Over the past 30 years, filmmaker Jem Cohen has become known for a number of subjects and specialties, including collaborations with musicians (R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt, Patti Smith), museum installations (“Buried in Light”), experimental critiques of contemporary life (“Chain”) and short films shot on location throughout the world, often focusing on people and material culture that society otherwise deems disposable (his shot of a floating plastic bag in the 1996 urban portrait “Lost Book Found” became the iconic visual motif of 1999’s “ American Beauty ”).
All of these elements come into play in Cohen’s newest movie, “Museum Hours,” a travelogue through Vienna, Austria, that stars two musicians and engages the ideas and cinematic issues that have consumed Cohen in all of his films. But “Museum Hours” marks a departure, as well, hewing to a relatively conventional narrative (at least compared with Cohen’s mostly experimental work) and featuring characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a mainstream Hollywood screenplay. The result is that “Museum Hours” — which makes its Washington premiere at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday — qualifies as not just the most ambitious of Cohen’s career, but the most warm and inviting, as well.
“On one hand, I think it will surprise a lot of people to see a movie that in some ways feels like a ‘normal’ movie, with characters and dialogue and [a story that] kind of rolls along,” Cohen said recently from his home in Brooklyn. “On the other hand, it continues this path of trying to make movies where ideas and environment are really just as important as any of the more traditional things that people expect in a movie. So I feel good about that. I think it’s very unpretentious, even though it’s about heady thoughts.”
“Museum Hours” stars Canadian singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara as Anne, who travels to Vienna when a dear friend is taken ill. At loose ends in an unfamiliar city, she fetches up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she befriends a guard named Johann (former roadie and concert promoter Bobby Sommer). Together, they explore the great masters of the museum’s collection, venturing outside its confines to find the paintings’ real-life echoes in the teeming, tragic, often poetically beautiful world outside.
But “Museum Hours” is also about friendship, a budding camaraderie that O’Hara and Sommers infuse with off-handed humor and spontaneous rapport. Cohen’s work has been called a lot of things over the years — “fiercely intelligent,” “hypnotic,” “impressionistic” — but “funny” might be a first. Because “Museum Hours” deals with deep issues of death and loss, Cohen said, he wanted a certain degree of lightness, “because that’s the only thing that humans have that allows us to deal with some of the more difficult territory.
“I think of myself, really, as an American filmmaker,” he continued. “I’m not trying to make European art films, even though I love them. I’m not Tarkovsky, I’m not trying to make a Bela Tarr film. I believe that what I have to offer is [something] more down to earth, while still insisting that there’s a place for genuinely independent American films that are not trying to be commercial. I think there’s a big difference between making a film that’s intentionally accessible and a film that’s intentionally commercial. I’m trying to do the one and not the other.”
Cohen, 50, grew up in Washington, where he’s best known for his work with the seminal local punk band Fugazi: His 2003 film “Instrument” was an experimental documentary about the group, and Fugazi founding member Guy Picciotto executive produced “Museum Hours” as well as “Chain” (2004). Being part of the nascent DIY movement in Washington was far more formative than early years spent working in New York as a prop assistant for the likes of Martin Scorsese and John Sayles, according to Cohen.
“D.C., for me, is eternally punk-rock high school,” Cohen said. “That, in a way, was my film school. . . . Having those partners in crime in the music world showed me a path of how to do the same thing with my own films. Now, everybody talks about these new paradigms taking over the film world, with Kickstarter campaigns and the rest of it. In a way, we were always doing that. It was a lesson my friends learned right off the bat: that L.A. and New York didn’t care about them, and if they wanted to do it, they had to do it themselves.”
Observing that it’s still not easy, three decades in, to make the adamantly independent films he wants to make, Cohen still evinces admiration for his former partners in crime, noting, “Some of those people grew up, and they’re still finding ways to make a go of it. Who knew?”