The latest film from renowned documentarian and film-essayist Jem Cohen is a charming rumination on art and observation.
Even if a screening is sold out, tickets are often available 30 minutes before the start of the film at the box office at each venue.
- Director-Screenwriter Jem Cohen
- Producer Paolo Calamita, Jem Cohen, Gabriele Kranzelbinder
- With Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
- Austria-USA 2012
- 106 mins
- Sales MPM Film
Johann appears happy in his job of attendant at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, content to spend his days surrounded by the precious paintings and artefacts displayed there, adopting an amiable attitude towards his colleagues while recognising he has little in common with them. He meets Anne, an enigmatic Canadian woman visiting an unfamiliar city where her cousin is ill in hospital, and the two form a bond. Johann acts as Anne’s guide to Vienna; he relishes the opportunity to share his knowledge of its art and architecture, acknowledging he is rediscovering the place himself. The latest film from renowned documentarian and film-essayist Jem Cohen (Benjamin Smoke; Chain), Museum Hours is a charming rumination on art and observation featuring strikingly beautiful images that appeared to have been captured casually and engaging, perfectly pitched performances from Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara as characters meeting at a crossroads in their lives.
The film got its start in the Brueghel room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. 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. One such painting, ostensibly depicting the conversion of St Paul, has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree, and I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand, but instead of being peripheral, one’s eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He’s as important as anything else in the frame. I recognised 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). In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path. How then to make movies that don’t tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of movie this is’? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum. In making movies, I’m at least as inspired by paintings (and sculpture and books and music) as I am by cinema. Maybe this project would bring all of that together for me, a kind of culmination. Years later, with limited resources but a small, open-minded crew and access to the museum and city in place, I began to trace a simple story. The figure best positioned to watch it all unfold (and with time on his hands to mull things over) would be a museum guard. He would preferably be played by a non-actor with a calm voice who understood odd jobs. I found him in Bobby Sommer. Almost 25 years ago, I saw Mary Margaret O’Hara perform, and I’ve wanted to film her ever since. She is equally sublime and funny and knows a thing or two about not being bound by formulas. She would surely channel things through unusual perspectives, especially if dropped into a city she’d never known and given room to move. Making this movie could not come from finalising a script and shooting to fill it in. Instead, it came out of creating a set of circumstances, some carefully guided, others entirely unpredictable. It meant not using sets (much less locking them off); it meant inviting the world in… There were other important things found in museums that guided me. In the older ones that are so beautifully lit, the visitors begin to look like artworks – each becomes the other. This transference undoes a false sense of historical remove; we stand in front of a depiction 400- or 3000-years-old, and there is a mirroring that works in both directions. (This is one of the things that makes old museums sexy, an inherent eroticism which runs counter to the unfortunate, perhaps prevalent notion that they are archaic, staid and somewhat irrelevant.) The phenomenon underscores for me the way that artworks of any time speak to us of our own conditions. The walls separating the big old art museum in Vienna from the street and the lives outside are thick. We had hopes to make them porous.
Born in 1962 in Kabul, Afghanistan while his father was there working for the US Agency for Information and Development, he has been a prolific New York independent filmmaker since the early 80s, noted for collaborations with the likes of Patti Smith, REM and Vic Chesnutt, and for his co-directed (with Peter Sillen) musical documentary portrait Benjamin Smoke.
1983 A Road in Florida
1987 This Is a History of New York
1988 Talk About the Passion
1989 Glue Man; Light Years; Love Teller; Never Change; What Does Away Mean?
1991 Mark's Town; Drink Deep
1992 Black Hole Radio
1993 Nightswimming; Drift
1994 Buried in Light; Sun Project
1996 Coney Island End of God the Way It Must Be; Lost Book Found
1997 Lucky Three
1999 Amber City; Instrument; Blood Orange Sky
2000 Waterfront Diaries: New York; Little Flags; Benjamin Smoke [doc feature; co-d]
2001 Nice Evening, Transmission Down
2002 Georgia Thief; The Foxx and Little Vic [co-d]; Cat Power: Live from Fur City [co-d]
2004 Chain [feature]
2005 NYC Weights and Measures
2006 Blessed Are the Dreams of Men; Building a Broken Mousetrap [co-d]
2008 The Passage Clock [co-d]; Long for the City; Evening's Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin
2009 One Bright Day; Night Scene New York; Le Bled (Buildings in a Field) [co-d]; Anne Truitt, Working; Anecdotal Evidence
2010 Crossing Paths with Luce Vigo; Opus Luminis et Hominis
2011/12 Gravity Hill Newsreels
2012 Real Birds; Museum Hours [feature]
All shorts – 8mm, 16mm or video – unless stated.