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Filming at the Site of Urgency

By Ben Stork

The first of Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street begins on the inside of a subway car: a shot through the window at the iconic “Kentile Floors” sign, as the train leaves Brooklyn. In each of the following three shots, the frame is crowded with young people crammed body-to-body, sitting, standing, grasping the support poles and rails, swaying with the motion of the train. Over the murmur of conversation, a percussion track gradually rises as a drummer performing on a subway platform comes into view. Throughout this sequence, protesters traveling into Manhattan to join the October 15, 2011, Occupy Wall Street day of action in Times Square are captured in clear, steady digital images, edited with patience and elegance. Indeed, the visual aesthetic established here remains consistent for the remainder of this first newsreel, taking a distanced, observational position on the events represented. As beautiful, poignant even, as these images are, their relation to urgency is far from obvious. The film’s formal qualities—between the context of this program and the events of last fall, at least—seem to beg the question of what urgency means when combined with the term “cinema,” especially as it ceases to have any clear referent.

As I watched the first of Cohen’s newsreels on the Independent Film Channel Center’s Vimeo page—the first screening in the new Cinema of Urgency series—the opening shots described above uncannily echoed a video, or more accurately a series of videos, shot some two years earlier. Like the Gravity Hill newsreels—which Cohen discussed on this site recently—these were digital images from public transportation viewed online (on the lower quality but ubiquitous YouTube), but in this case the train platform was in Oakland, California, and the images were captured by cell phones. Taken in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, the shaky, handheld videos culminate not in the mass action of protest—though this was on the horizon—but rather in the shooting of Oscar Grant III by Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle.

Fragmented glimpses of what led to the shooting of a prostrate Grant were recorded by at least five cellular phones. Continuous but poorly composed, low resolution, and cacophonous, these videos are certainly charged with a sense of immediacy, which might easily translate into “urgency,” yet they are also quite un-cinematic. That is, the images embody the small, mobile-screen frame and the haphazard production and distribution now so familiar as to be readily cited in Hollywood films. From the standpoint of production or exhibition, the videos from the Fruitvale BART station do not appear appropriate to the apparatus or institution of cinema, much less the art center. Nevertheless, there remains, even if barely, a resemblance and commonality between the amateur footage from Oakland and the Gravity Hill Newsreels as well as the other films in the Cinema of Urgency program.

I do not compare these videos to evaluate their relative worth or merit, whether in terms of the cinematic or the urgent. The line I draw to connect them is impressionistic and contingent, perhaps even arbitrary; however, their convergence and divergence points to ways that we watch and what we see when engaging recorded images and sounds in different contexts, in turn drawing out the conjunction of cinema and urgency. Perhaps “urgency” is, as John Mowitt’s description of the program suggests, the flag under which our contemporary moment rallies, while “cinema” folds the seeming immediacy of the present back onto the persistence of events, concerns, desires, and forms.

Seeing Urgency

The distances that separate the examples above—spatial, temporal, social—are superseded here by the ways urgency is inscribed and responded to in these videos. The visceral qualities of the images and sounds of the Oscar Grant shooting, their shift from banal and obnoxious to chaotic and desperate, speaks to the urgency of the unknown, confusing, and disputed. The slow, contemplative, and clear images of the Gravity Hill Newsreels, on the other hand, offer the urgency of amassing and the energy of an anticipatory horizon. Thus, the demand placed on viewers by the first is to discern what happened, even as a certain obscene obviousness surrounds the sight of Mehserle standing over Grant as he lies stomach first on the ground; but for the second, the images ask instead to be considered within a different matrix of why is this happening, what does this happening look like, and what will it look like in the future.

This difference is born from ways that these, and other similar images, are taken up. Grant was murdered in public by a law enforcement officer, making the cell phone videos material evidence in legal proceedings as well as criminal and journalistic investigations. By contrast, the Gravity Hill Newsreels screened before feature films at the IFC Center shortly after Cohen completed them, becoming part of the New York City filmmaking and watching community. (Both sets of videos were also “released” digitally through sites such as Vimeo and YouTube for less specific audiences.) I will return to the question of exhibition venue shortly, for now let us consider the form of viewership these situations and texts beckon.

One way to do this is to think of the forms of attention engendered by these videos and their circulation. When images—especially from amateur or surveillance videos—involve police action, or indeed any criminal activity, there is a tendency, an imperative even, to focalize particular aspects of the image and intensify isolated details. Since what is at stake is a matter of official and semi-official discourse, with their attendant consequences, the relation between text/video and viewer is reduced to the confirmation of empirical facts. The urgent task of looking closely, then, becomes one of scouring the material remainder to verify or dispute claims of intent. Thus, even when this effort goes to defamiliarizing the content of the images, as did the analyses of the cell phone videos—or, another relevant example, the George Halliday video of the Rodney King beating—they are bracketed and cordoned off in a forensic grid to determine if Mehserle, as he claimed, reached for his Taser only to come away with and discharge his sidearm. For videos (or films or audio recordings) of this sort, then, there is a closing in on the footage to corner only what is “relevant” to the investigation. Hued away in this process are the moments before and after the event, which register only as distractions from the urgency of official inquiry and determination. Here urgency is filtered down to a precise, though always disputed, kernel of evidence.

By contrast, images such as those in the Gravity Hill Newsreels are allowed to act as a relay from the specificity of the event captured to the larger framework. While there may be a decisive picture of a shooting containing shooter, bullet, and victim, no such thing exists for a social movement. Thus, the viewer does not look for a smoking-gun image to define the event but an expression of the energy and pathos of the movement and its actions In the case of Cohen’s newsreels, the videos seem to formally foreground a serene distance in the face of crisis. As Cohen writes in a short piece for Artforum.com, they are intended as “modest, small observations … of a movement unfolding in daylight, rain, darkness, and in a moment of vital expansion.” This approach is a marked contrast to, for instance, the Newsreel collectives’ (both in California and New York) films of the student protests of 1960s, especially San Francisco State: On Strike (1969) and Columbia Revolt (1969). These examples focus on and embed themselves within the action of protest, joining in with the marching and picketing bodies, recording and transmitting their speeches. (In the same Artforum piece, Cohen cites as his inspiration the short documentaries screened before Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s rather than the Newsreel groups of the 1960s.) Even in eschewing the agitational thrust of these earlier protest films, the Gravity Hill Newsreels series, makes its claim on urgency by broadening its scope and allowing the outside world to subtly creep in by, for example, juxtapositions of protest with shots of the Times Square news ticker or the massive animated advertisements looming above. Rather than locate urgency in the explosive event, Cohen’s videos instead simmer in the atmosphere of gathering bodies and their enunciations. Unlike the search for evidence that animates images of contested events, where the spectator is compelled to look through them to the “truth” of what happened, these ask the viewer to look through what is specifically represented to the world that constitutes it.

The New Cinematic

This discussion has so far centered on the images themselves and, to a lesser extent, the modes of spectatorship they solicit. In this focus, I have delayed mention of the exhibition and, consequently, the cinema in Cinema of Urgency. Of course, by “cinema,” the series curators refer to an inclusive concept encompassing the tradition, system, institution, apparatus, and aesthetic of film and filmmaking. But the cinema is also a space, a specific viewing site informed by these other notions of cinema. In our age of fragmented exhibition formats and distribution windows, expanding and miniaturizing screens, and nearly instantaneous dissemination, the cinema is, if not in decline, no longer an unchallenged and stable name for moving images. Indeed, as a space and increasingly as a particular type of motion picture, the cinema has retreated from its traditional location on the street into museums and galleries, while movie theaters occupy the corners in cathedrals of commerce. This shift undoubtedly affects the relation of moving images and urgency.

The shelter provided by a venue such as the Walker Art Center, MoMA, IFC Center, or Anthology Film Archives allows for screenings that could never find time on multiplex screens, or even in art house theaters. Despite possible demographic sacrifices, along with the loss of the concessions counter, the act of situating cinemas—cinema itself, even—in the museum produces a viewing experience in which different modes of urgency emerge and intermingle. The cinema in the museum pushes back against both the spectacle of dominant, commercial film and the sensationalism and conservatism of other media outlets. As such, there is space made for urgency not reducible to the flash of action or eventual eruption, but rather of drawing out a historical conjuncture through specific images.

It would seem that the Gravity Hill Newsreels were destined for such venues and dependent on them for the videos’ success. However, my own viewing experience belies this, given that I watched Cohen’s videos on the Internet and still attempted to discern their urgency. But what of the other videos I’ve discussed? What would it mean to screen the videos of Oscar Grant III’s murder in the Walker Cinema? Would this complicate and perhaps even compound the visceral urgency they already embody, or would it simply exploit their obscenity by blowing up the violence of the act to the proportions of the cinema screen? Approaching the specific video of Grant’s shooting (linked above) in terms of cinema may offer an answer. What we see in that video, produced by soulamedia/streetgangs.com, is in fact a curated collection of videos that puts, side-by-side, six different images and their durations. Unlike the numerous other treatments of this footage, here is a piece that does not reduce the video to the moment of violence but instead, anchored by images from a BART security camera, presents the event within the ongoing flow of life. Certainly, the video concerns itself with determining what occurred on the platform, despite the garish and continuous presence of the site’s logos, but if re-situated in the cinema, another sense of urgency might begin to emerge. Given the time and screen space, the image of urgency enlarges, taking in and, perhaps, imbuing early morning drunken reveries, the ongoing effort to police certain citizens, and the rhythms of public transportation with an urgency irreducible to the flashpoint of a single gunshot, even as this too remains urgent. It seems to me that this potential is precisely what is meant in the combination of concepts arranged under the name Cinema of Urgency.

Ben Stork is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program at the University of Minnesota.

Still from Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, 2011–2012

Photo: Jem Cohen, courtesy Video Data Bank

Still from Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, 2011–2012

Photo: Jem Cohen, courtesy Video Data Bank

The shooting of Oscar Grant III, as captured by five cell phones and a security camera, January 1, 2009

Source: YouTube

Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, 1966

Courtesy Rialto Pictures

Harun Farocki, Serious Games 1, Watson is Down, 2010

©Harun Farocki

Mohammadreza Farzad, Blames and Flames, 2011

Courtesy of Mohammadreza Farzad

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, The Law in These Parts, 2011

Courtesy of Cinema Guild

Thomas Heise, Condition (Die Lage), 2011

Courtesy of Deckert Distribution