Empires of Tin

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Jim Jarmusch and Jem Cohen in person for a discussion!

In EMPIRES OF TIN, Jem Cohen brings together film, text, and musical performance to create a unique meditation on a central question of our time: what are the effects of Empire? Are past manifestations mirrored in our own time, and if empires still exist, how can we measure their rise and fall?

The project juxtaposes the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian dynasty just before World War One with recent conditions in the U.S. It originated as a multi-media event commissioned by the Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival) which consisted of 16mm film footage shot by Cohen in Vienna and New York, archival images, readings from the texts of Joseph Roth (whose 1930’s novels served as key inspirations) and a live soundtrack by Vic Chesnutt, Members of Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto (from Fugazi), and T.Griffin with Catherine McRae. The film version unites the original 16mm footage with documentation of the live musical performance, creating a distinctive hybrid form which Cohen describes as a “documentary musical hallucination.”

Director’s Notes

I describe “Empires of Tin” as a “documentary musical hallucination.”

Neither a traditional documentary nor a concert film, it is (like many of my other projects) cross-genre work and therefore hard to pin down. In “Empires,” music, literature, and city portrait combine via a performance document that also serves as a free-wheeling, time-bending, historical essay. The film originated when I was given free reign by the Viennale to create an evening of projected film with live music. I found myself struck by two concurrent influences. One was the discovery of Joseph Roth’s Austria-based novels from the 1930’s:  “Radetzky March” along with his “The Emperor’s Tomb” would serve as primary, albeit loose inspirations. The other influence was the modern American Bush family dynasty, at the time manifesting itself in the disastrous presidency of George W., the son. Roth’s books are complex and elegiac illuminations of empire as manifested in the waning era of Austro-Hungarian dominance. The George W. Bush presidency provided another example of dynastic decay, this time with disastrous results that continue to unspool from Wall Street to Iraq and Afghanistan. “Empires of Tin” was a way of bringing together these distant and contemporary currents through moving pictures and music. But while specific historical events provided the project’s underpinnings, this is far from a fact-based documentary and their details are secondary to the project’s overall ambition which is to engender a kind of cinematic dream state.

“Empires” is constructed from disparate elements. Old pictures of the Kaiser and his circle are re-photographed by candlelight; through editing, antique wax anatomical figures are invited onto Vienna’s current streets; on the soundtrack a roll call is read consisting of the names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the ongoing war. And of course, music is at the heart of the piece, from the deconstruction of the Strauss march that gave Roth’s book its title, to the central role played by renegade American singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Chesnutt’s songs, some pre-existing, some written for this project, were chosen for their caustic commentary and twilight atmosphere. They evoke emotions found in Roth, as well as our own emotions as North Americans who had been trapped in the madness of the Bush era. Other musicians include Guy Picciotto (formerly in Washington D.C. band, Fugazi), members of Montreal’s Silver Mt. Zion, and T.Griffin and Catherine McRae, from Brooklyn. The film also includes Roth’s magnificent texts, read with care by Bobby Sommer.

From haunted archival documentation of World War One to a circumnavigation of Joseph Roth’s Vienna neighborhood, to a vision of Wall Street as a geography of anxiety (shot just before the current financial collapse), “Empires” foregrounds landscape as the repository of memory and emotion. Overall, the project invites viewers to experience a different kind of cinema landscape as well, connecting the early approach of silent film (which, with live musical accompaniment was generally anything but silent) to “expanded Cinema” experiments of the 1960’s, to those essay films which reject documentary formulas in favour of a collage-based, kaleidoscopic approach. The film becomes a mode of inquiry, where initially unlikely juxtapositions create space – for the viewer’s own questions, connections, and dark reveries.

– Jem Cohen

  • Country USA
  • Rating NR
  • Year 2009
  • Running Time 100 minutes
  • Director Jem Cohen

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