Amber City

Director Jem Cohen / 1999 / USA

Cohen's beautifully composed documentary, Amber City, is dedicated to writer Primo Levi. It was shot in countless locations across an unknown city in Italy with a soundtrack by musicians including Blonde Redhead, All Scars, Sascha Pellegrini, Stephen Vitiello and others including Cohen himself. Amber City is a painterly, romantic view of an anonymous city full of evocative images of antiquated sculptures, bridges, museums, libraries and apartment blocks and post industrial supermarkets, shops, photo booths and construction sites: lingering images like Jim Jarmusch's long shots in Stranger than Paradise. Pixillated footage of electricity shooting across a street is juxtaposed with distorted images of people shot through lenses and mirrors imagery that is a testament of Cohen's love for an illusionary and kinetic cinema. Amber City is a catalogue of visual clues to the unsolved problem of the mystery of this nameless city. The viewer becomes a detective, following closely the filmmaker's journey burrowing through interiors and arcades in the hope of uncovering the identity of the city. We look into the faces of the city's inhabitants, contemplative portraits of anonymous faces while a voice-over creates a synchronic account of a mystical elusive city. Amber City is a puzzle; the viewer is on a desperate mission to decipher the code to the city's locale, to recognise its geographic markings, to understand its culture and to be enriched by its magnificent architectural heritage and history. Cohen's impression of the city invites comparisons to both the essayistic mode of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil and the lyricism of Italo Calvino's tribute to another unnamed city in his work, Invisible Cities. However where these texts become idiosyncratic urban poeticism, Cohen's film is more particularly striking with its scopological documentation of a city and its mysteries.

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