There are times when art criticism can illuminate a specific art work—expand on it, put it into context, or communicate details too easily overlooked. But there are other cases when a given art work, film, book, or piece of music is so perfect—so magnificently conceived and executed—that language threatens to reduce this brilliance to a phantom of the original.
Such is the case with Jem Cohen’s latest film, Museum Hours. This is a film that could only come from the consciousness of Cohen. It is the prefect director tackling the perfect subject with the perfect cast in the perfect location. And it’s a film that makes the most of the medium of film: sound, characters, a sense of place, and images quietly unfold like a Sunday with no church. In other words, Museum Hours is artful, but never pretentiously arty, and it should be seen on a big screen to be best appreciated.
It may come as a surprise that a filmmaker known for his documentary work, lo-fi short films, and collaborations with musicians Patti Smith, Fugazi, Terry Riley, and R.E.M. would create his finest work to date in the form of a fictionalized feature beautifully shot on high-definition digital video and super-16-millimeter film.
But in many ways, Museum Hours is the culmination of everything Cohen has done before, and if there were any justice in the world, he would finally receive the widespread recognition he deserves in the U.S. as a result of this film. While Museum Hours is big in ambition, it is small in terms of crew and budget, which is typical of Cohen’s projects. The filmmaker worked with a crew of one to seven people, with no gaffer or grips, script person, location manager, or caterer. The filmmaker used only existing natural and artificial light for shooting, and before production began, shot for weeks on the streets of Vienna with a wind-up 16mm Bolex.
The loose plot of Museum Hours centers on a museum guard named Johann, played by Bobby Sommer, and Anne, a stranger to Vienna, portrayed by Mary Margaret O’Hara. Anne travels from Canada to Vienna to see a cousin who has lapsed into a coma—a relative she hasn’t seen in years with no other living family. As the winter days pass and the cousin’s condition deteriorates, Anne attempts to occupy herself with little money and no local connections. (There are no beautiful people wearing designer clothes dining at fancy restaurants leisurely touring Europe with mysterious funds in Museum Hours.) Johann extends friendship to Anne, showing her the city’s sites, providing her with a free museum pass, and serving as a liaison with the staff at the hospital when language proves to be a barrier.
O’Hara and Sommer, with their memorable faces and natural rapport, seem born for these roles and breathe authenticity into Cohen’s script. Cohen is more interested in veracity than finely honed perfection, and the conversations between the two actors are a wonderful and successful experiment in improvisation.
But it is really the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum and the city of Vienna that are the stars of Museum Hours. Cohen’s stunning camerawork creates a brilliant dialogue between the museum’s artworks and the city outside. The camera lingers on the painting of a bird, then slowly transitions to a starling perched over Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is particularly rich in the work of 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel, and Cohen draws thoughtful parallels between the earthy, unsentimental life of Brueghel’s peasants and today’s urban inhabitants.
Cohen’s work often reminds me of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, unconventional, and incomplete. In the wabi-sabi system, beauty can be cajoled from ugliness and quality lies in the inconspicuous, overlooked details. If this isn’t a perfect description of both Jem Cohen and Brueghel’s work, then I don’t know what is.
“The film got its start in the Brueghel room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum,” says Cohen.
“Looking at certain paintings there, all from the 16th Century, I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant…I recognized a connected sensibility I’d felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I’ve done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows… (And it isn’t limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives).”
Like Brueghel’s paintings, Museum Hours refuses to tell us where to look and how to feel. “It’s like a kind of ‘guided unguided tour,'” Cohen explained to Filmmaker magazine.
The subject of looking is the central theme of Museum Hours. Seeing has always been an underlying topic in Cohen’s films, but in Museum Hours the filmmaker tackles the subject head on. Eyes are everywhere in this film—in paintings, on city signs, on Egyptian antiquities, on the faces of young and old residents. Vienna’s inhabitants stare back at us, just like the eyes of Egyptian sculptures commemorating the dead. Like an ancient tomb, the layers of meaning here are profound and deep.
Cohen suggests that it is not merely looking that matters, but presence–a type of looking that requires quiet and stillness and openness to the unexpected. Death is the common bond everyone shares. It is what allows us to draw a line from an Egyptian Pharaoh to a Dutch fox hunter to a tour guide in contemporary Vienna. It is presence that allows the boundaries of time and place to fall away.
As Nicolas Rapold writes in the New York Times, “woven into Museum Hours is Mr. Cohen’s belief that the impact of art ‘really kicks in’ during the bleakest of times. Some of the inspiration for Museum Hours came from dire personal experience: an illness in the family and the suicide of a friend, the singer Vic Chesnutt. That sense of solace during tough times helps banish any notion of the film as an arty exercise in observation.”
As Johann sits with Anne by the cousin’s hospital bed and describes various artworks to the dying woman, the mere fact that Johann gives this dying stranger his time and attention imparts a certain dignity to her tragic situation. She is no longer dying alone in a hospital bed in Vienna with no friends or family to witness her passing. Impermanence is a constant, but that is no reason to withdraw, Cohen’s film seems to say.
At one point in the film, Johann talks about a young “punk” museum guard who once complained that the museum’s artworks were nothing more than trophies of the wealthy. The young guard is unhappy that the museum charges admission, but Johann points out that he doesn’t object to paying admission to see a film. What is the difference?
With this simple scene, Cohen hints at a much larger topic—the commodification of culture. Without hitting us over the head with a message, he skillfully raises the question of audience and class. Is art only for the elite? What does it mean that Brueghel’s peasants are now ensconced inside of a great institution like the Kunsthistorisches? Shouldn’t artists be fairly compensated for their work? But when does compensation turn into commercialization? Who are artists working for? Themselves? Wealthy patrons? The general public? Is it right that an artist as great as Rembrandt should have so little money at the end of his life, as evidenced by his shabby clothes in a late self-portrait? And what stories do museums tell us? Can we really trust text panels and audio guides to tell us the whole story? For today’s youth, is the museum only a place to look at naked women and gore? Or is it just a place with the perfect mini ramp for skateboarding?
Cohen is equally subtle when touching on the subject of technology. He shows us museum visitors, young and old, listening to audio guides and checking their smart phones for messages while touring the museum. Even Johann confesses that he spends much of his time playing online poker when he isn’t at work. But he only realizes how attached he’s become to his online life when befriending Anne. Instead of spending hours playing virtual poker, he opts instead to spend his evenings talking with her in a local pub, visiting the hospital, and showing her the city. It is his relationship with Anne that allows him to see Vienna with new eyes.
I have to agree with Robert Koehler from Cinema Scope magazine when he praises Cohen for “finding the elements that can connect strangers at a time when themes of separation can often feel like an automatic, stopgap position adopted by many smart filmmakers.”
Cohen’s film suggests that there is much beauty, humor, connection, and poignancy to be experienced if we simply take the opportunity to look. As a friend of mine once said, isn’t love nothing more than close paying attention? The same could also be said of friendship.
But it’s not only the reverberant themes that make Museum Hours so remarkable. It’s also the subtlety and originality with which Cohen explores these ideas. There isn’t a flawed moment in the film. Museum Hours is slow art at its best. The leisurely pacing suits the subject matter, but is never dull. And the Kunsthistorisches Museum has never been so entrancing, thanks to Jem Cohen and Peter Roehsler’s luscious cinematography. We see not only the rich color in an oil portrait of a young woman, for example, but also the way the color and weave of the gilded frame echoes the woman’s hair.
Cohen also captures the haunting, familiar sounds of a large art museum—the echoes of footsteps, of fidgety children, of deferential adults whispering to each other behind velvet ropes. Outside the Kunsthistorisches, winter descends over Vienna. Snow settles over cars and power lines like the snow in Brueghels’ The Hunters in the Snow. And just like in Brueghel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, the working classes come and go. They drink and dance at the local pub and catch the subway and wait.
We can never know the inner lives of others, just as we cannot know what Brueghel’s peasants were thinking, Cohen’s film suggests. But if we’re attentive and listen, we might see glimpses of what is hidden, and in the process, experience some quiet revelation.
On August 2nd, Museum Hours has its New Hampshire premiere at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. Jem Cohen will also make a number of special appearances to introduce the film, including the screening at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. on August 16th. The film will also be shown in Detroit, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Taos, San Francisco, and many other cities around the country. You can see a full list of screening dates here or at the bottom of this post.
Museum Hours Screenings
June 28 – IFC Center, New York, NY
June 28 – Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY
July 5 – Ritz Bourse, Philadelphia, PA
July 12 – Northwest Film Center, Portland, OR
July 19 – Kendall Square, Boston, MA
July 19 – The Moviehouse, Millerton, NY
July 22 – Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville, ME
July 26 – Cinema Paradiso, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
July 26 – West Newton Cinema, West Newton, MA
August 2 – Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, MI
August 2 – Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM
August 2 – Burns Court, Sarasota, FL
August 2 – Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, NH
August 9 – Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, TN
August 9 – Miami Beach Cinematheque, Miami Beach, FL
August 9 – Sie Film Center, Denver, CO
August 9 – Avon Theatre, Providence, RI
August 9 – Cape Cinema, East Dennis, MA
August 9 – Lefont Theaters, Atlanta, GA
August 16 – E Street, Washington, DC
August 16 – Royal, Los Angeles, CA
August 16 – The Screen, Santa Fe, NM
August 16 – The Ryder, Bloomington, IN
August 23 – Culver Center for the Arts, Riverside, CA
August 30 – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
August 31 – Lakewood Ranch, Bradenton, FL
September 13 – Landmark Theater, Minneapolis, MN
September 13 – Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK
September 20 – Opera Plaza or Lumiere, San Francisco, CA
September 20 – Shattuck, Berkeley, CA
September 20 – Ken Cinema, San Diego, CA
September 20 – The Nickelodeon, Santa Cruz, CA
September 21 – Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
September 26 – Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH
October 3 – Cornell Cinema, Ithaca, NY (single screening w/ director in person)
October 4 – Union Theatre, Milwaukee, WI
January 12 – Bay Theater, Suttons Bay, MI
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