Jem Cohen talks art, photography, and 'Museum Hours'
JC One of the things that I most hoped to do in the film was to have people unsure of what is documentary material and what is not, and unsure of who is acting and who is not, and unsure of whether the movie is a city portait or a narrative about these strangers who meet. Or whether it's really about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or about museums as a possible crossroads.
That slippery quality is one of the most valuable things to me about this film, as well as [my film] Chain (2004), which also involved non-actors and actors, and having it be essentially an open question.
SFBG Museum Hours has quite a different tone than Chain. It's a lot friendlier, for lack of a better word.
JC Chain is, in some regards, a horror film about a kind of depersonalization and homogenization of the world that's insidious and, in its way, quite brutal. Museum Hours is a film that has, at its core, a belief in art as something that goes from past to future, and actually continues as a viable human communication. It's also about friendship and the kindness of strangers.
I don't see those two projects as antithetical; they're just different facets of the same world. I don't feel, as a filmmaker or as a person, that everything goes either light or dark. But I'm glad that I don't always have to make movies that are angry, because Chain is an angry film. It had to be.
SFBG How did you cast your lead actors?
JC I had seen Mary Margaret O'Hara as a musician almost 25 years ago. I was just so taken by her presence that I had in the back of my mind that someday I would love to work with her on a film.
When I met Bobby, he was working as a driver and a waiter. I used him in one earlier project just to read some German text, and I loved the way he sounded. I also liked the fact that he had a lot of odd life experience that he could bring to the role.
SFBG They're both credited with writing some of the dialogue, too.
JC It's kind of a half-scripted movie. Sometimes, it's actually one of them speaking lines that I had written, with the other one being completely free to respond. Again, I tried to make it unclear what lines are scripted and what lines are not — so that the film feels more like life to me.
I wanted to make a down-to-earth movie. I thought it would be lethal to deal with, basically, art, life, and death, and do it in a pretentious way. People have their range of passions, which can include Rembrandt and AC/DC. That's fine! That's the way I live.
SFBG I'd love to see Museum Hours in a double feature with The Mill and the Cross (2011). What did you think of that film?
JC I didn't see it! I felt like I couldn't see somebody else's Bruegel movie while I was making my own. I will seek it out and watch it now, because I heard it's quite lovely. It's really nice to me that that so many people have responded to Bruegel over the years. I think there's something very "of the people" about him that also intrigues those of us who work in cinema. *
MUSEUM HOURS opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.
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