If the best films are those that make us think about how to live in the world, then Jem Cohen‘s Museum Hours is one of the year’s best films. A guard in Vienna’s Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches) helps a distressed visitor from Canada. And what follows is one of the most sublime depictions of how a friendship is formed. Together, they discover new things about art, about the city of Vienna, about themselves. The film is quietly ambitious, discussing big themes, but in a casual whisper.
Video Jem Cohen’s Ground-Level Artistry
The two leads are played by musicians, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, whose museum guard character was a band roadie many years ago. These music scene references harken back to Jem Cohen’s early days documenting acts like R.E.M., Elliot Smith, and especially the hardcore punk band Fugazi, subject of one of his first features, Instrument. Instrument was made over several years, and it shows an intense affinity between Cohen and his subjects. Both the band and the film brandish a do-it-yourself ethos where artistry amounts to something greater than making money or cultivating a career. Instead it’s about maintaining a purposeful, genuine relationship between the artist, their work and their audience.
The film itself doesn’t fit the typical rockumentary conventions. It doesn’t so much tell a story as immerse you in Fugazi’s world. We get plenty of glimpses into what made the band so iconoclastic. They turned their backs on corporate concert tours, instead playing in prisons and school gyms. They turned their backs on MTV, preferring to be interviewed by an eighth grader on local public access TV. And they’d call out their own audience if they used the music as an excuse to act inhumanely.
Fugazi’s values transcend their time and speak to ours. And they also speak to what’s at stake in a film like Museum Hours. As culture is increasingly transactional, as art is increasingly commodified, as audiences are treated more like consumers than as a community, here we find two people, middle-aged, unglamorous, the kind of people we never see front-and-center on screen. These are two ordinary people living life at ground level, on their own terms. It’s through that combination of modesty and dignity that both they and the movie find their riches.