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Searching for Freedom at Ebertfest, Vienna and the Internet: Jem Cohen and "Museum Hours"

Museum Hours Q&A

What happens when you take one of the most intimate and sensitive films about art and friendship and project it to a full house in a gigantic, 1500 seat theater? The Virginia Theatre screening of Jem Cohen’s acclaimed "Museum Hours" was as strangely beguiling as it was singular to the Ebertfest experience. Cohen’s film, which observes two strangers who become friends through encounters at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, is one of extraordinarily quiet observation and attentiveness to life’s overlooked details.

"Museum Hours" seems particularly well-suited to Ebertfest because it mirrors one’s experience of the festival. Over a few days, strangers meet and get to know each other by watching the same works of art. Through leisurely conversations between screenings, lives and minds are mutually revealed and exchanged. While conducting the post-screening Q&A, Ebertfest director Nate Kohn and I determined that this film essentially is the Ebertfest experience in Vienna.

Perhaps it’s fitting then that Cohen’s inspiration for the film materialized at a film festival. It was as a guest of the Viennale Film Festival that Cohen encountered the paintings of Breughel at the Kunsthistoriches and “felt a strange sense of familiarity” between these 16th century paintings and his own documentary films. “They didn’t tell you where to look. You’re given a certain freedom to roam and decide what is worth it to you.” It also speaks to Cohen’s own “lifetime of wandering around,” and finding treasures in unexpected places. Bobby Sommer, who stars in the film as the modest museum guard, was working as a Viennale when Cohen met him. He and co-star Margaret Mary O’Hara improvised a good deal of their dialogue, leading to unexpected payoffs, like when they humbly share their admiration of Judas Priest and AC/DC.

To have those beautifully subdued moments writ large on a three story screen not only amplified but intensified their wonders. Cohen was startled by how responsive the audience was to the film’s nuances, laughing at small humorous details that passed by silently at other screenings. I had noticed a similar phenomenon last year when Patrick Wang’s equally gentle masterpiece "In the Family" screened here. There’s something special about seeing a movie with 1500 people who have all watched the same films over several days. People get on the same viewing wavelength, and that wavelength encourages more attentive viewing, intensifying one’s desire to notice things and respond to them. It works especially well with quiet movies. And there are precious few venues in the world where a quiet film can pack as much of a crowd as a summer blockbuster on opening day. Experiencing Ebertfest, one wonders why there aren’t more festivals like it.

Cohen remarked that these kinds of experiences are not to be taken for granted. He closed the Q&A with a strong commentary against the new proposal by the FCC that would give faster internet access to those companies who could pay more for it. “The little art film will be slower to load and easier for people to give up on because they’ll just watch the big movie from the big company that loads more quickly.”  Supporting a local film festival or a national policy that preserves net neutrality and equal internet access aren’t just ways to watch neglected great movies, but a way to take part in protecting a way of life and its values. “If you value unusual experiences, then you have to support the things that make them possible,” Cohen concluded. “Gather them like they’re a bit of fire you’re protecting with your hands.”

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