Imagine an entire film made up of variations of those occasional free-associative montages of Vienna in Museum Hours and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Jem Cohen’s follow-up, Counting, operates. Each of its 15 chapters features near-wordless impressionistic evocations of different cities and environments: New York, Moscow, and London, but also Istanbul, Cairo, and Porto, Portugal. The visual material contained in each chapter is as varied as their locations: The untitled third chapter—the film’s shortest, lasting a mere minute—intercuts images of a blurred face that eventually comes into focus with sunlight shining through a window. Chapter seven (“Three Letter Words”) is made up entirely of two-way mirror reflections from a New York bus stop, while chapter 10 (also untitled) focuses not on objects and locales, but on street musicians within those locales.
Some of the audio snippets featured in a few of the chapters suggest themes that may help tie these seemingly disparate segments together. The appearance of footage from both the recent Eric Garner-related protests and People’s Climate March in New York in chapter one suggest a political dimension that’s furthered, perhaps most notably, by the use of audio from NSA-related testimony during the aforementioned chapter seven. These politicized snippets inform our reaction to some of the other, wholly visual chapters: chapter six, for instance (“The Blues”), which features many images of garbage strewn on New York City streets; or even the Moscow-set chapter eight, which juxtaposes images of people milling about the Red Square with images of guards standing outside the Kremlin, suggesting the extent to which civilians know little about what goes on behind closed government doors.
Travel seems to also be a major theme among the film’s segments. Tellingly, Counting begins, in its first chapter, with window footage shot from inside an airplane, which then segues into footage taken during a ride along a New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority subway train. Chapter five (“There and Back”) intercuts airplane footage with on-the-ground footage, while chapter 13 (“Jewish Telegram”) actually develops something of a minor narrative involving travel, beginning in Moscow, but then segueing back to New York as Cohen, it appears, is forced to fly back home in order to attend to a stroke-ridden relative. In fact, the most poignant section of the film—chapter 11, which features images of Coney Island in the winter rather than the familiar conception of this area as a hotbed of summer fun—is related to travel: It’s title is “Next and Last Stop,” referring to the fact that Coney Island is the final stop on the New York MTA’s F train line. And surely there’s something momentous in the fact that, in the final chapter, instead of the comfort zone of New York, Moscow, and London, Cohen ventures into Cairo, thus instilling in the viewer a truly visceral feeling of stepping outside of one’s own comfort zone.
Such a feeling is certainly appropriate for a film that issues a similar challenge to its viewers. Unlike legendary cine-essayist Chris Marker (who’s quoted in a concluding title card, and who could be said to be the film’s main spiritual inspiration), Cohen dares to cast off the safety nets of voiceover narration and even the occasional fictional plot element, trusting us in the audience to make our own mental connections based on the images he presents to us. As elusive as the film is, however, the sheer experience of watching this series of globe-trotting montages is often thrilling in its visual invention and provocative editing juxtapositions. Counting, at least on one lone viewing, is quite the baffling beauty.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.