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Wandering in Vienna: Jem Cohen and the Adventure of Museum Hours (Austria/USA)—Contemporary World Cinema
By Robert Koehler
“Kunsthistorisches. It’s the big old one.” This is how Vienna’s massive, venerable, lovely and, indeed, elderly central art museum is termed in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, and it neatly sums up the film’s warm, casual attitude toward weighty cultural institutions while serving as a way of reframing formerly perceived paragons of elitism in a more democratic manner. It also indicates the way that Cohen, an American outsider, and his two main characters—Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian woman in town to hold vigil with her cousin Janet, who’s in a coma, and museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), who initially helps Anne with her tourist map to find her way around Vienna—playfully use the lingo of tourism as both a lingua franca and a way of breaking down any cultural barriers. Cohen’s blistering in-between film, Chain (2004), took on the alienation factor in both international travel and massive commercial developments like mega-malls as they affected a pair of characters, one being a female Japanese businesswoman visiting the US. Museum Hours, which is infinitely more optimistic, also explores the zone of the commons and how it affects two people, but in this case, both the public museum and the Viennese streets foster the film’s central human subject: a genuine friendship, one of the rarest subjects in the movies.
The powerful material, though, that brings Anne and Johann together, is the extraordinary collection in the Kunsthistorisches, whose name combines two of the great intellectual projects, art and history. Realizing that her stay with Janet—caught in a limbo between life and death—is going to go on longer than she thought, Anne settles into Vienna and gets a museum pass from Johann, who finds in Anne a person he can actually converse with about the great Brueghels, Rembrandts, Rubens, Archimboldos, and other works, rather than just another of the many visitors he wryly observes from his removed position as a guard. Her engagement draws him out of an alienated position, one he admits enjoying, into interaction with a member of the commons. Their congenial, never contrived interaction allows Cohen himself to shift from the perspective of the distanced gaze he’s so thoroughly mastered over the course of two decades—in such diverse films, sometimes straddling fiction and non-fiction, as Lost Book Found (1996), Amber City (1999), Benjamin Smoke (2000), Instrument (2003), and Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008)—and to a far more intimate involvement with his characters, including long passages of written dialogue and multiple storylines that have previously played no real part in his cinema.
Cohen explains in the following conversation that he and his crew would joke that since so many Austrian filmmakers make movies about how rotten people can be, then why not make one about basically good people? Thus, the magic strength of the outsider, able to look at “the big old one” with a new set of eyes (including the crowds of daily visitors who roam the halls and stand in front of masterpieces, including plenty of bratty teenagers) and intent on finding the elements that can connect strangers at a time when themes of separation can often feel like an automatic, stop-gap position adopted by many smart filmmakers. And this outsider’s eye rejects the usual view of the loneliness of the Vienna city streets, roving and wandering down its blocks and passageways, discovering along the way all sorts of oddities and chance encounters outside and inside bars and restaurants. The way life is lived, away from the cinema.
CINEMA SCOPE: What were the ideas that fed into the making of Museum Hours?
JEM COHEN: It was really a culmination of thinking about several things for years. There were many threads that came together. One is addressing what a documentary is. I was addressing it with Brueghel as a passageway. He’s an artist I had always admired, though he’s never been an obsession of mine. He’s able to accurately depict the peasant life of his days, which was unusual and actually radical. He also has a completely original approach to landscape. I had seen Brueghel’s paintings one at a time, but the Kunsthistorisches Museum has the finest room of his work in the world, and there you have a gathering of his trajectory. Perhaps the most amazing thing that affected me standing there in the room was not knowing where the centre was in each of the paintings. That’s what I connected to most, because when I’m shooting on the street, the background and foreground tend to merge, and the viewer’s eye wanders because it’s not directed to a central point. Particular details, sometimes on the periphery of the paintings, got to me as I visited the room several times. In all my films, it’s often the marginal subjects that can compel interest. When I made Amber City, I also wanted to touch upon the idea of cities and museums, but it was something about this museum in Vienna—it’s otherworldly in its lighting and extremely beautiful. It really has to do with my emotional and artistic ties to the street photography tradition. I’m interested in these kinds of matters rather than the advocacy issues that dominate at least most of American documentary filmmaking.
SCOPE: Still, the title suggests that it will be a film about art, or about the art world. That ends up being a misnomer.
COHEN: There’s a danger that people may assume that it will be an art historical or theoretical film, and that’s exactly what I was steering away from. I wanted to explore how the works on the walls of the museum are important to people now, not how they’ve read about it. It’s a bit like John Berger, who can be both erudite and write about art in a down-to-earth way, how painting relates to life. It troubles me from a distance that people might think about it as elitist work about an elitist institution. In fact, the museum is not elite, and the film is about how people take what’s theirs, what matters to them.
SCOPE: The film feels like both a continuation of your past work, and also something like a departure, especially with the several scenes involving characters in plentiful dialogue.
COHEN: I’ve found myself on a path from my first film, and this film is a much broader statement on that path, but it’s a big leap for me, no question. To work with so much dialogue isn’t what people think about when they consider my work. But I wanted to tackle some philosophical and other ideas and have them brought down to earth by the commonplace and joking interactions of characters. It’s a way of addressing bigger issues but unpretentiously.
SCOPE: One thing that many viewers will come away with after watching Museum Hours is wondering about your actors Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, and how you got them.
COHEN: Mary is very good in Robert Frank’s Candy Mountain (1988), and she’s been in other films, but her other roles were basically light. She’s always been interested in being a character on screen, but I didn’t think anyone did her justice. I had seen Mary perform as a singer over 25 years ago, and her presence is astonishing. I thought it would be wonderful to have her in a movie. Bobby has worked in guest relations for the Viennale, and like Mary has had a long career in various parts of the music world from being a roadie, to having his own group in Vienna, Bobby Sommer & Onkel Lou. I thought it would be interesting to blend their attitudes and behaviours, with scenes that are sometimes scripted, sometimes not at all, sometimes with tight dialogue, sometimes not. I’m not very experienced working with actors, partly because I’ve mostly concentrated on actuality/documentary as a starting point and partly because I do have a resistance to acting as it’s often formulated in the movies. In a sense, this was a clinic, and the movie is indeed a pretty weird combination of approaches. Much is carefully written, down to each dotted “i,” but a lot is entirely improvised. I like it that some of the dialogue feels half off the rails and quite imperfect—that’s the way people actually talk.
SCOPE: Another surprise for followers of your films is the running drama involving why Mary comes to Vienna in the first place, to be with her cousin while she’s in a coma. Were you concerned that this might take Museum Hours in a melodramatic direction?
COHEN: Well, it was important to have a real and human interest to compel Mary to come to Vienna and stay there for a while, to kind of settle while remaining an outsider looking in. She feels that it’s her responsibility to deal with her cousin, her coma, and possibly her decline. I wanted to set this up very carefully. I didn’t want this story strand to take things over, so that it might become a deathbed movie, nor did I want there to be a predictable romance between Mary and Bobby.
SCOPE: No, because what develops between them is something not seen too often in movies, which is how a friendship develops over time between two strangers.
COHEN: Right, because the audience has been conditioned to automatically think this will be a love story. This is a long-held notion, and it may come from something as basic as audiences going to the cinema to experience something different from their lives, to experience something that they’re lacking. But the cinema I care most about is about the drive toward the everyday, how we actually do live, how we feel, about things that actually happen. People love the fairy tale, but that’s not what happens here. It’s weird that there aren’t more movies about friendship. The king of this is Cassavetes, whose movies are all about friendships in all their light and dark shades, and also give you the sense of not knowing where the centre is, or where things are going to go, where circumstances are going to take you. One thing we joked about during filming is how all these Austrian movies are so often about how awful humans are. Why not make a film about good people?
SCOPE: For all the apparent departures in Museum Hours, you also maintained your usual working methods, like filming a lot on your own before production proper even began. How did this inform the final shooting?
COHEN: I shot around town with my windup Bolex weeks before we really got going, to get a real feel for the city. Some of the earliest pre-production shooting with the Bolex were really just tests and sketches, but then I found I couldn’t let them go. In fact, they became crucial, so I re-wrote the script to incorporate them. Some things fall into your path as real-world gifts and you just want to accept them. I learned from the start of my filmmaking life that I can wait for eight hours and get a couple of shots that matter, and that that’s all I need that day, since I’m not burdened with the massive production apparatus that weighs down a lot of other filmmakers. Part of my modus operandi is to make strengths out of the limitations of not having money and people. And I also wanted the film to have that sense of an outsider who’s wandering through the city, so I took that perspective on myself, and wandered the city as an outsider. I also did this in Chain, and also by having the camera adopt the point of view of the character. The environments should be at the centre, not less or more important than other things. Cinema tends to discourage wandering. There are these tremendous pressures, with money and time, which really discourage wandering. You run a lot of risks if you put people in a bar, for example, so if you don’t lock down the location, you may risk losing your scene. But you also may lose the element of surprise. We really embraced that. We had almost no location agreements in Vienna. We often just went into a place and started shooting, and then we asked for permission. We shot just one day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum when it wasn’t open to public; otherwise, we filmed during public hours—with permission of course. We just shot what we captured, but didn’t shoot a huge amount of footage.
SCOPE: Would you say that this is a film whose great subject is that the importance of the commons?
COHEN: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that. My early short, Lost Book Found, turned out to be a homage to Walter Benjamin, even though I didn’t know about him until I completed the film. I understood him from the street level. So, sure, that perspective is really valid, especially when you think about the nature of the streets where my main interest lies. The street should be a free space, belonging to everyone, where anything can happen, where everything isn’t controlled. This is a much stronger sensation in a city like Marseilles, or one of my favourites, Naples. Hopefully, I’m headed to Naples for my next film.
SCOPE: Do you view Museum Hours as being a part of this larger phenomenon that many filmmakers have been vigorously exploring, the in-between film?
COHEN: Yes, absolutely. I think of the great ones as including Franju’s Le sang des bêtes, which starts as a tour of Paris outskirts, and then suddenly you’re in hell. Jean Vigo always made in-between films. If there’s a director who’s always in my back pocket, it’s Vigo. It’s not so much Zero de Conduite (1933), it’s also L’Atalante (1934). It defies where a movie romance should go, and a great deal of it is about friendship. Luce Vigo came to see Museum Hours twice in Locarno. She saw it as a political film, which I was glad to hear. But like you were saying that it’s about the commons, I hope that the film can be read in many ways. It can be daunting to watch, but I needed to make the movie I made. Chain is a harder movie, the environments in that film are like bludgeons, but the discomfort here may be, not shapelessness, but that things unfold in various directions at once.
SCOPE: You’ve been seen as a guy closely attached to 16mm, but you’ve also embraced digital cinematography. What was your thinking in terms of shooting exteriors on 16mm and interiors on two types of digital cameras? Were these choices a combination of practical and aesthetic considerations, or more one than the other?
COHEN: Film is where I come from—both 16mm and Super 8—and I’ll shoot them until they’re gone, but I’m a “by hook or by crook” filmmaker, and for Museum Hours digital was a necessary part of the strategy. We investigated and tested shooting 16mm in the museum, but the light levels are so low we would have had to shoot wide open at all times, a nightmare for focus. I told the museum from the start that I wouldn’t bring in any lights. Also, since a good bit of the dialogue was improvised, digital allowed multiple takes without as much concern about money. The Red One is a big and complicated beast and in no way viable for the kind of solo wandering with a camera that I needed to do in the city—it would just attract too much attention, and it takes a while to warm up when it’s turned on, which is terrible for grabbing stuff off the cuff. So, oddly enough, a little 16mm windup Bolex that doesn’t need batteries and runs great in the cold was actually more practical. Film will probably always be closer to my heart, but I believe in flexibility and economy too. So it’s no longer really a film vs. video question for me, and I don’t regret mixing them. That said, I could go on for some time about the magnitude of the loss that’s taking place as film disappears. I feel it most acutely when I’m shooting grainier stocks or black and white, where the organic quality of the film is inextricable from the image. I just wish it wasn’t economics and corporate interests making the “time to end film” decisions. In a better world the powers that be would let film and digital coexist and augment each other; film would simply be too respected for its contributions to the fabric of creative endeavour to be allowed to go under. Of course, we don’t live in that better world…
SCOPE: What’s your approach as an editor? Due to circumstances, you became your own editor for a large portion of the editing phase. How did you go about this?
COHEN: I’ve usually cut my own films in the past, but on this I worked in tandem with Marc Vives for a while—he cut Putty Hill (2010), which I really liked and with which I share a lot of approaches, so I figured he’d understand my odd ways of incorporating material from my “undirected” footage archive. He did a great job on some scenes, but then we just didn’t have the dough to keep him on, and since I have my own editing system set up in the middle of my apartment, I just kept going on my own. And I have to say I had a great time with it. My approach is really a kind of collage that comes together in the edit rather than ever existing as a finished script or template. In the case of Museum Hours, the editing was really, really intuitive. I did a lot of refining over a long stretch, but very little re-cutting. I think the movie was quietly gestating for a long, long time, and eventually I had to trust it on a level that wasn’t exactly explicable.
Amour (Michael Haneke, France/Austria)—Masters
By Christoph Huber
Besting Bille August by a year, it has taken Austrian director Michael Haneke only four to join what we cynical film critics like to call the Emir club: the allegedly prestigious circle of two-time Palme d’Or winners, hitherto occupied only by Kusturica (1985, 1995), August (1988, 1992), and the Dardennes (1999, 2005). Counting shared Palmes as well, this group expands to include Francis Ford Coppola (1974, 1979) and Imamura Shohei (1983, 1997) plus the special case of Alf Sjöberg, whose two triumphs (both shared: 1946, 1951) predate the cultivation of the Golden Palm. If Haneke’s second Cannes win after The White Ribbon (2009) seemed as inevitable and preordained as most developments in his rigorous chamber play Amour, this can only partly be explained by the mainstream-to-highbrow hosannas greeting the director’s allegedly new and unexpected (although actually rather dubious) “tenderness” in this universal story of Love and Death after years of political parables and scholarly shocks, declaring the Palme d’Amour a fait accompli mid-festival. Given that in the previous three years it was either the designated (and also mainly critically beloved) Genius Art outlier in competition—Apichatpong, Malick—or Haneke that won, it rather seems indicative of what Cannes has become over the years.
In the last two decades, the festival circuit spearheaded by Cannes has become its own market, especially for riskier, unconventional fare, while art houses, certainly in Europe, have become a more cultivated form of the multiplex for the increasingly elderly and “discerning” audiences, dominated by a certain type of interchangeable funding-friendly Euro-projects (with special saturation by French productions), ostensibly still arty by definition, no matter how shamelessly audience-baiting. The most auspicious Cannes contribution to this trend is the current triumvirate of big art-house names, guaranteeing supposedly sophisticated marquee value: Pedro Almodóvar, parfumeur extraordinaire (and probably his own best customer); Lars von Trier, provocateur célèbre (and scandalized despite his work being curiously unpolitical at its core); and, certainly by now, Michael Haneke, an agitator of a more academic and bourgeois kind: in fact his work is the perfect expression of Art as prescribed by traditional Bildungsbürgertum (“educated middle-class”). The Dardennes should be on that marquee since their second Palme, but their fusion of handheld “realism” and harnessed spirituality has been more influential for other filmmakers than successful at art-house box offices: a different kind of Bressonian cinema than Haneke’s strict disquisitions, it never clicked with the public beyond festivals, even as the Dardennes seem to be striving to get there. With Kusturica thankfully having evaporated as an audience draw, Cannes could be blamed additionally for the continued presence of Woody Allen and the late output of Nanni Moretti, bent on justifying the earlier Allen comparisons hurled at him, and not coincidentally presiding over a Cannes jury whose decisions seemed like a validation of the Cannes-approved art-house mainstream movement, with Amour its designated crown jewel.
And yet, from an Austrian perspective there is something quite touching about Haneke’s international renown having been achieved by refining a culture outmoded for quite some time in the mainstream—just as it is hard to resist the irony of the Austrian mainstream now fêting a filmmaker as “our” two-time Cannes winner thanks to minority co-productions, one mostly German (The White Ribbon’s subtitle: eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) and one mostly French, with Amour (Austrian contribution: 10%) the latest in a long string of French(-language) Haneke films; the director smartly used his festival cachet in the late ’90s to go where his kind of cinema would find a financially and discursively more welcoming culture.
Emerging from a mildly progressive continuation of bourgeois artisanal tradition with educational aspirations—the German and Austrian teleplay of the ’70s and ’80s as heir to novels and theatre—Haneke has become its ambitious beneficiary, stubbornly clinging to the idea of Bildungsauftrag (“educational mandate”) that today’s state-sponsored TV still invokes repeatedly for justification, even as it mostly marginalizes serious work to a degree that its symbolic function feels almost parodic. Haneke’s best work springs directly from that small-screen habitat, most notably his masterpiece, the Joseph Roth adaptation Die Rebellion (1994), a highlight of flying-donkey cinema and a vastly more imaginative and complex historical examination of early 20th century history and society than The White Ribbon (whose origins tellingly go back to Haneke’s TV times). However, his cinematic work has become less meaningful as it has become more magisterial: the first films of both his Austrian phase (The Seventh Continent, 1987) and his French period (Code inconnu, 1998) contain promises never fulfilled, as Haneke veered towards closed-off perfection, imparting very little with a very high level of formal achievement. Which is why his customary stabs at metaphysical openness have come to feel annoyingly threadbare, since the whole project is geared precisely towards one point: regardless of who conspired, Caché (2006) just mobilizes bourgeois guilt and The White Ribbon remains a schematic indictment of feudal repression as proto-fascism.
Similarly, Amour lays its cards on the table in two fine opening scenes: firemen breaking into a sealed-off apartment and discovering the decomposing body of an old woman, surrounded by flowers, on her bed, and an extended audience-mirroring long shot of the attendees of a concert taking their seats—then leaves you to watch a meticulous machine grind as expected from the title and the press book’s sole five sentences of synopsis: “Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.” (The rest of the press kit meticulously lists every award or nomination for all Haneke films.) Of course, there is something inherently touching about the sight of frail star bodies, as Jean-Louis Trintignant’s increasingly haunted Georges tries to deal with the unstoppable mental and physical deterioration of his paralyzed, doomed Anne, represented with amazing body control by Emmanuelle Riva, while we wait for him to reach the inevitable point when he considers ending her life as the ultimate labour of love. Still, Haneke feels obliged to drive the point(s) home, with even carefully applied nuances as lifelessly predetermined as the details in Darius Khondji’s mercilessly digital all-in-focus shots, conjuring up a bourgeois retreat of Schubert appreciation and quality hardwood floors, shaken by the force of destiny. There’s also quite a bit of overdetermination to deal with, much of it shouldered gallantly by Haneke workhorse Isabelle Huppert as their dutiful, but invariably alienated, daughter. And even the film’s most surprising turn—a pigeon slooowly stalked by Georges as he tries to catch it—is imbued with a symbolic weight that tries do outdo the doves of John Woo’s operatic redemption sagas. In the end, what distinguishes this carefully calculated Haneke ordeal from its previous incarnations is mostly the personal aspect: everyone is reminded of a death in his or her family.
I also flashed back occasionally to my increasingly demented grandmother’s demise two years ago, only to come up with the final image of Ulrich Seidl’s Import Export (2007) instead: an absurd aria of transience, and a reminder that Austria’s other foremost festival brand, opposite (in many ways) to Haneke, contains an essential element of Volkskunst. Considering 2012 as Cannes’ year of love, Seidl’s Paradise: Love adhered to this principle of popular art by treating the titular subject with subversive glee as an inherently contradictory illusion, whereas Miike Takashi’s relegated-to-out-of-competition highlight For Love’s Sake found a no less ambivalent, but jubilatory expression as pop art, befitting its adolescent protagonists. Haneke, meanwhile, adhered demonstratively to the world of his polite, bourgeois couple, tactful even in the “provocations,” making Amour the ultimate in art-house art: a film that comfortably ushers its dwindling target audience towards its eventual demise. What else should have won?