Jem Cohen Explores Art and Life With a Film That's Like No Other

In Jem Cohen's newest feature film, a guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum patrols the corridors of the famous art institution, and waits. And waits. As the movie opens, we hear the guard narrating his thoughts: "When it's quiet or one tires of looking only at visitors, one can turn an eye to the paintings and you will always see something new, especially with Bruegel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Just the other day I noticed a frying pan sticking up from a figure's hat that I hadn't noticed before, and that led me to thinking about eggs, and to start a search for them in different paintings."

Poignant and slyly funny -- that's the Jem Cohen way. At least with Museum Hours, which is the best drama ever made about museums and the connection between visual art and everyday life. Let me repeat: Museum Hours is the best drama ever made about museums and the connection between visual art and everyday life. Granted, it's a small subset of films that includes All the Vermeers in New York and Rendezvous in Paris, but still. The San Francisco International Film Festival has recognized the film's special qualities. When it screens Museum Hours on Sunday, April 28, at 5:30pm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, it is also presenting Cohen with the festival's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision award, which has been previously given to such directors as Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Robert Frank (Cocksucker Blues), and Adam Curtis (The Century of the Self). Cohen will also give an on-stage interview on Sunday night.

"The goal," Cohen tells me about his films, "is to blow a few people's minds, like to really blow their minds."

By "few," Cohen means his films don't usually reach a mass audience, though the director has certainly known popular success. Scores of people have seen his video work for R.E.M. and other music groups, and one of the most touching scenes in the Oscar-winning American Beauty -- a plastic bag floating in the wind -- was a virtual imitation of a scene from Cohen's earlier work called Lost Book Found.

Museum Hours has two main characters: the Viennese guard named Johann (played by Bobby Sommer), and an eccentric museum-goer from Canada named Anne (played by singer/actress Mary Margaret O'Hara). At the Kunsthistorisches, Anne asks Johann a question, which results in an immediate friendship that takes the two around the museum and then around Vienna. Anne, who has little money, is in Austria to see a hospitalized cousin, and the cousin's precarious medical condition lends more urgency to the way centuries-old art speaks to modern worries about love and death.

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Museum Hours is Cohen's most narrative work to date. Cohen's short documentaries tend to have elliptical structures and abstract and poetic scenes. Museum Hours certainly has Cohen's contemplative touches. Leaves blow in the streets. Birds caw on the branches of trees.

"For people who know my work and sometimes tend to think of me as more of an unorthodox or even an experimental filmmaker -- and 'unorthodox' is OK with me but 'experimental' is never a term I've embraced -- Museum Hours will come as a surprise, but not if they stay with the film," Cohen says in the phone interview from his home in New York. "I wanted to make a movie where ideas and character and environment were really all on the same level, and I think that in itself is inherently an unorthodox proposition. And given that a lot of the ideas in the movie are basically art-historical or philosophical explorations, what I think makes it simultaneously accessible and curious or unorthodox is that the characters talk about these things, but they do it in a very down-to-earth way. And they relate them directly to their observations and their lives."

"I think," Cohen adds, "that people are used to an either-or proposition. Either making the kind of lighter movie about a man and a woman, or a friendship, or you're making a kind of essay film involving philosophy, but they don't usually put those two together. It's all there in this film."

Cohen's films frequently incorporate images of landscapes and streetscapes that he's shot himself over the years. Filming randomly is one of his habits -- and it got him in trouble in January 2005, during an Amtrak train ride from New York to Washington, D.C. From his compartment, Cohen was filming the passing scenes (with a hand-wound Bolex camera) when an Amtrak ticket-taker told him to stop, apparently concerned that Cohen's filming posed a national security concern. Though Cohen stopped using his camera, four police officers interrogated him when the train stopped in Philadelphia and took his film. U.S. security personnel interviewed him in Washington, D.C. He never did get his film back.

"The film was given to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who gave it to the FBI, and I got a lawyer through the New York ACLU who bugged them for months," Cohen says. "Eventually, they said the film had been 'cleared' and would be returned, and they returned an empty box. The whole thing was patently absurd given that the footage I was shooting was actually experimental. I'd love to have seen the screening that they had at the FBI. Because they did take it to a lab and process it and apparently look at it. Why they would think that a terrorist would be shooting 16 millimeter film with a spring-wound Bolex, I cannot say. A lot of the work that I do, including Museum Hours, is contingent on moving through the world with a camera and keeping a low profile and filming things as they come around the corner. I'm often not using the kind of grand, visible apparatus of traditional moviemaking, with its permits and its set schedules and knowing exactly where you're going to be at a given moment to shoot. So the incident was quite disturbing to me because it actually threatened the core of what I do and what anybody does who works in a street photography tradition."

In fact, the incident inspired Cohen to "get involved in New York with fighting the attempts to restrict street photography, which was a serious problem a few years after my incident. And I'm happy to say that we really turned that one around. Now in New York, we have a very reasonable set of regulations. But that's only because we raised a stink. Increasingly, this is something that all filmmakers need to think about because a lot more filmmakers are working with small equipment and the nature of HD technology means that more and more people are going to be needing to function without permits and without paying exorbitant insurance and that kind of thing. But what it really has to do with is freedom of expression and things like the Patriot Act. This is basically a way in which the powers that be restrict behavior in the name of something that they can't really control."

The incident was Cohen's second involving an official government agency. In the weeks after 9/11, Cohen created stickers that featured a photo of Osama bin Laden next one of George Bush, with a headline across their faces that said, "Both Want War. Both Unelected." Cohen hoped his stickering would inspire a bigger campaign. It didn't. But it was deemed important enough that the Library of Congress put a print of Cohen's sticker in its archive.

"I made thousands of stickers," Cohen says. "And I did my best to disseminate them. It was stickers and flyers. I made them in the climate that, at the time, I felt was so oppressive and extreme, when it seemed like speaking your mind was not necessarily an option. This was just a small, essentially ineffective, reaction, but I just felt it was something that I needed to do. I do believe that the work that I do is political, even if it doesn't really seem that way. Even Museum Hours talks about the nature of public experience, and the idea that everyone should be getting access -- it's really also a political film about the idea of the common. And the idea of that kind of open dialogue. It's a celebration of the museum, but it's also in its way a critique of some of the aspects of museums. So I think it's a political film. And a lot of my work is political for those who see it as political, and other people may miss that all together, and that's OK, too. The stickers, the train incident, Museum Hours -- they're all part of the same journey, and it's a journey in which I'm feeling the need to simultaneously celebrate things that I love and critique things that I think are restrictive and dangerous and sometimes downright repressive."

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Museum Hours screens Sunday, April 28, 5:30pm, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, when director Jem Cohen will be presented with the San Francisco International Film Festival's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision award. Cohen will also give an on-stage interview. For tickets and more information visit festival.sffs.org.

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