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Ways of Seeing: A Guide to Jem Cohen's 'Museum Hours'

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 5, 2013 at 4:44PM

Jem Cohen's Museum Hours, which just joined the ranks of Criticwire's highest-ranked 2013 films, gets its first theatrical run outside of New York this weekend, and will be expanding across the country through August and September. While transparency requires I divulge that my own review of the film was more lukewarm than Criticwire's collective take, it's definitely an intriguing film that touches on fascinating issues about the way art shapes our understanding of the world -- not how life imitates art, or vice-versa, but how the two are inextricably bound together.
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Museum Hours

Jem Cohen's Museum Hours, which just joined the ranks of Criticwire's highest-ranked 2013 films, gets its first theatrical run outside of New York this weekend, and will be expanding across the country through August and September. While transparency requires I divulge that my own review of the film was more lukewarm than Criticwire's collective take, it's definitely an intriguing film that touches on fascinating issues about the way art shapes our understanding of the world -- not how life imitates art, or vice-versa, but how the two are inextricably bound together.

Perhaps the best thing about Museum Hours is the way it sharpens your curiosity; even viewers who don’t fall in love with the film will want to chase down some of its many reference points. So with that in mind, Criticwire has put together a guide to some of Museum Hours' key influences. Since the movie is hardly driven by plot, there’s no risk of spoiling it by doing some research in advance, so even those who won’t get a chance to see it for weeks can indulge freely.

Start by boning up on Pieter Bruegel the elder, the Dutch master whose paintings figure heavily in the movie. Artboom has a good collection of high-resolution images -- pay special attention to "The Conversion of St Paul," which can be seen in the background of the Museum Hours still above -- or browse the collection of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum through their iPhone app.

Although the movie's website doesn’t specifically credit the artworks on display, it does reproduce a key text: W.H Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," which is explicitly reference by the film’s on-camera Bruegel lecturer. 

In the closing credits, Cohen singles out three living artists for helping shape his ideas: June Leaf, Anne Truitt, and Patti Smith

Cohen also thanks the critic John Berger, who created a groundbreaking four-part series called Ways of Seeing for the BBC. Although it's never been released on DVD, the entire two-hour series is viewable on YouTube, though quality is predictable dodgy. Berger's opening voiceover could serve as a mission state for Museum Hours itself:

It isn’t so much the paintings themselves which I want to consider as the way we now see them. Now, in the second half of the 20th century. Because we see these paintings as nobody saw them before. If we discover why this is so, we shall also discover something about ourselves, and the situation in which we are now living.

And while you're on YouTube, take a moment to sample the unearthly voice of Mary Margaret O'Hara, the brilliant, elusive musician who plays Museum Hours' displaced Canadian, Anne. She hasn't made a studio album since 1988's Miss America, but Cohen convinced her to sing two songs on screen: "Dark, Dear Heart" and "Never No." 


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