MUSEUM HOURS B+
USA Austria (106 mi) 2013 d: Jem Cohen museumhoursfilm.com
Jem Cohen is an American independent filmmaker from New York most known for making short experimental films, Super 8 film essays, shooting a Polaroid diary of New York, newsreels of the occupy Wall Street movement, and music documentaries, often blending video with Super 8 and 16mm. Here he shoots a film entirely in Austria, using a completely different style than the contemporary Austrian filmmakers whose precise detail and sterile cleanliness show Austria as a nation that prides itself in picking up their own garbage leaving the streets immaculately clean. Cohen, on the other hand, shows graffiti on the walls, littered beer cans, cigarette stubs, and a host of other lost items just laying on the streets. Shot during the Christmas season, the city of Vienna is shrouded in a relentless gray color, often battered by either rain or snow, giving it a less than accommodating feel throughout, especially to strangers who don’t know their way around. The film, however, written, directed, produced, co-shot (with Peter Roehsler), and co-edited by Cohen, shooting exteriors on 16mm and interiors on two types of digital cameras, begins in an art museum, where one of the guards narrates his thoughts about what it’s like to be a museum guard at the prestigious Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, backtracking a bit about his own life, a lifelong lover of heavy metal, where he used to manage punk bands and be something of a rebel. However, after experiencing all that “noise” early in his life, it’s only appropriate that now in his later years he balances it with “quiet.” While he may be about age 60, we see him walk between the rooms of the museum, pointing out various habits of many that visit the art museum, as often people return, intrigued by certain works, which perks up his interest in his job, as he feels a connection to his surroundings. He notices one woman return, where she also seems to be lost studying a map, where he helps offer her directions in English and even future assistance, if need be, should language present a problem. She takes him up on his offer, and the two develop an ongoing friendship.
She is Anne, Mary Margaret O’Hara (1980’s singer and sister to Canadian actress Catherine O’Hara), a vistor from Montreal, while the museum guard is Johann, Bobby Sommer, a nonprofessional who works for the Vienna International Film Festival, who actually has a past in the music business. The two share naturalistic scenes that alternate with Johann’s thoughtful voiceovers. She is there to visit her cousin, who she hasn’t seen in years, now lying in a coma in a nearby Vienna hospital. Johann, who initially thinks she’s Austrian by the green color of her coat, apparently quite prevalent in his country, helps her obtain a museum pass and helpfully calls the doctor from time to time to get the latest health updates, and at least on one occasion he accompanies her to the hospital. It’s a poignant moment, as anyone who’s visited a coma patient realizes how challenging it is, because you’re not sure if they actually comprehend anything you say, making no response, yet doctors encourage communication. Anne asks Johann to describe some paintings in the museum, which he does brilliantly, where Cohen shows interspersed images of paintings and various works of art throughout the film. The intimate knowledge he shares about various works of art actually has a healing power that can be felt even by the viewers, as such personal insight is rarely revealed, offering a glimpse into multiple worlds, where art history becomes personalized and associated with such a depth of humanity. Described to a coma patient, this is simply a chilling moment, but it solidifies their friendship, as this is an unforgettable shared experience. They spend more time together on the streets of Vienna, where he shows her the sights, actually reacquainting himself with much of what he’s always admired about the city. Each are also shown separately, as Johann always returns to his job at the museum, while Anne rummages through open air flea markets on the downtown streets, while also making daily visits to the hospital.
The film takes the viewer somewhat by surprise, as the stream of gorgeous images of artworks is stunning and hypnotically mesmerizing, requiring a certain amount of contemplation, where the director actually engages in an ongoing conversation with the audience, using a flow of still images, often evoking a sense of wonder, mixed with conversations describing various feelings about the artworks, but also hauntingly beautiful outdoor landscape images, capturing the emptiness of the trees, while the two characters themselves are engaged in their own conversations. It’s an extremely slow but reflective style of filmmaking, where Cohen takes us into the Pieter Bruegel (the elder) room, the most popular destination in the museum and the site of more of this artist’s works than any other museum, where we interestingly share a visiting art professor’s tour of the paintings. Like Johann earlier, to hear one’s personal reflections elucidated so clearly and eloquently is an extraordinary experience, and one that contrasts with the droning commentary that patrons are forced to listen to on the earphones provided, which simply don’t capture the immediacy of the moment. The guest lecturer, Ela Piplits, brings the works to life, pointing out often overlooked details about the subversive nature of his works, a 16th century Dutch artist where even painting ordinary peasant behavior was frowned upon during his lifetime, as paintings belonged exclusively to the rich. As there were no museums, which originated with the Louvre in Paris during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), establishing the first collection of artworks open to the public, Bruegel had a tendency to rub the noses of the wealthy aristocracy in graphic unpleasantries, which often shared religious compositions, but he was also one of the first to originate landscape paintings. According to the professor, Bruegel’s paintings “are not sentimental, nor do they judge.” Also of interest, Cohen is one of the few directors to set his cameras inside nearby pubs, showing life in the beerhalls of Vienna, a slice of everyday life that is extremely lively and decorative. Again, this offers quite a contrast to the moments of solitude in the hospital when Anne is alone with her cousin, quietly breaking out into song at one point, expressing infinite sorrow and tenderness. The film is a modernist, free form meditation on how art and the human spirit coincide, concerned with language, images, and history, vividly expressed through an endless stream of art images that challenge our way of looking at the world around us.