Jem Cohen on his lovely, contemplative new film MUSEUM HOURS
The film got its start in the Bruegel 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 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).
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 finalizing 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.