I bet you made it somewhere nice, with a real job. Maybe you live in a condominium like you always wanted to, with wall-to-wall carpeting, ice-maker in the fridge, big teevee.
Of course, this is an address to you, dear reader, just as it was addressed to me, as Cohen's audience for CHAIN. How is your life, materially? What is your job? What do you make, or what services do you provide? Where did your job come from? How did you get it? What do you spend your earnings on? Do you actually need what you buy? (We doubt it.) What would you do with your time if you weren't working (or, were working less)? So goes Jem Cohen's 2004 CHAIN.
Through a stuttering landscape of diluted and bland, Cohen suggests we are trapped in a deadening cycle of consumerism via often stationary shots of chain storefronts, malls, and parking lots. When the camera actually moves, Cohen maintains the appearance of stagnation through the repetition of these bland chain-store landscapes. Again, again, again, again, again. This deadened rhythm frighteningly brings to light daily horrors overlooked:
The dually noteworthy chid-in-grocery-cart, above [pardon the photo of screen, frame as parallelogram and assuredly inaccurate color] , suggests child/person as commodity as well as passive student with a front-row-seat to learning consumption. Another brutally resonating throw-away is one of homeless "protagonist" Amanda's (Mira Billotte) monologues paired with images from a Home Depot-esque parking lot:
there are these little sheds, sometimes I wish I could just drag one into the woods and live in itThe statement just lays there. Both characters - here Amanda, also Tamiko (Miho Nikaida) - share flat, expressionless, emotionless speaking tones. Here though, Amanda notes these tiny homes as potential shelters for people in such an off-handed way that perfectly resonates the social status these sheds play - their existence isn't even allowed to conjure the question of whether or not they could house people. They just don't. Her line comes and goes. The thought not completed. Delivery emotionless.
It's actually kinda spooky [chuckle]. But after a while I got used to it. I like it.While not filmically referencing the sheds, this seeming throw-away line, again, suggests the stupor we live in. If we pause to think about the choices we make, the lives we lead, we should find it 'kinda spooky', but we get used to it. Think we like it.
As noted, two characters - Amanda and Tamiko - populate Cohen's narrative, though the film is speckled with the incidental "extras" caught on tape, everyone floats ghost-like through the sterile-y dingy landscape. Though we learn in the end credits the chain locations are taken from all over the world, the film is set in America, the language is English. Tamiko is from Japan, doing research in America on amusement parks; Amanda is American. The labor of these women is service-oriented. Amanda is first shown as a motel maid, then also working as a general shop employee, last seen sweeping a sidewalk; Tamiko, though business class, works the service industry of amusement parks. Importantly, the point is made that the company Tamiko works for is looking to build a park in an abandoned steel factory. Cohen here seems to posit the vapid landscape we see here is the result of lost industry, the lost real work of tangible value. Further, and perhaps dangerously, there might also be the implication that the cultural outsider, the Japanese developer, is part of the problem. Cohen cleverly writes Tamkio's stilted-English dialogue to suggest economic warfare
Someday we will bring an amusement park to America, just as they came to Japan with Disneyland.Not only does this suggest the decline of America to the ascendence of Japan, but it slyly makes the audience aware of the circulation of junk-culture. How do you like that, America? (Yeah, unfortunately, you probably do like it.)
While this might not be a thorough explanation of the characters' racial identities, it seems an important component. Likewise, the fact that both characters are female seems an obvious acknowledgement of the common perception that service industry labor is feminine. The film's world is almost entirely within this consumer death-trap. One noteworthy break from the emotionless tone of the film comes from Amanda's visit to a piano store, in her penultimate scene, she sits at a piano and eases into an expressive composition. Cohen's camera leaves Amanda in the store to play with the two employees, filming now from the parking lot, we see one of the employees go to speak to Amanda. Though we had heard her playing, we do not hear the dialogue. She quits playing. The suggestion seems to be that she has been kicked out. That she has finally "found voice" and been put back into her place. The next time we see her she tells us, in voice-over, that she now has two jobs and no time to live her life.
Likewise, Tamiko spirals into quietude as she stops hearing from her company back in Japan, also reading US accounts in the papers that the company is having difficulties. We see Tamiko becoming lifeless and depressed sitting in her hotel room, eventually needing to switch payment onto what we are led to believe is her personal credit card away from a company card. In her penultimate scene, while sitting in the hotel chair she has been lethargically fixed to, she begins lifting up her skirt with one hand. Cut to her head tilting back, eyes closed. Possibly, she is finding momentary pleasure from her glumming world. After a few moments of the camera lingering on her seemingly escaped self, she returns to the lanscape Cohen has created for us, cutting her onto the rooftop of a parking ramp, hotel in background.
Depeople-ing the film, Cohen leaves Tamiko behind with a dolly shot across the parking lot, cutting to another, equivalent parking lot rooftop with a hotel background. And then another. And probably another. Re-entering the documentary chain landscapes to close out the final several minutes of the film.
Just as Cohen suggests moments of hope in the penultimate scenes of his two characters, he could be said to do the same thing with out expectations closing out the film. After the just mentioned return to chain landscapes, Cohen returns us to the "world-changing" moment of an airplane flying into a building. Except here, we see the airplane moving across the frame toward a shopping mall. Clearly, it seems, we are to conjure 9/11, we are to wonder if the plane is going to hit the shopping mall, thus punctuating the film's anti-consumer message
But, of course, like the disappointments of our two characters, the plane flies behind the horizon of the shopping mall. The shopping mall still stands. Cut to black. Credits.