By Armond White
Go back to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera, the still striking montage experiment (available on Kino Lorber Home Video) to find the root concept of two recent art movies, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.
Museum Hours is eccentric for an American feature; its narrative context is the developing friendship, based on cultural curiosity, of Johann (Bobby Sommar), a security guard at Austria’s Kunsthistoisches museum, and a Canadian woman, Anne (played by singer Mary Margaret O’Hara) who’s visiting a hospitalized relative. Johann’s reflections on art and the Vienna environs assist Anne’s tourism–a guide to appreciating transient life. Their lengthy digressions become the story as in Upstream Color which built its narrative of a woman Kris (Amy Seimetz) and man Jeff (Carruth) falling in love through a constant hybrid of sci-fi, existential and romantic visual juxtapositions.
Both films foreground their structure, using formal devices to access evanescent emotions and artistic perceptions. Such artiness is not new. Vertov’s movie began with the introduction “This film presents an experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events aims at creating a truly international absolute language of Cinema based on its total separation from the language of Theatre and Literature.” Almost a hundred years later the only difference is our culture’s surprise that visual communication is the way cinema works.
Museum Hours takes this understanding back to its roots in painting and sculpture while Upstream Color goes for modern poetics and palpably distorts it. Vertov’s fascination with social phenomena (and cinema’s ability to observe and toy with it) gets turned into Carruth’s millennial concept that systems, programs, processes control and define our lives. Carruth perverts Vertov’s awe; his pattern-based, scientific approach to storytelling sees the wonder of life similar to silent movies (enthrallment with montage) but without Vertov’s post-Victorian sentiment or Soviet purpose. Carruth’s use of ellipsis and mystery and fragmentation become an end in themselves. He begins with Fear and menace, secrets, deception, violence, violation, telling four interlocked stories (including endangered children and a sound recordist). It’s both an intellectual conceit with its own esoteric motto (“You can force your story’s shape but the colors will always bloom upstream”) and an actorly conceit (Carruth, who resembles the actor Dan Futterman in Urbania, gives himself significant screen time).
upstream-color-trailerMuseum Hours is no less contemporary yet it uses less irony. It immediately recalls Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Jean-Luc Godard’s The Old Museum and Isaac Julien’s 1993 short The Attendant featuring lonely disquisitions by British scholar Stuart Hall as a museum guard (all good models) yet there’s no structure to Cohen’s narrative other than the associations he makes between created art and everyday life–art as lived. This is what connects Cohen’s film to Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera mixed inquisitiveness about the possibilities of cinematic reportage with the then-new phenomenon of film watching and filmmaking. Cohen has a current generation’s fascination with the potentialities of video-recording, part of what made the 80s-90s music video explosion so exciting. A frequent music-video director, Cohen’s approach also resembles Grant Gee’s pictorial studies in the Radiohead essay Meeting People Is Easy, but Cohen is even more whimsical as when he slips in a brief sequence of nude museum patrons rivaling the framed art on the walls.
Cohen’s fondness for rumination matches Carruth’s fondness for the paranoid mystery that has become standard for cineastes unfamiliar with the density of experimental narrative by silent-era artists like Vertov who still believed in what Andre Bazin explained as the ontological truth of photography. It is the silent surrealists’ speculation on destiny that Carruth extends into dread. His murder-mystery, ecological catastrophe plot adds terror to what should simply be wonderment about seeing the world in existential terms.
No question Carruth is talented; Upstream Color shows the commitment of a Vertov disciple (whether Carruth appreciates it or not) but Carruth’s indie-cynicism gainsays a belief in the richness of art. Cohen has not confused his objective this way. Museum Hours meanders but gives satisfaction throughout, largely through the humanity of Johann and Anne’s relationship. O’Hara’s round-faced gentle smile recalls Streisand in The Guilt Trip and makes up for her character’s annoying niceness. She sings her own compositions (“Never, No” and “Dark Dear Heart”) with lovely unassuming strength, as always.
Museum Hours’ oddity is in its lack of narrative momentum. Cohen is content to make viewers connoisseurs of life (using ideas from art critic John Berger) as much as art, letting nature and artifice, society and friendship blur–a dispassionate way of inspiring our awareness, if not passion. (“We are aware of the impermanence of things”). Yet Upstream Color is all narrative drive as if Carruth was intent on revealing something horrible.
Cohen and Carruth’s dedication to filmmaking is palpable. Yet their artistry and intelligence are intractable, making each movie a little tiring and off-putting only because they don’t simply create a mood to which viewers can respond. Cohen and Carruth achieve art effects (as the titles Museum Hours and Upstream Color make blatant). This is not necessarily a bad thing but it was an amazing thing almost a hundred years ago when Vertov woke up the world with his then-daring, now incomparable artiness. To this day, Man with a Movie Camera tells viewers that cinema has the power to capture life and influence the imagination. Cohen and Carruth hold similar beliefs but their conviction is so studied and obvious it seems overcomplicated.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair