The purpose of New York, Capitalism, and Lost Book Found is to elucidate how Walter Benjamin’s Marxist political theories inform Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found (1996). There are four different voices in the video essay in the form of voice-over, including the narrative voice of the original film. I chose this diversity of voice-overs with the intention of distancing the work from mainstream video essay practice, which can tend to be problematic insofar as there are only a couple of dominant voices in the field – most of which are male, American, and white. This issue has been discussed in one of the seminars. The original voice-over is indeed American-sounding – and this isn’t an issue because the film is set in New York. However, the other three voices are differentiated through accent – two of them are Romanian (mine and Tudor Mihai Popescu’s) and the other is French (Lucy Calderbank). Each of the accents is an idiosyncratic alteration of British Received Pronunciation.
Once again, the intention was to offset the dominance of the singular authorial voice which can tend to acquire a dictatorial quality in video essays. I tried to further undermine the authorial voice (which is mine) by maintaining its presence to a minimum, and mainly using it to frame other citations Each separate voice in the film corresponds to a different source which has been cited, such that an impression is created that there are many different authors speaking. I avoided having my authorial voice draw direct conclusions from these citations. Instead, the they are punctuated by clips from the original film which instantiate the ideas which are put forth. I did not want to dictate their meanings and connections myself. Instead, I tried to show, rather than tell (or dictate).
The reason for sticking to few sources is so that the engagement with the theory would remain focused. The main text which is cited is a chapter from Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings, Vol. 4. I chose this text because it features extended commentary on the idea of the flâneur, which is cited by Jem Cohen as an important influence on his film. My endeavour was to foreground the connection between this theoretical material and the film. The way I went about doing it is by juxtaposing selected ideas from Benjamin’s work with ideas expressed by the narrator of the film, in conjunction with clips from Lost Book Found which support this connection.
The video essay doesn’t consistently fit into one genre. While it contains elements which would make it a straight-forward argumentative or informative essay, it can also be classified as a rather artistic or poetic work. This is because it re-arranges segments of the film in keeping with its original style, in a certain sense enhancing its mysterious aura. This is illustrated by the introduction and conclusion of the video essay. The pace of the introduction is slow, mimicking Lost Book Found’s lingering and oftentimes hypnotic aesthetic. The voice of the in-film narrator opens the video essay, in a certain sense misleading the audience into thinking that this is the authorial voice. It then reveals a different female voice, which also turns out not to be a permanent authorial voice, but which serves to introduce the content and production context of the film, and then segment into the section on Walter Benjamin and Marxism.
Finally, the video essay does not establish a conclusion at the end, but instead uses an unedited montage from the film. This montage serves to underscore the Marxist ideas presented previously by depicting the excesses of production which accompany New York’s Capitalist economy of the 1990s. The images are allowed to speak for themselves, which is very much the case in the original film, despite the presence of the narrator. This once again reflects and builds upon the style of the work on which the video essay comments.
Cohen Jem, director. Lost Book Found. Jem Cohen, 1996.
Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: selected writings. Vol. 4, 1938-1940 / translated by Edmund Jephcott and others; edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass; London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2003.
Engels, Friedrich. Die Lage der arbeiten Klasse in England. Berlin: Dietz, 1947.
„Lost Book Found (1996).” Lost Book Found (1996) Directed by Jem Cohen. Reviews, Film + Cast – Letterboxd, 1 Jan. 1996, letterboxd.com/film/lost-book-found/.
Rosenheim, Jeff. Diane Arbus: in the beginning. Copyright 2016 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.