Jem Cohen’s Counting is a curiously stilted, globetrotting documentary that jostles through a handful of major cities to find quotidian moments on busy streets, whether people hustling through their workdays or smaller, quieter instances, usually focused on discarded artifacts, like a newspaper page or a cup of tea. The film is broken into 15 chapters, with some of them receiving a title or brief descriptions, which sometimes lends the proceedings an air of structuralist sophistication. For example, chapter two, which covers a two-hour period on the streets of Moscow, begins with a title card announcing, “The day is long,” and ends with a similar card stating, “but a lifetime is short.” Between these proclamations, a woman talks indecipherably on her phone while standing next to a statue. Furthermore, fliers cover a larger, poster-sized ad featuring a cat, which are soon removed by an unnamed participant. The sequence lasts just a few minutes, but its brevity and poetic assemblage suggest Cléo from 5 to 7 in microcosm, a fleeting bit of time where the confluence of personal strife, consumerism, and architecture are shrunken into a surreal miniature.
Were Counting able to vary its passages to consistently engage such fully formed assertions regarding city life, its duration would be significantly sharper and deliberate. The first chapter, set in New York City from 2012 to 2014, doubles as the film’s thesis, where a radio voice explains that this is “one of the golden ages of cosmology,” while heavily symbolic and metaphorical images flood the screen, ranging from a window-seat view of an airplane’s wing, to a brightly lit ATM screen amid surrounding darkness. At one point, the camera glimpses a woman showering, confirming the voyeuristic acclimations that were already apparent. Just prior, a crumpled newspaper page boasts the headline, “The World’s Last Mysteries,” which makes clear Cohen’s bid for his own film’s ethereal qualities, while intimating that contemporary existence is far removed from Dziga Vertov’s utopian conception of a “city symphony.” Cohen presents NYC not as symphonic or harmonious, but as clamorous and at odds with itself, a place where beauty and grotesqueries are likely to reside in proximity to one another.
That notion is something of a cliché, but one that Counting diligently insists upon throughout. Shorter chapters threaten to undermine or overturn these larger points; chapter three, for example, runs only a minute or two, and watches a woman bathing in sunlight through the window of her Brooklyn apartment. Chapter five, titled “There and Back,” collages various airplane departures and landings in numerous cities, with a rock soundtrack effectively serving as a music-video tribute to the doc’s own transitory nature. Each chapter change marks a different location, though the proceedings are mostly confined to New York and Russia, with layovers in Istanbul, Porto, and Cairo. Political rumblings abound; chapter seven, titled “Manhattan Window Reflections, 2014,” is precisely that, overlaid with audio recordings from an NSA hearing where a defendant claims that the NSA doesn’t wittingly collect information from citizens. In this passage, a tripartite aesthetic structure reveals itself, where political rhetoric, juxtapositions between private versus public behavior, and poetic montage, in the Eisensteinian sense, are being used to gesture toward a larger, macrocosmic synthesis regarding these tumultuous modern times.
If the film weren’t already screaming Chris Marker’s name as a core influence, the final chapter, entitled “Skywriting,” receives both a Marker postscript and a Marker dedication. It’s the most self-congratulatory segment, featuring on-screen text from Cohen himself as he explains, “I walked into a neighborhood I didn’t know, in a city I didn’t know,” and the poetic pretenses are compounded by a sledgehammer insistence on elusive and irreducible moments as inherently beautiful. When the camera lingers through the window of a rundown video store, its shelves still stocked with VHS titles, it’s not clear whether this is a moment of ghostly lament for an era passed or a blank plea for ambiguity as an end. That’s the ultimate difference between Marker’s Sans Soleil, for example, and Counting. The former, through its verbose and focused voiceover commentary, arrives at a future where memory functions as automation and human agency is made supplementary to artificial intelligence; travelogue and philosophy are conversant, sardonic, and capable of intellectual precision. Cohen, on the other hand, fears words to detrimental ends, such that his own, Markerian work plays like a travelogue for superficially political Airbnb customers who are interested in glimpsing the “real” parts of a city, but not dedicated to enmeshing themselves within them for long enough to construct a cognizant, pragmatic diagnosis.