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Jem Cohen Explains Why 'Museum Hours' Will Help You Grapple With Art and Life

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 28, 2013 at 10:55AM

Cohen spoke to Indiewire this week about imbuing the film with big ideas, his interest in entertaining audiences, and how the movie addresses problems with the way people think about art today.
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"Museum Hours" director Jem Cohen.

With experimental documentaries like "CHAIN" and  "Instrument," Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. "Museum Hours,"which opens today in select theaters, is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story. But its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work.

On the one hand a sad, poignant character study, "Museum Hours" is also a treatise on art history and a love letter to architectural wonder. Predominantly set in Vienna's grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the trim story involves middle-aged museum guard Johann (Robert Sommer, making a gently affecting onscreen debut), whose quiet gig has allowed him to fade into his surroundings and observe the visitors in much the same way they peer at the artwork. It's here that he encounters the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara), a woman of the same generation in town to deal with her cousin's debilitating illness. Sensing Anne's isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. Whether seeking meaning in paintings or their lives, their faces reach artistic heights worthy of the same scrutiny allotted to the museum's collection.

Cohen spoke to Indiewire this week about imbuing the film with big ideas, his interest in entertaining audiences, and how the movie addresses problems with the way people think about art today.

"Museum Hours."

Although it involves fictional characters, "Museum Hours" deals with the universality of death and the way art can provide catharsis during challenging times. It feels very personal -- you dedicate it to your parents and your friend Vic Chesnutt, the musician who died in 2009. How did the movie help you cope with grief in your own life?

My parents are elderly and were having serious health problems for some time, and between that and things like what happened with my friend Vic Chestnutt, there was no question I was feeling I had to tangle with some of that mortality stuff. I think what was interesting to me was to take that on in a way that was not a downer. That, in a way, that was more about how heavy matters and the issue of death become intertwined in life and art that isn't just a negative. It's a reality -- and it is, in its way, also fascinating and important to deal with.

On the one hand, "Museum Hours" is a heavy intellectual experience filled with conversations about art and art history. But at the same time it has this soft, emotional side to it, and you usually don't see those two things come together the way they coexist here.

"It would've been very difficult to explain this movie to investors."

It was very organic to me, partly because I never believed in that firm distinction between nonfiction and fiction anyway. So really, if you were to go back to my very first film made in 1983, you would find it to be entirely accepting of a coexistence between what people describe as a documentary and what people describe as narrative. That has been part and partial of what I've always set out to do. This is a big step for me in that it's a bigger film and there's a good bit of dialogue in it, and I think it will take a lot of my older fans by surprise in some regard, partly because it is intentionally a friendly movie in a lot of ways. It's very difficult for me to talk about this because I think at the same time it's like the friendliest movie I've made and the heaviest movie I've made. When you're trying to get people into theaters, you don't want to tell them you made a movie that deals with things like -- well, things like death.

I can only imagine what it sounded like when you were explaining it to investors.

I wasn't explaining it to investors. I never do that. I didn't have investors.

Well, that takes one challenge out of the equation.

It would've been very difficult to explain this to investors.

So you covered this out of your own pocket then?

No, it was funded in partly out of pocket and in part through funding we were able to raise in Austria via their cultural resources. There's something called the BMUKK -- it's not directly just the Film Fund, which is a separate fund we applied for and did not receive. But we got this money from the BMUKK and we got money from ORF, and when the other money fell through, which was the film fund that we were really aiming for, we had to consider pulling the plug and we decided to pare it down a bit and forge ahead. That was one of those kind of mortifying, but not in any way unusual filmmaker moments.

How did you pare it down?

Mary Margaret O'Hara in "Museum Hours."

There were a couple of scenes we were hoping to do out of Austria, but it didn't really change that much. It just meant we had to be a little more fearless, and my producer, Paulo Calamita, was really the one who convinced me we needed to take the leap. I was teaching at the time. The allotted production moment was in between semesters. So it would've been very hard if I had postponed it. We may have lost the actors, all of that kind of thing. But, you know, there was a point at which if somebody wanted to be judicious and sane they might've said, "You need to put on the brakes and come back to it someday." But I'm very thankful we didn't do that. I've always done my films with a very low budget, stripped down, DIY, whatever you want to call it. I've never believed in separating what is logistically doable from what you want to do. Those have to be made to work together or else you just end up having endless meetings with investors who usually want something much more explicable than the kinds of films I make. I don't know if "explicable" is the word, but they tend to want something more commercial, or…what's the word for "pin down-able?"

Next: Is "Museum Hours" really scripted?

Does the film look like what you were thinking about conceptually?

Very much so. The film was something that came together in a very instinctive way and it was very much a culmination of years and years of making other films -- and years and years of thinking about why certain things are essential. So I was pleasantly kind of buoyed by a strong sense that I was making the movie I wanted to make. If there were compromises because of the low budget…it would've been more surprising to me if there weren't, because that's part of realistic filmmaking. I was also lucky to be working with people who were able to understand why we had to be streamlined. A lot of the things that made the film possible are also things that made the film what I wanted it to be. If we'd had a bigger production, we would've been able to control locations and lock them off and hire extras and all of those things that people do, then it wouldn't have been imbued with life in the way that it is. Some of that is unpredictable and some of that is risky in terms of production. You can easily blow a take because there's an unwanted sound or an unwanted entrance by a passerby or that sort of thing, but those were all risks we accepted and basically celebrated.

To a certain extent, the film gets away from the story for large stretches of time. The museum itself takes over. How did you keep your head wrapped around these fundamental ideas about the relationship between art and the world that seemed to be the central engine of the film when you were constantly thinking about the logistics of the shoot?

You know, I've been at this for a while now. I mean, I've made somewhere between 50 and 70 films. After a while you hopefully get a sense of what you want and what you need and how to not have one defeat the other. I knew that I wanted to keep it very down to earth so that even when I was dealing with big ideas that I wanted to be present in the film I was quite comfortable with having them flow under the surface or having them be part of very straightforward, very unpretentious dialogue or voiceover. I just felt that was the way to go with this, to kind of steer away from having it be a kind of explicitly philosophical or heady film. It's really just based in the world, and that's where I've always tried to position my work: in the world we live in as opposed to the world someone else might create for us -- someone else meaning the larger apparatus of film as a kind of fantasy fulfillment.

READ MORE: Indiewire's Review of "Museum Hours"

I wanted to ask you about the screenplay process for that exact reason. I'm sure that there were certain parts that were specifically worked through in advance, but you must have ceded some control to the power of the paintings -- at one point, a lecture about Breughel takes center stage. So were there portions of the story that were improvised or essentially captured on the fly like that lecture?

There were things that were very, very carefully written and then there were things that were entirely improvised. Part of the reason why I worked with the actors that I worked with was because I felt that I could trust them to take the ball and run with it on occasion, but sometimes it would be just one of them doing that. So I would have a dialogue scene where half of it was carefully written and then the other character would be sort of improvised.

To be completely honest, I don't know if I should confess this, but the Broydal lecture -- well, Eric, maybe that's scripted and maybe it isn't. The audience will have to decide. Or better yet, maybe they'll be drawn in and it won't even matter. I love it when people go to the movie and they assume that that's a real docent or that I'm using an art historical text. I'm always torn in interviews because my work is really predicated on having things that are tightly controlled and things that are very uncontrolled, having things that are tightly written and things that are improvised, having things that are essentially fictional creations and other things that are really straight out of actuality. The goal is to have that be very slippery and for people not be able to tell which is which.

The greatest gift I can get after I make something is for people to feel that it's lifelike, for people not to know whether it's fabricated because that doesn't matter. I'm not making a game out of the hybrid nature of the films. I'm not trying to be clever or meta or self-reflexive about it, really. I'm just interested in having things feel the way the world feels to me, and if I can make something that does that for other people then I'm psyched. That's the reason I feel so good about this film, and it's certainly not perfect. Whenever you juxtapose actuality with fictional elements you really run the risk of one of them casting its shadow on the other and it feeling false. If you go with the strictly fictional bubbles, then the people get very comfortable in that bubble and they'll cut you a lot of slack, and it's the same if you go with an entirely documentary base. I feel like for a lot of people, this film will feel like a story about a friendship unfolding in a very particular way in a very particular place. But for somebody else, they might latch onto the city portrait or they might latch onto the broader discussion of how art passes through time and takes different forms but is still essentially a means of communication, a way that people talk to each other.

The film addresses the value of discourse about art, but it's readily available in the fine art world in a way it's not for more popular culture, like movies. Paintings don't suffer from the reduction of intellectual conversation caused by some of the forces in the movie world, like Rotten Tomatoes turning judgement into snapshot dualities. Is there a way for the film to address those sort of problems?

The fact that it's a down to earth, friendly movie with patches of goofy dialogue, all of that serves to make it possible to bring people in and that's really what the movie is about -- bringing people in. What I think about museums and art, for some people, it's part of their lives and they go to the museum and it all works fine. For a lot of other people, there's a great deal of distance and sometimes it feels elitist and grotesquely kind of art world insidery and incomprehensible. But really, cinema -- and painting, and music -- once one makes the decision to just get close and to let these things in, then I think that we find a great deal more open dialogue and accessibility and experience.

We have to take a kind of militant stance to encourage particularity in a culture that's obsessed with sales figures and focus group given dictates about what people can and cannot embrace. So the movie really is full of an argument for the possibility of that embrace and the rewards. I don't just draw a distinction between that happening in film and in other arts, so this is a film where part of what I'm doing is to maintain that those perceptions aren't really important. Cinema is, on one hand, a very popular medium, but on the other hand it presents us with these extraordinary ways to alter time and space. I'm realizing that my inability to form a succinct pull quote is probably an indication of why I don't like to do pitch meetings for movies I make.

READ MORE: Two Lonely Souls Connect in Vienna in the Trailer for "Museum Hours"

It's probably better that you don't speak only in pull quotes when discussing this stuff.

I feel I'm in a weird position with this movie, because not only is it possible for people to like it and take a pleasurable if somewhat odd ride, but I'm finding in people's reactions to it that they get a big kick out of experiencing both a down to earth, very human story and the opportunity to think about some big ideas, to kind of wrestle with them and have them reverberate. It's exciting to me to see that that seems to be what's happening with the release of the film. You don't have to make that decision as a filmmaker to dumb it down in order to bring people in.

"I want to keep making features and I want to be able to survive doing this. That has gotten harder, not easier, there's no question about it."

I have to say, it's very meaningful for me at this time to have ["Museum Hours" distributor] Cinema Guild come on board because I'm really used to being told the opposite. When every step of the way you're faced with this inundation of bad news of how art films are disappearing and people aren't going to theaters and this incredible weight of giant action films being in the spotlight, I really feel like what we need to do is not to despair and throw up our hands. If Cinema Guild thinks they can make it work, and they've actually been demonstrating this with some very challenging films, it really gives me hope, and I've always had hope, but I'd much prefer to have my hope expand into the film community rather than have it be something that you just sort of feel like you can shove deep down in your own pocket. I have to say after years of not being able to consider theatrical distribution, I understand it's an interesting moment where people can do it without having a distributor or that kind of support or even having a publicist, which I've practically never had before. I think in this moment, I have to say that I'm invigorated by feeling like I don't have to be alone in believing in this kind of project. The jury is still out, of course.

Do you feel you're ready to tackle new kinds of movies now that you've worked outside your safety zone with "Museum Hours"?

Yeah, I feel excited about that, but I have no interest in making a calling card. I want to keep making features and I want to be able to survive doing this. That has gotten harder, not easier, there's no question about it. But I also feel like, wow, we made this movie and it is bigger, broader…I don't like the word "ambitious," but it reaches farther than a lot of what I've done before. And that would be my hope, to continue on that path and to keep trying to be an expansive filmmaker…so…fingers crossed, fingers crossed.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, Jem Cohen, Museum Hours, Drama, Documentary