Ebertfest Q&A: Jem Cohen on 'Museum Hours'

Ebertfest Q&A: Jem Cohen on 'Museum Hours'

Director Jem Cohen's "Museum Hours" will resume Ebertfest at 1 p.m. Thursday. Cohen is based in New York:

Do you also paint or draw? Did you study art before you starting making films?

I did study studio art at Wesleyan University in Connecticut before I started making films, but I just wasn't quite good enough at painting and drawing. I suspected all along that photography and film were going to be my primary focus. I got a lot of inspiration from studying art history in college. I still do, and looking at visual art remains as important to me as any other influence on my filmmaking. I still draw on occasion. I think it's a good thing for humans to do. It's an absolutely primal way of connecting with the world and should never be discounted.

How did you become a filmmaker?

I became a filmmaker by making films. My college had very little in the way of production classes, but I knew a husband-and-wife team who made industrial training films (about fire fighting and childbirth!) and I left school for a semester to work for them as a shipping clerk so I could use their equipment on my off hours.

They taught me a lot about self-sufficiency, as did the example of the punk rock scene in Washington, D.C., which erupted when I was in high school. My best friends, all untrained, picked up instruments and taught themselves how to make music, and then how to distribute it and how to tour — in other words, they figured out how to make their work entirely outside of a music industry that wanted nothing to do with them.

I never went to film school. When I got out of college, I started shooting Super 8 and making short films, and I eventually I got my own 16mm cameras as well. I just made one film after another, in a very stripped-down way. I got work in the film business for a while, but just as a way of paying the bills. It had little or nothing to do with the kinds of films I wanted to make. Mostly, I became a filmmaker by trying to look and listen carefully, by immersing myself in non-commercial forms of art, and by simply making film after film.

Why did you choose to make "Museum Hours" in Vienna rather than in another city?

I had a good relationship with Vienna because of their wonderful film festival, the Viennale, which screened a lot of my work and eventually commissioned me to make a show of films plus live music ("Empires of Tin").

Every time I went to Vienna to show work I also went to the museums, especially the Kunsthistorisches, where the Bruegel room was especially fascinating to me. I began to realize that his 16th century paintings connected to my own work in documentary film and photography — both in terms of their careful observation of street life and in their curious refusal to tell the viewer exactly where to look or even what the real subject was.

The paintings were open-ended, and in a way, very modern. I found this inspiring, and began to concoct a feature film that would let me explore how artworks, even very old ones, could be entirely relevant to how we live now.

I love your choices for the leading characters. Why did you choose mature rather than young actors?

Why should any filmmaker feel obligated to only pick young actors, as if the world was only made of and for kids? And my primary lead wasn't an actor at all. He'd had many odd jobs and a wide range of interests that come with experience. I wanted an entirely believable museum guard; the last thing I was after was using a well-known actor where viewers would unavoidably be thinking about their other roles and their level of celebrity.

My other lead, Mary Margaret O'Hara, has done some acting but is mostly known as a musician — a truly amazing singer. She was totally interesting to me when I saw her perform over 20 years ago, and she'll be fascinating 20 years from now. The focus on youth in films and popular culture is largely a reflection of financing — the industry obsession with hot young stars has much to do with targeting demographics with "disposable incomes." But it's also built on fear, on not wanting to get old or to face up to life as it will really have to be lived.

I think movies should be made about, and for, everything and everybody. Young people, particularly those who might know my work with underground musicians like Fugazi or Godspeed You Black Emperor! have responded to the film, but so have older folks who've gotten tired of dumbed down-teen movies.

Did you ever meet Roger Ebert?

I never met him. It was obvious that he loved movies deeply and while he had to watch an overwhelming number of them — including many I wouldn't necessarily care to see — he did so with great personal passion, and he certainly championed a lot of smaller, "humanistic" films.

So, I give him credit for all that — but it wasn't until I read some of his later observations that I realized what a thoughtful, gutsy man he proved to be. For one thing, in this country, at this time, it is utterly rare for a public person to speak honestly about not subscribing to organized religion. He did so without rancor but also without apology and I found that extraordinary.

It became increasingly clear to me that he wasn't just a film guy, he was a force in his community, a presence, someone who used their position to be publicly thoughtful in ways that aren't always encouraged or accepted. So, those qualities made me proud to be part of the festival, to have my work connected to that spirit, which it seems people are trying to carry forwards even with him gone.

"Museum Hours" is hardly traditional and by some standards it's very hard to pin down, but it's also my most accessible film. I love bringing it to the widest audience possible and I hope they ask challenging questions.

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