Jem Cohen, Patti Smith, and Nirvana

I’ve had a couple of chances recently to revisit the work of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. It’s easy to forget, in retrospect, just how different Nirvana seemed when they first came out, especially in the post-alternative rock moment after Nirvana’s music has been endlessly re-packaged. But, earlier this year, I had the opportunity to watch A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son, an intimate portrait of Cobain that matches audio recordings of Cobain talking about his childhood with contemporary footage of the three cities where Cobain lived: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle, Washington. Schnack’s film powerfully captures the lived experience of these spaces, using Cobain’s words to create a compelling essay film about the troubled musician (I discussed About a Son briefly in one of my Full Frame posts).

More recently, Via Karina, I came across this amazing video directed by Jem Cohen of Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cohen, who also directed the Fugazi documentary, Instrument, has become one of my favorite filmmakers. As Karina points out, “Cohen’s work usually falls somewhere in the cracks between personal documentary and experimental narrative. Often shot handheld on low-gauge film, they’re like punk-rock home movies, always intimate (even when set largely in cold/industrial spaces, as with Chain), but never cloying sentimental.”

The video revisits imagery common to Cohen’s other work, intimately exploring a specific space using a handheld camera, in this case with grainy black-and-white film. And, as I mentioned in my review of Chain, Cohen’s films and videos often capture the hidden details of everyday life–a cat’s whiskers, magazine scattered on an end table, the act of washing dishes–allowing us to see them for the first time. It’s a fantastic video and a great re-interpretation of the Nirvana song (in fact, listening to Smith performance and seeing the video was like hearing the song afresh and reminded of how much I liked the original). I’m heading out to meet some friends, and I originally just wanted to recommend the Cohen-Smith video, but Karina’s mention of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (another film I liked) reminded of Schnack’s similarly elegiac documentary.

Previous posts on Jem Cohen:


  1. Carolyn Sortor Said,

    September 22, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

    Hi, there. I just put online an extensive analysis of the new Patti Smith/Jem Cohen cover video of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which I thought you might possibly be interested in. I’d be glad for any comments:


  2. Chuck Said,

    September 22, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

    Hi, Carolyn. Thanks for the link. I’m pushing some deadlines right now, but it’s a really good, close reading of lyrics and video. I’ll try to comment further later.

  3. Carolyn Sortor Said,

    October 5, 2007 @ 12:17 am

    thanks! I keep realizing more things, correcting from my own biases toward what the artists probably intended; but at some point you gotta put the pencil down.

    Most impt. to me is to help more people appreciate that, as Wm. Carlos Wms. said, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die every day/ for lack of what is found there.” Or as another prophet put it, “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

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