Jem Cohen + Jeff Preiss on Lost Book Found

Lost Book Found, Jem Cohen, 1996, 37 mins
Wednesday, March 17 - Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Twenty five years ago, Jem Cohen completed Lost Book Found, a semi-fictional diary film that draws from his experience as a pushcart vendor in lower Manhattan. The work is crafted from what such a vendor might have seen and heard: bits of paper and plastic swirling ghostlike in eddies of wind; weathered storefronts; window displays crowded with tchotchkes; enigmatic notes taped to streetlights; disassociated recordings of sales pitches, passing conversations, and the sounds of machines at work; unlovely aggregations of cardboard; evening skylines glowing in fog.

Except for a sequence at the film’s end, the images in Lost Book Found are recorded entirely on Super 8, framed at times with a skyward tilt, canting everyday pedestrians into oneiric angles, as if snatches of an expressionist film of the 1920s were transposed onto late-capitalist America. This is not the authoritative, acquisitional mode of conventional documentary, but a view from below, from one of the street’s own participants. “Its beauty is quite ineffable. It’s the sort of visual experience that transforms everything seen by the viewer for several hours afterward,” Luc Sante observed of the movie. “What it actually does is capture the subconscious of the city itself, the dream state of the whole past existing in simultaneous disarray.”

Looking at Lost Book Found today, on the other side of the millennium and in the midst of a global pandemic, one cannot help but think of the depopulated streets of Manhattan and its newly muted rhythms. Now, in the relative absence of both bustling commuters and slow-moving tourists, a layer has been peeled back, revealing what Cohen has trained us to see: the city as a vast reliquary of its own history.

For this week-long run of Lost Book Found, we brought Cohen together in conversation with filmmaker and fellow New Yorker Jeff Preiss.