The first two major projects by New York video artist
Jem Cohen (1962) were a documentary about the punk band Fugazi,
Instrument (1999), and a documentary about
a rock musician who died young, Benjamin Smoke (2000).
Cohen made several short documentaries like Lost Book Found (1996),
mostly focusing on urban spaces.
He also collaborated with several other musicians, from Patti Smith to Terry Riley and R.E.M.
In 2003 he launched a project at New York's MoMA titled "Chain", a series
of videos about the increasingly homogenized urban landscape of
the globalized economy, with a score by the rock band Godspeed You Black Emperor.
That led to his feature debut,
Chain (2004), which mixed documentary and fiction leveraging several
years of footage shot in seven countries and several US cities.
Museum Hours (2012) has a simple plot of two strangers meeting
accidentally and becoming friends. The museum guard is used to see the
paintings and sculptures of the museum, and the visits who come and go.
But soon we begin to see his city like a similar museum, full of art
(some of it natural) and with people coming and going. The museum's
most prized paintings are paintings of peasants (by Bruegel): the images
of ordinary people going about their business in modern Vienna create
the connection between the citizens of Vienna and the peasants of Bruegel's villages.
After all, the Canadian tourist is as amazed by the art at the museum as she
is by many details of the city.
And then we slowly
focus on the lonely lives of these two people and realize that they too
are humble simple artworks and that the whole of humankind constitutes
a vast museum.
In fact, the museum guards spy on
the emotions of the visitors as if the visitors were the things on display in the museum.
A woman (played by country singer Mary Margaret O'Hara) receives a phone call.
Next we see an airplane, a train, and a simple bedroom.
Photos of birds on trees. Close-ups of paintings and sculptures.
We hear the thoughts of a museum guard named Johan: he has been working for six years
in the Vienna museum. He remembers events of the past while he
walks around the rooms full of paintings.
The camera focuses on a visitor listening to the audio guidebook.
Statues, paintings. His
favorite room is the Bruegel room. He meditates that every time he sees
We see him outside in the street and at a pub drinking a beer.
He wonders why sometimes he gets curious about the people who visit the museum.
He meets the woman of the first scene, a Canadian, who tells him that it's
her first visit to Vienna. She didn't come as a tourist. She came because they
informed her that a distant cousin, whom she has not seen since they were kids,
is in a coma at a Vienna hospital.
We follow her to the hospital, and then
back to the museum chatting with the guard.
We see details of the cityscape.
Her name is Anne and her cousin's is Janet.
The guard offers help with the German language: she
keeps going back to visit the museum, and he
goes to the hospital with her.
They stare at the inert Janet.
Anne asks the guard to describe the paintings to the comatose Janet.
We see closeups of some paintings.
He walks her around Vienna.
It feels good for him to see his city again.
He regrets that he spends so much time at home and online.
They sit in a cafe and she tells him of her humble job.
He likes heavy metal. We see a bird looking for food in the snow.
We see ordinary people in the snowy streets.
We see outdoor sculptures.
We are back at the museum again. While staring at a painting, Anne
talks about her first boyfriend. Fascinated by paintings of nude people,
she imagines nude visitors and even a nude herself.
It is snowing in the streets, and people walk in the snow.
The guard remembers a punk kid scorning the art
and criticizing the commercial aspects of art.
While we heard the guard's voice, we see visitors admiring the paintings.
We see a flea market in the street and at the same time we hear an audio
guidebook about the Book of the Dead.
Closeups of paintings.
We see the face of the comatose woman.
Two workers are washing the great staircase of the museum.
A guest lecturer discusses Breugel and the war of his era to a group.
Anne at the hospital stares outside the window.
Teenagers are skating in the streets.
Traffic; people walking.
Anne sings a song to her comatose cousin, then she takes a tram.
Snow again; closeups of outdoors art; people
walking in the snow; closeups of trees; a
train arriving at a train station.
Back at the museum, the guard comments on school groups: the
teenagers are always bored, attracted only by sexy paintings.
He meditates that the museum guards are invisible peeping toms who can
spy on the emotions of the visitors (as if the visitors were the things on display in the museum).
The guard and Anne meet at a
cafe whose walls are covered with pictures (presumably of stars).
Anne talks about the things of Vienna that surprised her.
She talks of an old man who started speaking to her
in a language that she didn't recognize.
The museum guard explains trivia of Vienna.
A man joins the conversation and talks about birds.
The camera follows a bird in the cloudy sky.
Intrigued, the guard and Anne take an excursion to a field outside the city
and walk through the dead grass.
Back at the museum he comments sarcastically to himself that the number-one
question from visitors is where are the bathrooms.
He meditates ont the commercial value of paintings,
many of which were worth nothing in their time (and the painters died poor),
while now they are priceless.
We see the flea market outside.
We see visitors at the museum.
The guard escorts Anne to a display of prehistoric artifacts.
The guard back at home, Anne in the subway.
They meet again at a cave under a lake.
Meanwhile, at the hospital a nurse and a doctor rush to Janet's bed.
When they leave the cave, the guard
receives a phone call from the hospital. Anne
understands that Janet is dead.
Closeups of sculptures.
The guard and Anne join the festive crowd of a
Middle-eastern pub, where
people are drinking, dancing and listening to folk songs.
Anne wakes up in her little apartment and sings the song that she sang
to her cousin.
She stares outside the window and starts packing.
The voiceover describes
ordinary life in the city,
and its relationship with the past,
as if it were the audio guide of the museum.
Counting (2015) is a documentary about urban landscapes of various
cities of the world.
The camera lingers on details that seem unrelated (a bird, a flea market, a train) but indirectly unveils the endless dialogue between the museum and its contents (the sanctioned art), and its visitors (who range from foreign tourists to bored teenagers), and its guards (who are also observers of the visitors), and the population of the city, and the other buildings of the city, and and even the countryside outside the city; which is a dialogue between present and past, between a society that we don't fully understand anymore and the one we live in.
The film is also about the art of looking: the visitors look at the paintings,
the guard looks at the visitors, the tourist looks at the city,
they both look inside themselves,
and it almost feels like the paintings (with their eyes that stare at the
observer) look back at the people.