Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jem Cohen's well-praised MUSEUM HOURS opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle theaters

TrustMovies missed the New York City debut of MUSEUM HOURS, the new film by that highly independent, American-by-way-of-Afghanistan filmmaker Jem Cohen, so he is happy to have caught up with it in time for its Los Angeles premiere. The only other film he had seen by Mr. Cohen -- yes, he's a man, even if his first name, Jem, may throw you a bit -- is Benjamin Smoke, a very odd combination of the ramblings of an AIDS-infected fellow who has some very fine music to share. Still Cohen, shown below, has made some 45 films, even if a majority of these are shorts, so he appears to be a name to reckon with. Museum Hours should add greatly to that reckoning.

Basically, the film tells two stories that, for a time, become one. They are those of a museum guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer, below) -- at the (from the looks of it here) quite impressive Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, where the selection of paintings by Bruegel, among others, is wondrous -- and a middle-aged Canadian woman, Anne, visiting her ill cousin in Austria whom she has not seen in decades.

When she arrives, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara, below) finds that her cousin has lapsed into a coma. With little money and a lot of time on her hands, Anne goes to the museum where she meets Johann on his job, a conversation ensues, and an odd, quiet friendship begins.

I don't recall thinking this so much about Benjamin Smoke, but with Museum Hours, the quality that most shines through is discretion, a refusal by the director and indeed of his two main characters to barge into anything. They keep their distance (though they are courteous, even direct when necessary) and so does the director, with his camera -- gliding some times, stationery at others -- that takes its sweet time even pulling in for a close-up on these two.

Even when the movie's single "event" takes place, this discretion finds an outlet that is all the more moving for not being in our face. Even so, we do learn quite a bit about these two, most of it discursive, though it still adds up to "character," as we've come to understand the word.

In the film's most "actionful" scene, a tour guide, beautifully played by Ela Piplits, at right, challenges her group of art tourists to find the real subject in various Bruegel paintings. They do, with her help -- all except for one fellow (an American Republican, one suspects), who keeps insisting that a painting's title is its real subject, despite the several excellent hints from the guide of other possibilities the painter may have had in mind. This scene bursts with intelligence and real art appreciation, the kind that informs and makes us aware of the part that history and era -- the painter's and our own -- play in that appreciation. This scene could be taken out intact and played on YouTube as an object lesson on the work of Bruegel.

Just to be clear, Museum Hours is very slow-paced. You'll need to come equipped with your own set of standards and an appreciation of art, museums and personal histories to fully engage with the film. Yet the rewards are just as great.

From a charming fantasy switch from nudes-in-art to nude onlookers to Cohen's ability to capture peasant faces in life, just as Bruegel did in art, the movie quietly "rocks." Then, near the finale, the filmmaker lets us look at life in the way we look at art -- not in the ham-fisted manner of a Warhol but of someone who appreciates both and can distinguish them from each other -- but who can also turn the one into the other.

Museum Hours, from The Cinema Guild and running a lengthy 108 minutes, opens this coming Friday, August 16, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.
To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here.

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