke (2000), also a decade in filming, on the titular singer-songwriter; and Museum Hours (2012), a drama about a museum visitor and a security guard, set in the Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
At National Sawdust next week, as part of our celebration of Sam Stephenson’s new biography, Gene Smith’s Sink, we will premiere Cohen’s new short film, Chuck-will’s-widow, based on a chapter in Stephenson’s book. It’s September 1961, and W. Eugene Smith has recorded, with the myriad reel-to-reel tape machines set up in the “jazz loft,” a mysterious mimic of a Southern swamp bird, whistled five stories down on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue’s desolate flower district in the middle of the night. “There’s a chuck-will’s-widow out there,” murmurs Smith.
Many readers have felt that this spectral chapter is the heart of Stephenson’s unusual book. His collaboration with Cohen is a lyrical marriage of artists and subject matter, including the obsessive Smith and isolated world in the middle of the city.
Below, a teaser of the film. Come to National Sawdust on October 26 (tickets here) to see the full film as well as performances by Angelica Sanchez, the Wordless Music Orchestra, Victor Pablo, and Wadada Leo Smith.