March 3, 2014

Museum Hours and Three Short Films by Jem Cohen

The Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna

We’ve all seen this type of guy working at an art museum or movie theater. He’s middle-aged and much older than the other attendants, yet he’s thrilled to have the job. His presence becomes a component of the institution and a welcome part of each visit. Johann (Bobby Sommer) fits that role at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. He observes the very different types of visitors and has great appreciation for the stunning works on display. The museum is his daily sanctuary and brings him joy despite limited personal connections away from work. Johann’s relaxed visage brings such warmth to Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours yet is just one element of this intriguing picture. He often drifts into the background, yet his presence remains during each successive interlude.

Mary Margaret O’Hara in Museum Hours

The story takes place in and around the museum and takes its time, yet there’s a freeing sense that anything can happen. Cohen follows Johann’s growing friendship with Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who’s visiting Austria because of a sick relative. Their conversations about art and life are the movie’s core, yet they merely set the foundation for a much larger project. The museum and Vienna become characters in their own right and live and breathe right before our eyes. Calling the city a character is an overused cliché, yet it fits because there’s so much vibrancy on display. Cohen shoots the action from odd angles and rarely takes a conventional approach to what’s on the screen. Johann may be discussing something important, but the perspective shifts instead to the wall behind him. It’s initially off-putting yet forces us to really engage with the images on the screen. We can’t just sit back and passively observe the interactions between Johann and Anne. They’re likable characters yet never dominate our perspective.


I enjoy visiting art museums, yet the vast array of images can sometimes be too much to grasp. Getting beyond the beauty and delving into themes behind the piece require a greater participation from the observer. This is also the case with films, especially those that challenge us. Cohen presents the friendship of Anne and Johann as a starting point, and that’s enough to sustain our attention. Even so, there are multiple layers beyond that experience if we’re willing to take the leap. A striking scene follows a discussion about nudity and paintings. Several visitors stroll through the gallery and then are seen again without their clothes. It’s a striking moment because they seem so comfortable with the nakedness. You could read these shots multiple ways, but I see them as showing the feelings of home inspired by the museum. They can let down their guard and just experience the works on a personal level, and they essentially become art from this perspective.


A crucial sequence presents an art expert (Ela Piplits) giving an extensive lecture on the work of Pieter Bruegel to some visitors. She delves into the ways he shifts our attention away from the expected center piece of the painting. The title may focus on the apostle Paul, but Bruegel focuses more on the other characters in the piece. Johann observes this lecture, so it connects to our main story. It’s a tenuous relationship, however, so why does Cohen stick with this scene? It’s not a stretch to see that the Bruegel approach sheds light on what’s happening in this film. The perspective frequently shifts towards everyone but Johann and Anne and often just observes daily life in Vienna. A dim-witted listener doesn’t agree and can’t see beyond the painting’s title. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the guy checking his phone during her lecture. It’s an obvious shot at limited perspectives on art, yet it still hits home within this film.


It’s the brief examples of warmth and surprise that lift Museum Hours above an interesting experiment. Blink and you’ll miss a brief shot of a visitor smiling at the camera before we cut to the next scene. That moment could take us out of the film but instead reminds us it’s still a construct. Like the art in the museum, Cohen is showing a particular view of reality crafted to make specific points. It’s designed to evoke a reaction yet allows for unique interpretations. We might disagree with the lecturer on Bruegel, and that’s just fine. Circling back to Johann and Anne, their relationship works because it’s formed on a love of art. How many of our friendships revolve around adoring movies, music, or another pursuit? It’s this passion that makes us human and brings depth to every connection. That nuanced enjoyment rings true and builds an intimate connection with this intriguing film.


Amber City (1999)
A perfect companion piece to Museum Hours is Amber City, a 48-minute short film directed by Cohen in Italy. It depicts an unnamed town and its residents as they go about their daily life. We also catch glimpses of museums, unique art throughout the city, and inventive shots of the streets and places where people meet. Voiceover narration gives insight to what we’re seeing, but it rarely provides the typical exposition. It’s a quiet, refreshing film that could irritate some with its mellow tone. It’s the type of original movie that could work in an art installation yet still offers plenty for a home viewing.

Anne Truitt, Working (2010)
This 13-minute film documents the work of Anne Truitt, known for creating Minimalist sculptures during the mid-20th century. Cohen documents her in 1999 at the Yadoo Artist Colony and in her D.C. studio several years later and presents some of her work. I’m not familiar with Truitt’s art, and she gives some interesting details about how it functions. Shot in both color and black and white, this short provides glimpses of her pieces close to the end of her life. This glimpse isn’t thrilling yet puts you inside the mind of an original artist.


Museum: Visiting the Unknown Man (1997)
This silent, black-and-white short offers an eerie look at the sculptures on display and the visitors that explore the untitled location. Cohen focuses specifically on the eyes of the pieces, and the blurry outlook creates a sense that they’re staring right through us.

Note: These three short films are included with Museum Hours’ DVD release and Blu-ray releases, along with a 24-page booklet with essays about the movie.

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