This post is also an experiment in that the main film discussed isn't actually streaming right now, and instead I provide a link to GoWatchIt, where you can put it in a queue to notify you when it is available on one or more streaming service. Any feedback regarding this would be greatly appreciated in the comments section.
Spotlight Cinema's screening of Jem Cohen's Museum Hours, Thursday, October 24 at 7:00 p.m. Madison viewers might remember Cohen's earlier feature, Chain, at the 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival, which also won Cohen a "Someone to Watch" 2005 Independent Spirit Award. Cohen's work often focuses on urban landscapes, and Museum Hours is no different as it juxtaposes the story of a man and a woman developing a gentle friendship at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, with what is essentially a "city symphony"-style portrait of Vienna.
Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is a self-employed (or, as she puts it, "friend-employed") Canadian who must travel with limited resources to Vienna to visit her cousin who is in a coma. After asking for directions to the hospital, she is befriended by Johann (Bobby Summer), a museum guard who shares observations about the museum with the audience via voice-over throughout the film. While Anne's visit is the catalyst for the narrative, in many ways Johann is the main protagonist for the film, because we learn a great deal more about him, ranging from his past as a punk-era band manager, to his thoughts about art, museum patrons, co-workers, and Vienna itself. Johann's actions, including his decision to provide Anna with a pass to the museum, propel the narrative forward.
Although the extent to which Johann quickly becomes involved with Anne's visit might seem a bit forced for the sake of the plot, the two leads' naturalistic performances help us forgive this as Johann and Anne develop a gentle, and to a degree mutually therapeutic, relationship. Many of the best scenes involve Anne simply asking Johann questions or requests, and Johann providing answers or assistance. One request in particular helps highlight one of the themes of the film: the impact art can have on our lives.
There are many shots of paintings in the museum (of course), and many shots of urban landscapes in Vienna. The way these shots are put together, however, reminded me of two different experimental filmmakers, Warren Sonbert and Hollis Frampton. Sonbert's own travel-inspired films often utilized so-called "polyvalent montage," where the element linking the shots within a sequence changes as the sequence progresses, and certain shots appearing much later resonate despite not being placed within a related sequence. The most obvious way of putting shots together in Museum Hours would be to have a description of a painting visualized with a shot of the painting. But in several important moments, that's not what we get. Instead, we need to look for the common denominator linking the shots, which might be some other kind of literal relation to dialogue, or some other kind of graphic connection.
Other montage links work on a more purely abstract basis. Late in the film there is a series of shots of statues, which seems like a more conventional montage based on shape or type of statue. One of the shots, in fact, contains a headrest described by a pre-recorded museum guide, so it is not too difficult to understand what we are looking at or the connection between shots. Eventually we see a shot of a statue with a long head (or headdress) in the left part of the frame, with empty space on the right.
In addition to reminding me of the kind of polyvalent montage seen in the Sonbert's work, certain sequences in Museum Hours reminded me of Hollis Frampton's work, specifically (nostalgia), which is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection, and thus also available on Hulu Plus (see link below). To describe (nostalgia) briefly: we hear descriptions of photographs as we see photographs burn on a hot plate; the catch is that we hear the description of the photograph that we will see next, while we see the burning photograph that we have just heard described. So while we imagine a photograph we will see next based on the description, we also recall a description of the photograph as we watch it burn. Like several sequences in Museum Hours, such as Johann's description of paintings for Anne's cousin described above, (nostalgia) explores and experiments with the description, visualization, and memory of images.
While I enjoyed the range of experimentation in Museum Hours, the film does have a few mis-steps. One is a short sequence after a discussion of nudity in art where museum patrons are themselves nude in the galleries; the sequence is a bit too arty for its own good. The other sequence involves a guest lecturer on Bruegel, which contains interesting information and several thematically important points. Unfortunately the acting in the sequence, especially compared to the easy-going interactions of Anne and Johann, seems peculiarly stiff and staged.
But overall Museum Hours is a well crafted, patient and observant independent feature film, with strong lead performances and engaging experimental techniques.
For further reading about Cohen and Museum Hours, check out this interview with Cohen at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I have also provided a link to the only Cohen film I can find officially streaming at the moment, his documentary Instrument: Ten Years with the Band Fugazi.
Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database
At the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, a museum guard and a visiting out-of-towner find refuge in life, art, and each other, in Jem Cohen’s painterly rumination on how art influences and echoes contemporary society.
Instrument: Ten Years with the Band Fugazi (Jem Cohen, USA, 1999, 115 minutes)
Shot from 1987 through 1998 on super 8, 16mm and video, Instrument is composed mainly of footage of concerts, interviews with the band members, practices, tours and time spent in the studio recording their 1995 album, Red Medicine. The film also includes portraits of fans as well as interviews with them at various Fugazi shows around the United States throughout the years.
Hapax Legomena I: (nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, USA, 1971, 37 minutes)
In which the off-screen voice of confederate Michael Snow narrates a series of Frampton's photographs (speaking as Frampton, in the first person)—as each picture catches fire on a hot plate.