Monday, October 21, 2013

Madison Film Forum: Museum Hours at MMoCA Spotlight Cinema, Oct. 24

As I continue to develop ideas and content for this site, most posts will be aimed at a more general web audience while some posts will address readers in my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin.  Even when I write about screenings happening here, I will provide information that readers outside of Madison hopefully will find useful.

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.

There will be some appropriate museum hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art for 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.

When Anne asks Johann to visit her comatose cousin with her at the hospital, she also requests that Johann describe some of the paintings at the museum, with the assumption that her cousin might have visited the museum frequently and such descriptions might provide some kind of stimulation.  He first describes some Rembrandt self-portraits; the description is visually illustrated by some shots in the Rembrandt gallery. But while Johann describes the most famous of the portraits, in which Rembrandt wears the clothes of a poor man because he was in fact poor at the time, that detail is not shown to us. Johann follows up with a description of Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Summer (seen here at left), but we do not see it. Instead, we stay on a profile of Johann as he describes the painting and the way children react to it.  The relationship between description, visualization, and memory also will be important when I come back to Hollis Frampton, below. When the Summer description is complete, Anna requests that he describe paintings of Christ; the request is visualized at first not by paintings in the museum but by a picture and crucifix in the hospital room itself.  Johann abides by describing a painting involving Christ and John the Baptist, but instead of seeing the painting, we see a frozen river and moving train in Vienna.

Johann describes the painting as having a "blue river under a blue sky,"and we get an overcast urban landscape shot. This shot has very little narrative motivation in relation to Anne, Johann, or the comatose cousin. There are a couple of ways we might link the shots in terms of "polyvalent montage." One link might be on the word "river,"as we do in fact see a river despite not seeing the river described by Johann. Another link might be the word "blue," because despite the overcast sky the shot does have a blue hue (perhaps not immediately apparent in my frame still) due to shooting outdoors at the wrong color temperature (shooting outdoors at an indoor setting will produce a blue tone, like the old Levi's 501 blues ads).  The following shot, which has even less to do with the painting being described, does have a link to the previous shot due to its similar blue hue. (One could also argue a conceptual connection between the train in the first shot and the public transport vehicles in the second shot.) Meanwhile, after we return to a close-up of Anne, Johann continues his description of the Christ painting, which we have to continue to imagine for ourselves, and which he describes as "bluer than I could ever tell."  This sequence, then, sets up two viewing strategies that we might find productive: first, look for shifting connections between shots in a sequence, and second, think about when the dialogue is or is not explicitly visualized by the cutaways.  Also, this hospital scene develops the theme that living a life that engages with art and creating art that engages with life is important, as in this instance Johann has clearly benefited from engaging with the work he describes, and the descriptions in turn might help Anne's cousin.

Besides shifting common denominators between shots within a sequence, some shots that come much later also resonate with earlier shots. For example, we eventually do see the Rembrandt self-portrait in the poor-man's clothes, three shots after the hospital scene is over, which adds to its emotional resonance due to our memory of Johann's description. Later in the film Anne describes the experience of seeing a flock of birds looking like specks of pepper as they sat on the concrete bank of the river. In this case, her story is visualized nearly simultaneously, and her description of the birds flying away is punctuated by a shot of the birds flying away. But the shots also resonate with the earlier shot at the same (or similar) river seen with the blue hue during the description of the Christ and John the Baptist painting.

The shifting montage connections are sometimes more concrete, and at other times more abstract. One more amusing example of a concrete connection between a line of dialogue and a subsequent shot comes when Johann concludes a conversation with the observation that some people are "too worried about Turkish invasions." This is followed by what at first might seem like just another urban shot, but then we realize that inside the shop window is evidence of a kind of "Turkish invasion": hookahs. Realizing this depends on our ability to shift focus or look at different shots in different ways.  Another more concrete example comes when Anne gets off a public transport and observes a series of posters. We're not sure what we are supposed to notice in the posters, but after the next shot we retroactively know that this is actually cueing a transition to the next location: the Seegrotte underground caves.

Since there are two posters, and the Casino Admiral poster is more visually striking in terms of color and design (and words in English), we might not realize at first that we're supposed to notice the Seegrotte poster. So while this technique is commonly used in narrative films to cue transitions to a new location, it is not as common to make the viewer work so hard to recognize the cue.

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.

The shot lasts longer than others in the sequence, as the camera begins to slowly pan right into the empty space next to the statue. Eventually the camera stops on a space that roughly divides into three areas of color: brown, black and grey. The camera holds on this seemingly empty area for a period of time. The following shot begins a sequence in a somewhat poorly lit Viennese bar, which provides a rough graphic match of a frame divided into thirds.  Before the new shot, holding on the empty space in the museum might not make sense to the casual viewer, but this is just another example of shifting the terms of the montage from the graphic qualities of the statues to the graphic qualities of the shot itself.

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.

The final sequence of Museum Hours seems to allude to this kind of experimentation (but I have no idea if Cohen meant to reference (nostalgia) itself). We hear a description of an image while Johann walks though the museum galleries. After a brief black screen, we fade into the image being described: an old woman walking as a tall building looms in the background. The image is framed in black, suggesting that we should consider it as an image rather than be absorbed in it as a narrative space. The discussion of this image continues as other images framed in black appear, so we have to remember the image of the woman as the description continues and we absorb new, different visual information. The rest of the sequence has some images which are described while others are not described explicitly.  Along with the polyvalent montage examples described above, this kind of experimentation forces the viewer to engage with the images in ways different than conventional narrative films.

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

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, USA, 2013, 106 minutes)

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.

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