Ways of Seeing: Q&A With "Museum Hours" Filmmaker Jem Cohen

Ways of Seeing: Q&A With "Museum Hours" Filmmaker Jem Cohen
Director Jem Cohen on the set of "Museum Hours," a film in which the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum serves as the backdrop for a new friendship between a museum guard and a visitor.
(Courtesy of Little Magnet Films )

In Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” a tender relationship develops between a solemn guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, who spends his days observing people wandering the hallowed halls, and a Canadian woman stranded in town after arriving to look after her ill cousin. Cohen, whose previous works include “Instrument,” a documentary about the group Fugazi, weaves questions about the value of artwork and its relationship to our lives and the outside world. ARTINFO’s Craig Hubert sat down with Cohen at a coffee shop in Brooklyn to talk about the film, the importance of visual art on his work, and why museums are important.

How did “Museum Hours” originate?

I think the project originates, initially, from having a family that was very interested in the arts and being dragged around to museums a lot when I was a kid, not always to my happiness or understanding. But it was good for me in the long run.

Which museums?

It was a core activity for my family in whatever country we went to, and we traveled a lot. And I grew up in D.C., where the museums are free, so that was actually a really big deal, the more I think about it. I haven’t mentioned that before in any interview, but it occurs to me that growing up in a city with fantastic museums that were free made it part of the fabric of life in a really nice way. But more specifically with this project, I have done a lot of work with the Viennale, they’ve been very supportive. I’ve screened a lot there, and when I’ve come to screen, or, at one point I did a commission for them, I would go to the museum there, as a matter of course — it’s an amazing museum. So I spent a lot of time in the Bruegel room, which is the finest Brueghel collection in the world, and I just became increasingly fascinated, partly because I felt a connection with my own filmmaking. Particularly, with documentary work that I’ve done that has been in a street photography mode of wandering and shooting without an agenda. Looking at the Brueghel’s, I felt this parallel somehow in his paintings, partly because they are resolutely detailed and in many ways accurate depictions of the peasant life of his day. Also, in a more mysterious way, a lot of the pictures are kinda all over — your eye can go anywhere it wants, to take the path that it wants.

In the film, you talk about the child in one Brueghel’s paintings, and how it might not be the focus of the work, but your eye is drawn to this person in the corner.

Right. So that painting in particular, I stared at it over and over again, with my eye going to this child who, for all intents and purposes, is peripheral to the religious subject at hand. I’m not an art historian, and there are perhaps art historians who might argue with that, but suffice to say, in terms of my own experience: it’s a religious painting, it’s about St. Paul, he’s there, but he doesn’t stand out any more than the tree, or the kid, or the rear ends of horses. I just found that quite astonishing and really felt connected to it. The more I looked at the Brueghels, and the more I learned about him, there’s a lot of other unusual moves that he’s making — again, my point isn’t to say that he’s the first, or the only, but among other things he decouples landscape for being a strictly religious backdrop, which is a pretty bold move for its time. More than maybe anything else, he’s creating a human scale and human importance, so that even where there’s a landscape, it’s a landscape we might recognize rather than a fanciful stage set for religion. So there’s something really down to earth about him.

You mentioned the all-overness of Bruegel, and your street photography mode. What was the shooting process like for the film?

At first, I just wandered around in Vienna.

Were you looking for connections between the works in the museum and what you saw in the street? Or is that a process that happens later?

I think ever since I’ve been a filmmaker, I’ve found connections between visual art, at least as much as, if not maybe more than, other films. Not as a one to one correspondence, but just in terms of it feeling natural to me that things in the world are like paintings and paintings are like things in the world. Compared to a lot of filmmakers, I’m not that obsessive a cinephile. I’m not really interested in referring to other movies in my movies, but the connection with visual arts has been a through line for me. So I would wander around Vienna, like I would wander around any city, shooting and trying to get a feel for it, particularly outside of the tourist range, and then often I would find myself back in the museum. So back and forth between the museum and the street, and rolling these ideas around in my head, trying to think of a way to make a movie about them. It occurred to me that a museum guard is a perfect conduit — he’s right at the portal between world and museum, world and art, and he has nothing to do all day but watch people interact with the artworks. I thought, that’s a great way to take on some of this somewhat theoretical interest in a very simple, approachable story.

I won’t call them non-actors, maybe non-traditional actors is better. What was it about Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, who play the two leads, that made you think they were right for this story.

Well, in the case of Bobby Sommer, I knew him as a driver and a waiter in town. I had used him to read some text in a commission that I did for the Viennale, using the works of a writer named Joseph Roth, and he had a very beautiful, extremely undramatic speaking voice. He’d also had a lot of odd jobs, so I felt that he had this presence that was nicely embodied in his voice but also lots of interesting, random life experience, and I tend to think of people in movies, again not so much in terms of what other characters they’ve played in movies, but what their lives have been like and what they might be able to draw out of their life into a role. So he naturally fell into it, and I found him to be naturally adept and enthusiastic. And Mary, I had seen perform almost 25 years ago, as a musician, and was completely knocked out by it and thinking all these years how great it would be to get her in a movie. She has a magical presence and is very perceptive.

There’s a moment in the film I wanted to discuss. Bobby talks about a conversation with a younger guard, and there’s a discussion about art and capital, and what happens to art when it’s placed in a museum and can the two be divorced. Can art be divorced from money? Especially painting, which has such strong roots in the world of money.

The way I look at it is, realistically, and historically, and in terms of present day economics, it might not be possible to divorce them. But practically, and logistically, and in a way out of necessity, it has to be divorced. It’s ours to decide what art means to us. We have not only the possibility, but in my belief, an obligation to make that a personal connection rather than one that is dictated for us by popularity or celebrity or market values or an art world that has become frighteningly adept and obsessed at seeing art works as commodities. Even just talking about it using a word like “commodity” or “capital,” I can just see people rolling their eyes, but the fact is it really doesn’t have anything to do with that. It has to do with people making a one to one connection with art as they encounter it, and the wonderful thing about a museum is that that can be done without a price sheet. So, people can legitimately explain to me that oil paintings in particular were a pivotal part of the history of art and capital…

John Berger talks about that.

And I think that Berger did a great service by making that clear and making that a notion that could be understood quite broadly. I love John Berger. In a way, I’m making a critique in the film, through the kid, because he’s obviously read “Ways of Seeing” and maybe taken it too literally. But “Ways of Seeing” is a polemical moment in a career where Berger has given us this incredible shelf of books with a deep, empathetic understanding of art. He’s not someone who discounts art because it’s become a commodity; he’s someone who has fought to regain its humanity and its formal power in the face of the art market, which has done so much to negate those things. I always want to make it clear to people that even though I think there’s room to argue in some ways with Berger, and we don’t want to just accept what anybody says as dogma, my point in the film was really an homage to him. I’m not saying we have to apply a Marxist viewpoint when we look at art. I’m saying the most important thing we can do is insist on a personal connection that isn’t dictated by the dominant art force right now, which is unfortunately the market. I think it’s possible. You put a little kid in front of a painting, you put a bus driver in front of a painting, and there are things that can happen that are very powerful, very intuitive, very remarkable. I also think there’s enormous value in having some kind of art historical background that allows you to take into account how something was made, the world that it was born into. It’s one thing to look at an Impressionist painting and find the light and color beautiful; you get another layer when you realize these paintings are absolutely shocking and inconceivably modern in their moment. I embrace a multi-faceted approach to art that combines an appreciation of scholarship with an open, intuitive, unguarded approach that people will bring if they’re encouraged to.

You had permission to shoot in the museum, but your film also asks questions about the role of the museums. Is it possible to critique the institution from within?

First of all, the museum was absolutely extraordinary about giving me free reign with the understanding I had to say what I wanted to say, and they weren't going to vet it. And they didn’t — I showed them the movie when it was done. That was quite remarkable. Part of that was because my initial discussion with them revolved around the idea that, I said, people are intimidated by museums, particularly this kind of museum, and some people consider these to be elitist and irrelevant. I want to make a movie that talks about why art work is relevant, why it’s powerful, why it’s potent in our daily lives. Not as a fancy building with old things in it. They were receptive to that, in part because cultural institutions that have a classical mode tend to be concerned about how they’re going to get, particularly young people, to keep coming, or come at all. But I also knew that you don’t have institutions like that without having some problems. There are always institutional problems. There are problems I didn’t even touch on, particular to some European institutions, like: Where did some of these paintings come from? We are inundated with institutional critique in our art world, some of which I value and enjoy, some of which I find to be a little bit — let’s just say there’s an odd dance being played out all the time where the bulk of people are making the bulk of their artwork out of institutional critique and yet still dependent on and hoping to be accepted by the institutions that they’re critiquing. We’re in a time of strange symbiosis. I don’t think that’s wrong, but there’s a certain irony to it.

But the film is also a love letter to museums.

I wouldn’t make a movie about any institution without some degree of critique, but I think in some way it becomes more radical, and subversive, to embrace some aspects of the museum, and of art, in spite of being institutionalized. I have to be honest about the fact that I’m really thankful that I can go to a museum and somebody is taking care of a 3,000-year-old object that is blowing my mind, that I couldn’t see if it was tucked away in a private collection. They make work accessible to us, as I said before, in a context, like the gallery, where there isn’t a price list waiting at the desk. I also, frankly, even though I think it’s a little unpopular, love the old art museums. I love them as spaces: they’re hollowed, they promote a contemplative state, they are often beautifully lit in such a way that there’s this amazing mirroring between the people in the place and the things they’re looking at.

Also, people don’t have the opportunity to enter spaces that are that old. A modern art museum looks like an Ikea — it’s very familiar.

I love going to MoMA as well, and I see great things there — and there are things that are maybe more appropriate to that space — but I love going to an art museum where you walk through time. There’s a hush that falls over people in the way that there can be in a great library or a church or a mosque or a synagogue. It puts people in a different head; it can encourage them to get quiet, and to focus in and engage with things outside the hurly burly that we all live in. I love it. I don’t find it stuffy and archaic. I often find it kind of life saving.