Jem Cohen's Chain examines consumers and the consumed

The world is chained to chains in Jem Cohen's Chain, a sort-of documentary that also weaves two narratives into its study of global economics. Hard-faced young squatter Amanda (musician Mira Billotte of White Magic) spends monotonous days haunting the nearest shopping center, a place so generic it could be positively anywhere, including the suburban hell of George A. Romero's darkest nightmares. Meanwhile, eager Japanese businessperson Tamiko (Miho Nikaido) roams homogeneous pockets of America, bunking in soulless hotels while she pitches her amusement park plans to investors on behalf of her company — an entity she views with excessively deep devotion.

That Tamiko's proposed park is called Floating World is no accident; though they're traveling different paths, both she and Amanda drift through Cohen's landscapes, which are populated not by human beings but by consumers. Still shots of supermarkets, fast-food joints, office parks, warehouse stores, and half-finished condo towers are edited together in dreamlike succession; it's not until the end credits that you realize these images spring from seven different countries (including 11 states) Cohen visited with his 16mm camera over a period of nearly a decade. His photographer's eye for details aside (such as a bird's nest tucked into a Big Lots sign), the sterile sameness he captures is striking.

The first time I saw Chain was at the 2004 Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). I went into it knowing this was Cohen's first foray into fiction after well-received documentaries such as Benjamin Smoke and Instrument (about Fugazi, in case you were wondering why Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto are listed among Chain's executive producers; Picciotto actually suggested Billotte, whose music he'd produced, when Cohen was casting). The New York filmmaker took the mic and confessed he was thrilled to see Chain playing a multiplex, albeit one taken over by VIFF's arty fare. Under most circumstances, he explained, it would never play in the kind of environment it so carefully scrutinizes: "It's not a normal movie."

Indeed, a "normal" movie that takes on a global topic would probably look more like Fast Food Nation or Babel than Chain, which is dedicated in part to Chris Marker (obvious precursor: La Jetée). Cohen doesn't need to smack you over the head with speeches or movie stars or coincidence-driven scenarios to make his point. Instead, he draws it out in the quiet moments experienced by his characters. Amanda — who recalls telling a motorist to simply deposit her hitchhiking self at the nearest mall — lurks in the food court, silently finishing a discarded, half-eaten plate from Panda Express (or Sbarro or Hot Dog on a Stick or Steak Escape — who can say?). Later, she seeks employment as a hotel maid, but an elaborate bus journey lands her at a hiring office that insists on a drug test. Ironically, it's not the test that discourages her; it's the fact that to take it, she has to spend several more hours on another crosstown bus. In one of Chain's most expressive voice-overs, Tamiko remembers visiting Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Tokyo Disneyland with rapturous joy. Her sunny-side-up view of corporate capitalism crumbles only slightly when her company virtually abandons her stateside; her first instinct is to stay on in her megamotel, clinging to routine and running up charges on her personal credit card.

But getting back to the multiplex: after making its San Francisco debut at a 2005 Other Cinema show, Cohen's Chain has found its place locally at an art gallery.

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