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.