Culture- ART FEATURE- <b>Shaping a View: Cohen's cultural exposure</b>
John Cohen is one of those people. He's so good at everything he touches that you want to hate him– except you can't because he's so dang good at everything he touches. The honest-to-god renaissance man (usually that cliché makes me roll my eyes) was recently in town to screen The High Lonesome Sound and Dancing with the Incas for the Virginia Film Society's "Artists on Film" series.
If you're not familiar with Cohen as a filmmaker, perhaps you'll recognize him as a musician– he founded the New Lost City Ramblers. Or as a photographer– he captured the Beat Generation and a young Bob Dylan. And yet there's still more to Cohen– he's also an accomplished drawer, a respected ethnomusicologist, and a renowned Peruvian textile expert.
Nearly all of these roles find expression in Q'eros: The Shape of Survival, Cohen's 1979 film documenting the lama-herding Q'eros people of Peru's highlands, currently on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum's video gallery.
On its surface, the film seems like an old-school ethnographic study. The camera presents an indigenous Peruvian community going about its business– tending lamas, weaving wool, planting potatoes– while an authoritative male voice provides staccato sentences about the Q'eros way of life.
But there's more to it. Cohen's filmmaking style has a raw and uncontrived beauty that mirrors what he clearly admires in the Q'eros. As a photographer, he composes frame after breathtaking frame capturing the treeless tundra where mist-shrouded mountains provide a backdrop to village life. As a musicologist, he attends to the vocal songs and pan and reed flute music of the Q'eros. And as an artist, he focuses on the intricate and colorful patterns of Q'eros-created fabric and ornamentation (think tassels sewn on lamas' ears), while calling attention to the lines of their stone architecture.
Meanwhile Cohen, the counter-culture activist, structures the film to seduce viewers into the hardscrabble-but-respect-worthy rhythms of the Q'eros' world, only to yank the audience into awareness of its precariousness by shifting to a modernizing nearby village (where a portable radio scratchily plays Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline"). Subsequent images show impoverished and disrespected Q'eros schlepping burdens on their backs around a lowland city dominated by Spanish colonial buildings.
Several of Cohen's soulful black-and-white stills, shot in Peru between 1956 and 1976, hang outside the gallery. Using all the things he does so well, Cohen exposes us to what he's come to know.
John Cohen's Q'Eros: The Shape of Survival is on view in the video gallery at the UVAArt Museum through April 9. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.