At a time when the health of American independent cinema is constantly under question, two recent films that rank among its most vital signs turn up this week for one-off local screenings. For Chain, New York–based director Jem Cohen spent six years filming cityscapes in seemingly disparate locales — Orlando, Vancouver, Paris, Berlin and right here in L.A. — only to notice how much the places began to resemble one another: the same shops, restaurants and skyscrapers lining their highways and byways. But Chain isn’t a documentary, not exactly. Gradually, Cohen adds in a narrative of sorts, paralleling the stories of two women who find themselves unmoored in this prefab oasis: a Japanese steel-company executive (Miho Nikaido) conducting a study of “trends in entertainment real estate” and a dissolute 20-something hitchhiker who has effectively taken up residence in a Florida shopping mall. And she’s not the only one: As Cohen films masses of everyday people drawn to the world’s retail meccas like moths to a flame, Chain threatens to become the most disconcerting study of consumerism run amok this side of George Romero’s zombie quartet. Yet, time and again, Cohen’s remarkable camera-eye lands upon sights of a strange industrial beauty, from a cemetery located cater-corner from a Target store to a family of birds nesting inside one of the giant neon letters that form a Sam’s Club sign.
A lyrical horror story of a different sort, Jennifer Reeves’ The Time We Killed depicts the life of a possibly agoraphobic writer (Lisa Jarnot) who, in the months following the 9/11 attacks and preceding the Iraq war, finds herself ever less able to muster the courage to leave the confines of her New York City apartment. Instead, she retreats into memories — of childhood, of long-ago lovers (both male and female) — that play across the screen in overexposed black-and-white images like the residue of dreams that dissipates upon waking. Both films offer deeply personal portraits of solitude and isolation grafted against the homogeneity of modern living. Just offscreen, you can all but hear E.M. Forster shouting, “Only connect! — but please, folks, don’t crash your cars into each other to do it.” (The Time We Killed: Filmforum at the Egyptian; Sun., March 12, 7 p.m. www.lafilmforum.com. Chain: REDCAT; Mon., March 13, 8 p.m. www.redcat.org.)