A dreamlike travelogue that transforms a mundane world into something strange and new, Jem Cohen’s Chain crafts a fiction from visual documents, achieving a heightened sense of reality. Shot over more than six years, it was created from images of those otherwise interstitial locations that global itinerants pass through en route to more memorable locales: brass-railed shopping malls, corporate parks, airports. Eschewing his love of disappearing architectural vernaculars seen in previous films like city diary Lost Book Found or Southern Gothic portrait Benjamin Smoke, Cohen focuses on the contemporary sprawl that has become invisible in its ubiquity. Cohen recorded most of this without permission, shooting literally from the hip with a 16mm or video camera; the low angle grants a lucid, child’s-eye view of franchise brand names: Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and countless others. In a Hollywood film, these logos would be given the star treatment of product placement. In Cohen’s lens, they are simply there, as resolute as geological formations.
Except, in Chain, there’s no there there. The near-affectless protagonists—Japanese businesswoman Tamiko (Miho Nikaido, of Tokyo Decadence) and twentysomething American drifter Amanda (Mira Billotte of neo-folk band White Magic)—move through an imaginary, unnamed American exurb created through shots taken in 11 different states and six different countries. Nikaido’s character researches American theme parks for her company, which seeks to introduce its own variation on Disneyland, aptly titled the Floating World. Billotte’s grown-up urchin works low-wage motel cleaning jobs, dodges mall security, and confides a diary into a discarded camcorder. The bourgeois globe-trotter and the scruffy boho-hoboess are equally unrooted, set adrift inside a weightless concatenation of interchangeable plazas.
When Amanda finds her secondhand camera, it contains a videotape by its previous owner. Mirroring the film’s macro structure, this tape is a collection of homogenous office interiors. In its supposed non- artistry, the video recalls the early-20th-century photography of Eugene Atget, who was hired to document in detail the neighborhoods of Paris. Instantly nostalgic, Atget’s supposedly informational photos became embraced as art. Chain, too, aims for posterity: Though uncomfortably contemporary, it records the kinds of surfacey structures that are meant to be destroyed rather quickly. Amanda visits an emptied mall, slated for demolition. Though probably no more than two decades old, it already evokes the superannuation of Pompeii.
Chain‘s formidable power rests on the notion that these unlovely incrustations of worldwide anti-regionalism bespeak a fundamentally dehumanizing global economy, a concept that is immanent rather than argued. As such, the film verges on a kind of negative sentimentality, albeit of a radical bent, and offers only the merest glimmers of hope. In one segment, a bird nests incongruously within the oversized B of a store’s name. Elsewhere, Amanda imagines a drowned world that would take it all away. “I used to dream about the mall being flooded,” she narrates, “just filling up with water, and the fish swimming in it.”