Triskel Presents – The Films Of Gregory Kohn

Welcome to the first instalment of ‘Triskel Presents’. While we are currently unable to present movies as a collective experience at Triskel Arts Centre, we have created this online initiative that our patrons can enjoy.

‘Triskel Presents’ will be a mixture of independent features and short films which can be rented from our Triskel On Demand Service, as well as a series of visual essays produced by our head of cinema Chris O’Neill, which will be available to view for free on the Triskel YouTube Channel and Vimeo Channel.

We begin with a season of films by Gregory Kohn, an American director whose low-key character studies can be disarmingly simple and immensely effective. As filmmaker and programmer Maximilian Le Cain states in the text below, Kohn is “a master of ambivalence and a filmmaker of tremendous subtlety with a unique approach to storytelling”.

This programme includes the feature films Northeast (from 11th April) and Come Down Molly (from 18th April), as well as Kohn’s recent short film Good People (from 25th April). There are links further down this page for each movie.

For some insight into the work of Gregory Kohn, please check out this article, written by Maximilian Le Cain especially for this ‘Triskel Presents’ season:

Gregory Kohn’s filmography is compact and at least initially unassuming. He has made two theatrical features, Northeast (2011) and Come Down Molly (2015), and one short, Good People (2018). Any description of Kohn’s wispy plots might risk making his films sound trivial. All three are character studies of ordinary young and slightly-less-young middle class characters either avoiding commitment or struggling to cope with it. These men and women are possessed by an urge to drift that vaguely hovers around an unattainable object of affection but never to the point that the audience really believes a better relationship would remedy their malaise. There is nothing extreme or even conventionally interesting about his characters or their circumstances. Yet the films themselves manage to be exceptionally graceful and are imbued with an intriguing elusiveness that proves surprisingly haunting. His two features in particular distinguish Kohn as a master of ambivalence and a filmmaker of tremendous subtlety with a unique approach to storytelling. They boast performances that are never less than pitch perfect and a delicate command of atmosphere.

Northeast and Come Down Molly form a perfect pair of complementary opposites: male/female, winter/summer, single/partnered, drifting/trapped. Northeast follows jobless, emotionally unavailable twenty-something commitment phobe Will (David Call) as he gains and loses a bicycle while casually drifting through a series of brief affairs and one night stands. There is more than a hint that he might have deeper feelings for a woman called Molly played by the unfailingly magnetic Eleonore Hendricks but she rebuffs him. Hendricks’ Molly, or perhaps a variation of her, takes central place in the second film. Now mother to a toddler, she finds herself succumbing to the pressures of minding the child alone while her partner is away working for protracted periods of time. When he returns home to spend time with her, she takes off without him for a short break to reconnect with an all male group of school friends staying at an idyllic country house. As the group takes mushrooms and aimlessly explores the great outdoors, it becomes apparent that she is not the only member of the gang to be having doubts about life choices.

Kohn is not afraid to leave his characters and their motivations ambiguous, as much to themselves as to the audience. He focuses on people that don’t seem to know what they want but still feel something is missing. If traditional film drama demands that the ‘hero’ needs a goal to pursue and must overcome obstacles on his ‘quest’, Will in Northeast might have been conceived to confound these rules. As he drifts between women and avoids finding a job, he refuses to pursue anything or anyone beyond the extent of an inconclusive encounter. The bicycle he impulsively buys and which he seems to take his greatest joy in aimlessly riding around on underlines his unanchored condition. The upset he shows at its theft seems stronger than any emotion another person elicits from him. Even his feelings for Molly might not be any less casual than those he has for the other women in his life except for the fact that she is the only one that refuses him. Or it may be that he jealously targets her because she is in a stable relationship and has escaped the agitation of New York City for a peaceful life in the country. Giving the film a compass direction for a title is an inspired touch. Will’s encounters seem like reactive responses to hints of possible paths out of his aimlessness that he quickly abandons. Kohn regards Will with an observational distance, neither pandering to his narcissism nor condemning him nor making him seem more interesting than he is. He is a character without direction that doggedly refuses to deepen or develop.

The real power and originality of Northeast comes from Kohn’s treatment of Will’s environment and his relationship with it. It’s winter in New York and cold and darkness permeate every shot of the film. The tightly framed, often hand held visuals allow a palpable melancholy to accrue from a claustrophobic palette of greys punctuated by the occasional monochromatic glare of winter sun. The wintry ambiance, vivid enough to leave any audience member feeling a chill, is not treated as an expressionistic mirror of Will’s emotional condition. Neither is it used as simply ‘atmosphere’ for its own sake. Rather, it presents a world that the viewer can experience along with Will. If Kohn denies us traditional audience-character identification, we instead share a sharper exposure to the physical world that the lead character drifts through than most films grant. The moments we are closest to him and his inner tension are not the deliberately mundane dialogue scenes but the urgent, staccato shots of him compulsively moving through the city either on foot or by bike. Our heightened experience of his environment allows us to identify with the processes of his drifting and evasiveness while entertaining the possibility that he remains as willfully opaque to himself as he does to us. Kohn boldly substitutes the usual revelation-based relationship with characters that we expect from films for a direct connection with their environment. The skill with which he handles this very delicate character-environment balance is so assured that its radical nature becomes almost invisible.

We are allowed to get considerably closer to the warm and articulate Molly in Come Down Molly than we were to Will in Northeast. In fact, everything in Kohn’s second film is as warm as his debut was chilly. Perhaps even more than its predecessor, a brief summary of its plot does it few favours. The pitch of a woman taking temporary flight from her home life only to return emotionally renewed might seem trite but the very slightness of this material gives Kohn’s gift for nuance and atmosphere full rein. If Come Down Molly doesn’t have quite the controlled formal perfection of Northeast, it is nonetheless a richer film with layers of intriguing strangeness that become more apparent on multiple viewings.

Molly is first encountered in a moment of panicked overwhelm with a life which she finds emotionally depleting and feels is draining her of her sense of self. Yet Kohn, who shares with Eric Rohmer an innate aversion to the tragic register, refuses to present her as a victim. She is on the other side of what Will is constantly avoiding: commitment, parenthood, a spatially constrained existence. But she doesn’t necessarily feel herself to be a victim either – she loves her partner and child, and just needs a break. What she hopes to gain from the break is unclear even to her although it is quickly established that a sexual adventure is not on the cards. As she flees her home, we might be forgiven for anticipating that the film will see Molly meet an old flame who has followed a different life path, explore what that other existence might have been like if she had chosen it, dally with the prospect of ditching her current life to follow it and then return to her family with a certain degree of regret or reconciliation. The film Kohn delivers is perhaps something of a variation on this predictable plot but what he chooses to emphasise within it is fresh, surprising and startlingly profound.

Put simply, Molly needs to drift. Will was morbidly addicted to drifting for its own sake whereas Molly, trapped in a rigidly defined life pattern, is stifling from a lack of it. Come Down Molly is not about weighing up clearly defined alternatives to her life so much as plunging into a fuzzy space where everyone is adrift and nothing is conclusive. Possibility is still endless because it is undefined. The plot device of having all the characters on mushrooms is used brilliantly to create a metaphorical zone to explore these ideas, a shared yet introspective place outside of time where appearances can be deceptive, where stasis and movement can be confused and where conversations about the significance or otherwise of what is experienced under the influence of drugs can double for an interrogation of the ephemerality of all experience. Kohn stages this in a gorgeous countryside setting awash with sunshine. He avoids all the clichés of ‘psychedelic’ effects while creating a subtly druggy haze through the mild disorientation of his constantly roving, impressionistic camera that gradually builds throughout the film. The experience of watching Come Down Molly is full of the sensory pleasures of summer, with each scene presented like a misted snapshot captured with Kohn’s unfailing lightness of touch. And it is only at the end of this long afternoon when Molly suddenly encounters the ghost of her father that we are confronted with how far we might have drifted across dimensions. Haunting is present throughout Come Down Molly from the early scenes in which her reappearance amidst her old group is described as feeling weird, as if she had died in abandoning them for domestic life and has suddenly returned. Her visit to them is nothing short of a visit to her ghosts. Kohn is at the peak of his powers in the concluding shot of the film where he briefly foregrounds this understated layer of the uncanny. To avoid spoilers, I’ll only disclose that it symbolically encapsulates everything that haunts Molly. Yet this remarkably charged composition is not presented as a grand finale but is instead slipped in with a delicate nonchalance that makes it feel like an attempt to remember a rapidly fading dream image as wakefulness takes over.

Kohn’s recent short, Good People, returns to the theme of Come Down Molly but without the possibility of a break or escape. His couple is older, and there are more kids and more work commitments. Everything feels tighter, sadder and more desperate. Even the constrained running time feels a part of this claustrophobia, as if there simply aren’t the time or resources to explore the subtleties of the world as the features did any more than the characters have time or resources to unpack their overwrought feelings. The acting is as exceptional as ever and there are some scenes of remarkable emotional power. But there is also a tendency to underline the characters’ ambivalence, especially in the film’s ending, which feels very different from the sure-handed delicacy of the features. But any criticism of Good People stems less from it having faults as a film in its own right than from having to compare it to two of the most distinctive, intelligent and fascinating features to have emerged from American independent cinema in the past twenty years.