2004Director: Jem Cohen
Cast: Mira Billotte, Miho Nikaido
egardless of intentions, I’ve recently come to lead an absurdly itinerant life. In the past month alone, I’ve endured three abrupt goodbyes, each progressively more wistful than the last. I’ve adopted the habit of acclimating quickly, and understanding each new city to occupy its own particular place on the Hmm-Home continuum. I just moved to Boston, and after a few days of floundering, I’ve noticed a surplus of a couple things: aggressive sociopaths, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Both are omnipresent, impossible to accept and harder to ignore, and yet I’ve gleaned something useful from them. The former have introduced me to Stateside homophobia at a more immediate distance than Ang Lee could ever dream of, and though given the choice, I’d purge the memory, I’m all for empirical empathy with the liberal values I otherwise embrace. The latter, hilariously, serve as signposts from my dorm to the main campus of my college, each DD indicating a new turn.
In Chain, an impressionistic blend of poetic documentary and dual narrative, director Jem Cohen captures these sorts of accoutrements, these markers of political instability and monopolistic capitalism gone awry—and locates a perverse solace in living productively alongside them. Yet before arriving at this point, Cohen resides in murky stasis. He interweaves the travails of two women enmeshed in the seams of this system: Tamiko (Hal Hartley regular Miho Nikaido), a Japanese businesswoman doing trade work in the States, and Amanda (White Magic vocalist Mira Billotte), a dreamy, job-hunting vagabond. Their stories are told mostly through narration, and if Cohen refuses to dramatize for any particular reason, it’s to sustain a quietly charged sense of the mundane across his “documentary” footage of real consumers and “real” footage of Amanda and Tamiko. Their lives are leveled with, say, the sight of siblings gently tugging at each other next to a fountain, quotidian public personae whose home-lives require some wishful embellishment on the viewer’s part. The pair stands before us as average passersby, rendering their idiosyncrasies all the more potent.
Though her in-born sense of duty and upward-mobility rhetoric ostensibly peg Tamiko as the more normal of the two, she’s far more awkward and robotic. During one of her many paeans to cross-cultural business, she inadvertently waxes Aryan, suggesting that “pure races” do “pure business.” Sounds like caustic satire, but Cohen makes us painfully aware of Tamiko’s limitations, broken English inextricable from broken values. And since she’s an insignificant cog, such musings are merely slight undulations in the machine. She’s only punished by her own passivity: When required to suffer cracks in the system, she’s clueless, and some late-breaking sexual angst is as close as her narrative comes to drama proper.
By contrast, Amanda, a pallid, street-smart reincarnation of Sissy Spacek’s Holly from Badlands, awakens the sheltered art-world audience’s sense of moral propriety. Recounting the mismatched inventory count that led to her losing a job, Amanda initially wins our sympathy, but then complicates it, admitting theft from family members, snatching a lost video camera, scrounging food from mall kids. None of which, except the first, are altogether indefensible. But what makes Chain a special, dignified film is its lack of dramatic confrontation, its almost airless isolation of Amanda within her own world. As a matter of fact, the one moment where Amanda and the Man do brush bumpers registers as oddly tender. She begins a minimal ditty in a piano store, steadily reworking a melody toward greater complexity—until an employee ushers her out in hushed deference, gazing empathetically as she scurries away. It’s a shockingly reflexive moment, freak-folk star Billotte recanting her guile to perform meagerly and modestly, coddling the keyboard like a child with a puppy. In the process, she temporarily rekindles the tenderness of her genre, so soiled by Banhart-fetishizing hipsters in recent months.
Despite obvious distinctions, Tamiko and Amanda, in a sense, roam the same desiccated commercial districts. The film’s locales range from L.A. to N.Y. to Poland, and yet are so uniform that one can only identify them after sticking around for the closing credits. But this sense is purely general; the latest Thematic Orgy of Inter-related Characters Coincidentally Undergoing the Same Goddamn Trajectories this ain’t. Which isn’t to say they don’t change: Tamiko, financially grounded but subtly skittish, becomes increasingly disillusioned as her superiors shy away, and Amanda starts to hold her own with a smile, even as she grudgingly faces a dearth of free time. The women are converging models of class mobility: Tamiko, solidly middle-class, loses not only confidence in the System but the Pokemon-laced nostalgia of her youth for a toy well sold. Proletarian warrior Amanda rises up, feeling out the contours of those who enslave her before finally submitting to the Powers That Be. Rise and Fall are each, after all, products of inevitable economic gravity. If capitalism is so tenuous, its promises fallible and its shopping malls in decay, is this film the stuff of plangent neo-Marxism?
Not exactly. Since the bookends of Chain constitute a kind of post-rock city symphony—with Godspeed You! Black Emperor filling in for a Richard Wagner or Philip Glass—it begs to be viewed as a celebration, albeit a measured, rather droney one. Its milieu shifts from muddy-industrial, with gassy towers etched in pencil on a palette of sickly gray, to a harmonious if overbearing world where the sweetest, most emblematic image may be that of a bird nestled inside the giant “B” of a thrift store façade. The idea that nouveau-Americana is our Home is usually a pejorative one, and while Cohen does nothing to quell the notion that we’d all be better off free from corporate tyranny, that “B” looks awfully cozy.