This is a film for afficianados of Chris Marker, Patrick Keiller, Peter Greenaway and, especially, Walter Benjamin, to whom it is dedicated. Like Marker, Cohen makes documentaries using heightened images, fictional narratives and deceptively meaningful voiceover; like Keiller, Cohen uses these narratives to tell the story of a specific city, in this case, New York; like Greenaway, Cohen fetishes lists, numbers, coincidences, but ultimately rejects the 'connectedness' of life. Like Benjamin, Cohen sees the truth, the soul of a place, imminent not in its great buildings, streets or monuments, the official version of any place, but in the marginal, ephemeral, forgotten, the rubbish we toss aside, denying its existence, its centrality to our lives. Fans of AMERICAN BEAUTY, who prized that film for its originality, should watch too - shorn of narrative overdeliberation and sentimental self-pity, the scene with the plastic bag becomes less risible than quietly powerful.
The fictional narrative centres on a nameless narrator who worked for some years as a hot dog salesman. The longer he had his spot, the more he became one of two things to passers by - a fixture, a marker, almost a sign; and simply an invisible man, like the postman in Chesterton's story. This effacement of humanity, however, gives the narrator greater freedom to observe.
One regular eccentric is a tramp who fishes drainholes for abandoned trinkets. One day he sells the narrator a notebook full of minutely observed lists that obviously had mundane utility value for the owner, but is imparted with fetishistic significance by the narrator who sees it as a fundamental code, the key to which will solve the riddle of the city, somehow connect the disparate, ever-decentring elements that comprise it, recover the traces of the abandoned, disposed, forgotten.
The images that accompany this narrative are suitably dispersed, giving credence to his feeling that things are ungraspable. Amid all the nocturnal skyscrapers, the snotlit lobbies and cafes, the tramps and streets, there is a continual focus on rubbish, posters, makeshift signs. Clues, such as the religious slogans scratched on telephone boxes, are privileged, and repeatedly alluded to, as if the answer (to what?) is there, if only we keep looking for it. This hopeless quest is undermined by the splintering of the narration, from the narrator, to radios, mall intercoms, found sounds etc, and images which are unrealistically lit, speeded up, or slowed down, implying a hallucinatory, unstable vantage point.
This is a film of astounding American beauty, the aestheticisation of dregs more than compensating for the rather arch narration. What prevents LOST BOOK FOUND from being a masterpiece, like SANS SOLEIL or LONDON, is its lack of historical or cultural specificity. We never learn anything about the city, there are none of the illuminating anecdotes or cultural tidbits that ground the metaphysical speculations of a Marker or Keiller. This vaguenss gives the film the feel of a dream that could take place anywhere. It is as hazily pleasurable as a dream you never want to end, but, frustratingly, it's just as difficult to remember with precision when you wake up.
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