Before the release of Museum Hours, I must confess I knew nothing about Jem Cohen. Based in New York, Cohen is known mainly for his experimental film making featuring raw urban landscapes and his collaborations with musicians such as Vic Chesnutt, Patti Smith and REM to name but a few. The average cinema-goer would be forgiven for being oblivious to this hugely talented film maker who has successfully and deliberately avoided involvement in mainstream cinema. The fact that Cohen directed the video for REMs single Night Swimming and worked under Martin Scorsese for a time as prop man and technician should provide some interesting trivia to those who have just been introduced to him.
I knew I was going to love Museum Hours. From the moment I saw the trailer, I was mesmerised and couldn’t wait to see it. Thankfully, it lived up to all my expectations. To describe it as a documentary-fiction hybrid falls way off the mark. Museum Hours is at all at once an unconventional romantic tale, a meditation on art, life and death, a lesson in art and artists and a collection of stark but beautiful images.
Let’s start by looking at Museum Hours in a purely narrative sense. Johann, our protagonist, who has retired from his life as a rock band manager, now paces up and down the grand corridors of Viennas Kunsthistorisches art gallery as a guard. He observes the visitors with a gentle curiosity rather than surveilling them and there are no scenes in which he reprimands anyone for using a flash or tells a child off for crossing the red ropes. He sits or stands with a pleasant demeanour taking in the paintings and their viewers. One day, while working in the museum, he is called upon for assistance by Anne, a Canadian tourist trying to find her way to the hospital where her cousin lies in a coma. In the brief time that Anne spends in Vienna waiting for her cousin to wake up or die, they form a connection. Johann accompanies her to the hospital, acting as translator between Anne and the doctors, he takes her on a tour of Vienna showing her many sights that he himself hasn’t visited for years and he introduces her to the paintings of the Kunsthistorisches.
Both leading roles, Bobby Somers and Mary Margaret O’Hara are unprofessional actors. Bobby, like the character he plays also managed rock bands and met Cohen while working at the Viennale- the Vienna Film festival. O’Hara, an unassuming Canadian singer who also shirks the limelight. They both emit an amazing light from their roles bringing life to a film that could have come across as pretentious or esoteric. Although the relationship is purely platonic – we are subtly informed that Johann is gay – there is an understated chemistry between them. There is something very tranquil and calming about their performances and coupled with such serene though at times grim photography of a snowy and cold Vienna the effect is while watching is soothing and comforting.
Cohen merges his various methods of storytelling well. For a portion of the film, Johann narrates, talking mainly about the gallery and quirky observations he makes of the visitors and their reactions to the art works. We then accompany Anne and her guide as they walk around Vienna and converse about the banal and the philosophical in a local bar. Cohen’s style is so unobtrusive towards his subjects – as if they appear in shot almost by accident. For a while we just watch as his the camera moves around the city zooming in on ordinary urban scenes. At times the camera will flash back and zoom in on part of a painting hanging in the museum- for example a group of eggs shells hardly noticeable in the corner of the frame. This will then be juxtaposed with a shot of some discarded cigarette butts outside on a wet cobblestone. A regular contrast throughout is the view of a market outside the museum. Old pictures lie on the ground unprotected, an old black and white photo of a man and old children’s comic are riffled through by passers by. Then back inside, the priceless treasures of the Kunsthistorisches.
Though generally most of the art work isn’t identified, a rather long scene in the middle of the film where an art guide gives visitors a talk on various Brueghel works, gives us a clue as to who Cohen might favour when it comes to artists. There is also a lovely scene in the hospital when Anne asks Johann to describe some paintings for her sister, in the hope that it might get through to her. He talks about a painting called Summer by Archibaldo, describing it in a joyous child-like way.
Museum Hours is very easy to watch but not so easy to sum up. What Cohen thinks about art may not be clear- are Johann’s philosophies the same as his? We can gather from the numerous lingering shots of cranes peering through the Vienna mist, dilapidated buildings and flocks of pigeons taking off by a dried up river, that Cohen delights capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary. I was sitting in traffic yesterday morning and my eyes were drawn towards the cloudy glass windows of Tara Street station and the stream of commuters spilling down from the platform onto the street and I felt for a moment that I was seeing things through Jem Cohen’s eyes.