Try as my cinephile friends might, movies are not my thing. Heart-rending shorts on Vimeo about elderly painters and watching mainstays from my childhood (like Bullitt) for the 1,000,000th time, sure, but I seem never to stomach full-fledged films as they’re released. That said, some are too intimately relevant to ignore and one such film is Museum Hours by Jem Cohen.
Cohen has penned and filmed an ode to we, the ones who feel too much. The minimalist plot revolves around Anne, a woman in Vienna to sit beside the bedside of her ill cousin. She frequents the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she connects with museum-employed Johann. Both actors are not actors, per se; in their otherwise lives Mary Margaret O’Hara is a Canadian musician and Bobby Sommer a driver.
This film promises to collate many Nostos Algos tropes with more visual acuity than capable here. As with most of my interests, there is music. Cohen’s other work includes a film about Fugazi, a punk band from Washington D.C., and in the trailer you’re about to watch Johann footnotes a prior life of music. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle which ran today, Jem notes his care to keep the film experiential, ensuring the audience as neighborly voyeurs, and perfectly encapsulates the human condition with the following quote: “On a subconscious level, when people are dealing with difficulty and mortality, I think that there’s an instinctive understanding that that’s when art kicks in.” Likewise, this is the moment music finds its force.
Cohen goes onto entreat museums to “respect the magic of the space” they provide for visitors–magic that is redolent in institutions with residential overtones such as the Kunsthistorisches, or the Frick in New York. To feel as though you’ve been asked to make yourself comfortable in the grand parlor of someone’s palatial home for the purpose of understanding art is so much more fulfilling than being consumed by the white-washed negative space of so many modernist museums. This is not to say one is better than the other: they both serve different purposes. However, someplace like the Kunsthistorisches provides the perfect tonic to a weathered heart, and is a superb setting in which to explore the entropy that is our time on earth: the inevitability of loss and acquisition, and the in-between where they war.