Empty parking lots, hotel lobbies lit by skylights, shopping mall food courts, rundown and sometimes abandoned strip malls. These are the spaces inhabited and navigated by the two protagonists of Jem Cohen’s sublime new film, Chain. As this Cinema Scope interview notes, Chain is dominated by establishing shots of malls, shopping centers, hotel, airports, and other homogeneous public spaces we encounter on a daily basis:

Chain is a movie in establishing shots. Except that these shots serve the opposite purpose: obscuring and disorienting— dis-establishing, if you will.

In fact, at the end of the film, we learn that Chain was filmed in eleven states and five countries, making the film a commentary on the effect of globalization on human experience. However, like the Benjamin of the Arcades Project, Cohen avoids “looking down” on the stripmalling of the planet and instead remains content to observe, to witness how people inhabit this world, how they make their way through these spaces. These two protagonists, Tamiko (Miho Nikaido), a Japanese businesswoman representing her corporation in the US, and Amanda (Mira Billotte), a runaway drifting between endless, often under-the-table McJobs. Their stories interweave and often comment on each other in surprising ways.

I mention Benjamin here in part because Cohen cites The Arcades Project in the closing credits. He also mentions Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and more pertinent to my interests, he dedicates the film to Chris Marker (yeah, I mentioned this detail a few months ago). And the film very much reminded me of Marker’s Sans Soleil (perhaps my all-time favorite film if I was ever asked such a question), both in its narrative style and its treatment of the commodifcation of public space.

Like Sans Soleil, Chain proceeds largely through voice-over narration as the two solitary characters, Tamiko and Amanda, live in these spaces. Tamiko hs come to the US to propose converting an old steel mill into an amusement park (something oddly similar has recently happened in Atlanta), and she now awaits further guidance from the corporation. Meanwhile, the runaway Amanda drifts from job to job, living in derelict spaces and eating the remainders of lunches people carelessly leave behind in a mall food court. Later in the film, she finds a video camera, which she uses to create video letters to her half-sister. Of course, Amanda knows that she probably won’t send these “letters,” but she continues making them. Amanda’s video letters are just one of the nods to Marker’s film, which is entirely constructed of letters from a filmmaker read by an unseen narrator.

I found the filming of the video letters to be one of the film’s most beautiful and memorable motifs. Cast in the camera’s night-vision lighting (Amanda worries about being spotted and forced to move from her hiding place), Amanda develops a ghostly presence, one that is echoed by her lack of interaction with other people she watches in the mall. Amanda’s struggles to get by also recall Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” experiment in working-class living.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to make any larger claims about the film at this point, other than to say that I know many of the film’s images will haunt me for some time. Chain is an amazing achievement and deserves a much wider audience (for my DC readers, this means you should attend the screening of Chain which will take place on November 10 at the Hirshhorn Musuem).

Update July 2007: Chain has been playing this month on the Sundance Channel, and after watching again this week, I’ve been pleased by how well the film lives up to my positive memories of it.


  1. girish Said,

    October 3, 2005 @ 7:23 am

    Chuck, this really sounds great.
    Do you know if the film has distribution?

  2. Chuck Said,

    October 3, 2005 @ 7:52 am

    One of the producers spoke at the screening, and it sounds like they’re having a difficult time getting distribution. Hopefully it will continue to play festivals and other similar events.

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