JEM COHEN: WE HAVE AN ANCHOR at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Tuesday, December 4. Rating: NNN
Reviewing something as experiential as this mixed-media sort-of-movie, sort-of concert - in which an ambient-experimental supergroup comprised of Mary Margaret O'Hara, members of Fugazi, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dirty Three, and more, performed a live score to American filmmaker Jem Cohen's footage of the landscapes of Nova Scotia - is a bit tricky. It'd be like reviewing an orgasm or a shudder. It was just something that happened.
This isn't to get all airy-fairy, like, "Oh man, We Have An Anchor was like a totally indescribable experience," or something. It's more that We Have An Anchor muddies rubrics of evaluation. It's not a concert and it's not a screening. And so it's kind of difficult to talk about. No doubt, the highlight was the music, which reasonably approximated the combined sounds of all the participants (basically, Godspeed meets Dirty Three, tempered by Guy Piccioto's driving guitar) without screeching into cooks-in-the-kitchen cacophony. If there was a problem, it's that there wasn't enough of it, with the band coming down from intoxciating highs to give Cohen's experimental, multi-format installation room to breathe.
Cohen's film, while affecting in places, was pretty rote: images of birds on wires and dilapidated shanties and repurposed free-verse poetry. It's as if he licensed the liner notes of a Godspeed or Silver Mount Zion LP and adapted them into a film. And like a lot of the scrounged-up audio in those group's records, it can be hard to get a bead on how, exactly, Cohen is using footage of a young maritime crab fisherman explaining his various trips overboard, or shots of families doting around community supper halls. Using "real people" in this way requires a certain delicacy, and at times Cohen's usage of folksy field recordings feels a bit condescending, or at least cloyingly naïve. (By comparison, a shot of a Pepsi fountain cup caught in a breeze in a mall parking lot is eye-rollingly trifling: shades of the symbolically-overloaded plastic bag in American Beauty.)
Still, the immediacy of the music, working towards compound crescendos that foregrounded the impressive acoustics of the Lightbox's biggest cinema before tumbling down into silence, greatly amplified the potential of Cohen's film. The live score made the images on the screen feel comparably intimate, as if they were being conjured instead of merely projected.