Jem Cohen explores the fluidity of art, the post-punk ethos, and the invigorating act of seeing and thinking in his absorbing new film.
In Jem Cohen’s splendid Museum Hours, it is the art of contemplation that is the lasting edifice in a film devoted, on the surface at least, to the appreciation of art. Shot partly in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, which is home to a vast collection of eminent pre-19th century paintings as well as various antiquities and classical sculptures, Cohen’s film unites two gentle characters in the midst of all this supreme culture: Johann (Bobby Sommer), a sensitive museum guard who has worked at the Kunsthistorisches for many years, and Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian resident who has travelled to Austria to be at the bedside of a cousin suspended in a coma. Alone and stranded in Vienna, Anne approaches Johann for city directions while wandering the galleries one day, and the kindred spirits soon strike up a friendship forged not necessarily from their awe-inspiring surroundings, but through a rich curiosity in each other and the world.
As faithful as Cohen is to the significance of the artworks exhibited in this environment, what makes his film truly edifying is its reverence for all things; an interest in what artist Jeff Wall calls the “obscure, unswept corners of everyday life.” (Cohen’s imagery at times brings to mind Wall’s small-scale photographic observations.) For all its attention to the enriching gallery experience, Museum Hours is a film that regularly conflates the extraordinary with the ordinary and the majestic with the kitsch, comfortably placing one’s esteem for a Rembrant portrait on equal footing with the strange allure of a lonely storefront or a reflection in a window. The film is particularly strong at conveying its intrigue in objects and occurrences via Johann’s lucid narration, an internal monologue that miraculously avoids the trap of telling us things that would be better off shown. Voiceover, so often a shortcut for filmmakers too lazy or inept to communicate their stories through image or incident, becomes an essential part of the language of observation. Just as an artwork, independent of its artist’s intentions, is never a static creation, but one constantly open to reinterpretation by critics, scholars, and the public alike, Cohen emphasises the individuality of the way we each perceive the world, think about it, and relay it in our own words to others—the film itself a kind of prism through which both remarkable and inconsequential things are refracted and cast in a new light.
Crucially, Museum Hours has a lightness of touch that belies its stately backdrop and immersion in conversation and thought. This is a calm, soft-spoken film at once sensitive to the private and public spaces it visits, and patient with every person and situation it encounters, and yet is also fluidly edited and restlessly inquisitive. Despite its museum setting appearing tailor-made for the silence and intense focus of what has come to be reductively known as “slow cinema”, it is a film that moves to its own sublime, unpretentious beat. For those familiar with Cohen’s experimental films and his collaborators—among the most oft-quoted, Patti Smith, Fugazi, and the late Vic Chesnutt—this engagement with the world through high and low culture is a natural fit. Still, it is a thing of wonder that Museum Hours, an outwardly conventional film by Cohen’s standards, maintains a proud, if subtle allegiance to the post-punk ethos by treating the quotidian and communal details of life outside of the hermitically sealed tomb of the museum with the same level of fascination and respect.
Like Pedro Costa, a doyen among post-punk filmmakers, Cohen finds beauty in the unwashed and unacknowledged. His tour through the Kunsthistorisches alternates evenly with the sleet-covered sidewalks of Vienna, and he frames artifacts in both contexts with care. Appropriately, the vignettes evoke the museum passages of Costa’s 2006 masterpiece, Colossal Youth; the film’s homeless protagonist, Ventura, placed comfortably in the presence of Rubens and Van Dyck; his hands, we learn, having once helped build the walls of the Lisbon museum he occupies. Both siding with the commoner, where Costa and Cohen’s films diverge at this point is arguably in their critique of art institutions, and Museum Hours, though lovingly shaped around the treasures of the Kunsthistorisches, is far from unobservant in matters concerning the ideology of museum spaces, the value of art, and our access to that art. In one pointed scene, Johann talks about his memory of an art student who once worked at the museum; “a punk kid, just as I’d been,” he recalls, before explaining:
“He thought the museum was a bit ridiculous. He said when he looked at the paintings, he mostly just saw money, or more accurately, things standing in for money. I guess this was what he learned at university. He said this was clearest in Dutch still lifes, which were essentially just piled up possessions of the newly rich of that time. He said these were no different than if someone today were to paint a pile of Rolex watches, champagne bottles, and flat-screen TVs; that they were the rap-star videos of their day. And he said they were only less subtle versions of all the other commodities the museum was hoarding, and this was now just part of the way things were disguised in the time of Late Capitalism. He didn’t hold it against the museum personally, but he went on like that. I asked why he always used the term ‘Late Capitalism’ and how people knew it was so late, and if it wasn’t perhaps more troublesome if what existed now was ‘early’. He was also unhappy about the cost of museum admission. I agreed it would nicer if it was free, but he was a big fan of the movies and I had to remind him they cost as much and he never complained about that. ‘Yeah, you can’t win,’ he said. ‘Maybe someday everyone will lose less and museums and movies could both be free.’”
Art theory/Socialism 101, perhaps, and yet Johann’s rumination is indicative of the plainspoken tone cultivated by the film—an inquiring temperament that nonetheless eschews notions of academia and elitism. As his characters think aloud, Cohen frequently pairs montage with the spoken word, and for all the film’s suggestive documentary moments—real visitors to the Kunsthistorisches, for instance, are captured as they browse the galleries in private reflection—a more accurate description of its composition might be that of an essay film with a minor narrative strand. Indeed, taken as an essay, it could be said that Cohen’s underlying punk sensibility goes as far as to distill the seminal theory around how art institutions enforce a dichotomy between what is kept on the outside, and what is valued on the inside. Embracing the commonplace through a series of exquisite juxtapositions and malleable conversations, Cohen erodes the hallowed walls of the Kunsthistorisches. In a lovely sequence, his camera—a perfect marriage of Super 16 for exteriors (largely shot by Cohen himself) and HD Digital for interiors—explores a stockpile of junk at a flea market while the voice of a pre-recorded audio guide describes the “Book of the Dead” from the museum’s Egyptian collection. Elsewhere, there’s a relaxed interaction between objects conserved on a gallery wall, and objects abandoned in the street, that we’re a party to in the dialogue shared by his protagonists, whose inviting, naturalistic performances lubricate the effortless transition between such topics as Pieter Bruegel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent and a discarded beer can in the gutter, or more amusingly, Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo and death metal band Cradle of Filth.
Bruegel, the (elder) 16th-century Flemish painter, is virtually a supporting character in Museum Hours, partly down to the fact that the Kunsthistorisches boasts the largest collection of his paintings in the world, but also because his truthful depictions of peasant life through honest, documentary detail mirror Cohen’s insights as an artist. While painting is scrutinised in Museum Hours, and the regard for art history playfully challenged (on one occasion, the discussion of sex makes for a wonderful rejoinder to the preciousness of classical art; on another, nudity is used to strip it of its mystique), the works of Bruegel, in particular, are somehow also celebrated for their lost perspective. As a film about being in a foreign country, Museum Hours is also very much a travelogue, and in delivering a postcard of Vienna that is at once unorthodox, unexpected, and non-discriminating—quite the opposite of the passive, moneyed line of tourism we see paraded (and glibly mocked) in a film like Midnight in Paris—it keenly honours Bruegel’s unpopular, yet for his time, radically ethnographic approach.
Cohen’s affinity with Bruegel is illustrated in a memorable scene, in which a guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) speaks to a small group touring the Bruegel room. Incidentally the closest the film comes to adopting an academic stance, the art historian nevertheless intelligibly and eloquently describes the details of several Bruegel paintings to her audience, citing overarching themes and motifs while being careful to qualify her statements as not gospel, but interpretation. “What if we can’t be so sure what stories are being told?”, she ponders after questioning the perceived timelessness of the art. “What to make of them now in the complexity of our own time? I for one see hypocrisy, politicians, corrupt priests… This may have little to do with the painter’s intentions, but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t turn these associations off.” As they approach Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul, a debate develops around the so-called ‘centre’ of the work. Against the stubborn insistence of a smug American—who takes the literal view that the centre is, as prescribed by the painting’s title, the fallen figure of the saint—she draws the group’s attention to other possible, less obvious focal points (among them, a horse’s ass). Her argument that our eyes are free to wander elsewhere, of course, holds true not only of other Bruegels in the collection—vast tapestries of daily life, at once fantastical, brutal, and starkly real—but of Cohen’s heterogeneous practice as a filmmaker also.
Rather than sizing things up from the panoramic distance of a Bruegel painting—which, in layman’s terms, could be described as a Renaissance version of “Where’s Wally?”—Museum Hours favours a close, intimate tableau of its environment in which the artist is always present. As the public casually acknowledges Cohen’s roaming lens (often, glancing directly at the camera), he assumes the role of documentarian and, like Bruegel, enthusiastic ethnographer, giving us indelible scenes such as those shot in Johann’s local bar, a hidden hotspot of uninhibited life and laughter beneath Austria’s cold winter haze. It would be unfair, though, in making the comparison of Cohen’s film to Bruegel’s art, to assume that Museum Hours doesn’t have a focal point other than the city and community it portrays. Its actors, uncomplicated and magnetic in voice, are pivotal to its warmth, tenderness, and heart. They also root the film to a musical source that’s central to Cohen’s body of work. In a magical piece of casting, he brings reclusive songbird Mary Margaret O’Hara—sister of actress Catherine O’Hara, and singular singer-songwriter of cult status—out of the woodwork. As Anne, she imports an offbeat, abstract intellect into the role that anyone who has been mesmerised by her one and only studio album, Miss America (1988), will surely recognise in this performance. O’Hara gets to sing a couple of her own songs, however it is her vocalisation of the incidental that really strikes a chord; her thoughtful observations on pigeons gathered in a canal, or the ‘fossil’ of a demolished structure imprinted on the side of a building, a guide to her unique, lyrical understanding of everyday sights and sounds.
Granted, there’s a danger in reading too much into O’Hara’s casting as a kind of outsider artist who might be seen to represent the anti-establishment in a film conscious of advocating art for the people. Thematically, Cohen never fully exploits this political impulse, but then that’s not his style—or at least not the style of this positively down-to-earth film. So down-to-earth, in fact, that the potential for romance is all but ignored. (Blink and you’ll miss Johann’s cursory mention of an ex-boyfriend, a passing remark that puts the notion to bed.) The generous, platonic relationship that Johann and Anne form instead is precisely what grounds Museum Hours in human connection and thought—the simple pleasure of which is often, as the film demonstrates, facilitated by culture. O’Hara, who comes across, as she does on stage, as someone who views the world sideways and notices things we might otherwise overlook, embodies the film’s homage to the invigorating act of seeing and thinking, and relating to others through discourse, whether it be over a German beer, or in front of a Dutch masterwork. Sommer’s soothing commentary, meanwhile, encourages that other fine art: people watching. Playing a museum guard, his vantage point is especially apt: when not observing the art he’s observing the patrons, and by extension, observing how they think about the art and behave in its presence. “It’s quite a thing to be able to watch people’s impressions,” he says. “It’s as if we, the guards, can be invisible. I see the one kid on their own, maybe holding back at the tail of the class.” By the time the credits have rolled on this quietly engrossing film, chances are you’ll still be absorbed in the reverie, and will want to linger behind in the cinema long afterwards.