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A philosophical Viennese whirl

With scenes that could come straight out of a Bruegel painting, Jem Cohen’s evocative movie ‘Museum Hours’ blurs the lines between fact and fiction, film and art.

Jem Cohen’s new film “Museum Hours” feels like a documentary but is a work of fiction, set in the snowy Viennese winter and focused on that city’s grand Kunsthistorisches Museum. We follow a security guard with a philosophical bent and a woman visiting a town in which she is a stranger in order to comfort a long-lost relative in hospital. A couple thrown together to await the inevitable: so far, so Godot? Not quite.

Museum Hours is a film that’s not much like a film at all; it mimics the motifs of a novel and, as it gazes at Bruegels, ancient Egyptian artefacts and the people gazing at them, it acquires the stillness and focus of a painting.

As Cohen shows crows flying across the chill winter sky, calling and cawing, the image becomes a close-up of the same birds in a painting in the museum: maybe it’s a Bruegel; his influence looms large on proceedings. The audio guide talks about the Egyptians’ Book of the Dead as we cut to Cohen’s reel of headscarved women bent over bric-a-brac on a snowy Viennese street today. A birdcage, a peeling painting, a doll, a photograph of a young man. Are these items the unwanted effects of the recently deceased? A contemporary Book of the Dead, perhaps, the women uncannily like the characters in a Bruegel, too.

I wonder if the director has read WG Sebald? The German novelist, who piled metaphors, stories and histories into a rich mix and added choice photographs to his novels to send an echo and often a shiver down his readers’ spines, resonates in Cohen’s Vienna. I wonder if Cohen has seen Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson” films? Another learned wanderer whose fictional protagonist is never seen nor heard, but a capricious Holmes to the narrator’s Watson and a seer of skeins that link history, theory, art and the present day.

The guard and the woman wander Vienna visiting bars and the Holocaust memorial, ending up at Johann-Staud Strasse where, they’ve been told, the crows gather in the evening. “Perhaps he was just exaggerating,” says the guard of the empty trees. The pair stand at cold sundown and it looks for all the earth like the Golgotha in Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary. When, then, is a film not a film and not a book? When, like Museum Hours, it is a work of art.

Sleeve notes

Graphic design

Lolita, The Story of a Cover Girl

Edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving

How do you solve a problem like depicting Lolita? The first edition of Nabokov’s novel came between light green covers – as does this collection of sleeve artwork – because it could suggest no more than the story it told; soon after, designers pounced on the novel’s reputation and got jiggy with underage vamps, knock-kneed children, Vaseline-lensed soft-porn shots.

The book investigates the response of jacket designers since the book rolled off the presses in 1955, as well as getting leading contemporary graphic designers to have a go. And that image of the girl with the lolly and the heart-shaped shades, originally from Stanley Kubrick’s film of the book, has a lot to answer for. But Story of a Cover Girl always leads you back to the dazzling original – Nabokov’s untouchable prose.

Q&A— Jean-Philippe Tessé

Deputy editor, Les Cahiers du Cinéma

Paris

C’est la guerre. France’s cinema industry is fighting over a new labour agreement increasing film crew wages and tightening workers’ rights on movie sets. While some foreshadow the end of auteur films for lack of sufficient funding, others welcome guidelines in a trade that has never been regulated. Jean-Philippe Tessé, deputy editor of the iconic journal Les Cahiers du Cinéma, unpicks the debate.

Tell us about the dispute around the new regulations.
French cinema has never seen such a controversy. Beyond salaries, the underlying question is what type of movie should be done in France and what kind of money films should get. These rules fill a void because there was no labour agreement to regulate cinema until now, which is very rare in this country. Because of the lack of directives, movie technicians often received salaries 30 or 40 per cent below the minimum wage. Yet, at the same time, the absence of rules allowed flexibility to fund smaller-scale films.

Is France’s cinéma d’auteur in danger?
Its vitality is very much at stake. France produces around 230 films every year – much more than most other European countries. A lot of those films are under-financed. The problem is that the agreement imposes extremely high wages, regardless of the size of the film.

What kind of films will be hit the hardest?
Productions with a budget below €2m will definitely struggle to survive if they have to comply with the same requirements as big, commercial movies. France must invent new ways to fund and continue making independent films, without squeezing crew salaries. But increasing the cost of filmmaking does not solve the problem of financing.

On record

Sounds from around the world

Who knows why AU REVOIR SIMONE have just made their best album? It’s not as if many bands hit their stride on that non-career-defining fourth record, is it? Yet MOVE IN SPECTRUMS is confident, expansive; it’s rock-hewn electro, laser-focused synth-pop. Hell, these three girls were the first Brooklynites to make knackered Casio keyboards cool. But the real success is that rather than go into the misty hinterland of unsellable experimentation, the Simones have made an irresistible pop album in a neighbourhood of pretenders to their now-deserved throne.

Eleven seconds into DONSO’s second album DENFILA, when the beats and bass and something that sounds like a bastardised rolling news ident crashes through the Malian incantation, you have a feeling this is going to be special. Wandering between Paris and Bamako, writing some originals and raiding the vaults then strapping a rocket to the result is a masterstroke; a dangerously danceable brainwave; a kaleidoscopic hallucination; a field trip with the emphasis on the “trip”. What a piece of work is a Donso? A man smoking something stronger than a Hamlet. Stunning.

I reviewed BASIA BULAT’s beautiful debut in the first issue of Monocle and the end of 2013 sees her third album, so I obviously blacked-out for a minute there. TALL TALL SHADOW is a stronger thing made along the same chamber-pop-cum-country-folk lines; the production’s more there; every string, key and valve of each instrument seems to be at the front of the mix, all tempered by Bulat’s sweet, close-mic’d vocals. Simply gorgeous.

MORE by ARP is a proud, unturnoffable thing of an altogether different stripe. Alexis Georgopoulos is an avant-garde kinda cat who’s done the music for a Karl Lagerfeld catwalk show and previously made a blissful record of Eno-ish electro morphine. There’s more of his voice on this, an album that could soundtrack a tea party at which Pink Floyd and Robert Wyatt are creaming the scones, while Sparks pour the tea.

It’s pleasing to see that SKY LARKIN’s third go at indie greatness was recorded in Seattle with Sleater-Kinney’s producer, because it shows your ear’s memory is fine. MOTTO is thrilling and splashy, yet precise and dripping with charm. But fast. It comes, presumably, with a cartoon puff of wind that follows it through your speakers.

NO WAY THERE FROM HERE is LAURA CANTRELL’s first album of original material for eight years. You have to wonder why the wait was quite so long; the album contains little that would have sounded askew on her marvellous previous albums. It’s another collection of plaintive country ballads, adorned by Cantrell’s crisp vocals.

Books

Poetry

Sleeping Keys

Jean Sprackland

There’s change going on in these short works; they tell the story of endings and wonder how we feel about and deal with them. The title poem is wry and moving, the universal metaphor for the passing of time: every house has a biscuit tin of defunct, rusted, forgotten keys – for whose locks were they cut? And endings? They’re sad, so we tell ourselves they’re beginnings.

Sociology

Floating City

Sudhir Venkatesh

The award-winning author of 2008 bestseller Gang Leader for a Day returns with a firsthand account of the urbanism of the underclasses and soft power of sex workers in deepest, darkest New York. Venkatesh’s honest portrayal of his efforts to understand the complexities of the underground economy while grappling with his morals and emotions in pursuit of enough material to put together a thorough academic study is both engrossing and disquieting.

Fiction

The Man with the Compound Eyes

Wu Ming-Yi

Set in the near future, this tale follows Alice, a Taiwanese woman who lost her family in a mountain accident, and Atile’i, a young man from the fictional South Pacific island of Wayo Wayo. Oscillating between fiction and nonfiction, Wu Ming-Yi’s nature writing causes their two worlds to collide – with the apocalyptic arrival of a trash vortex that hits the coasts of Taiwan. Poignant and imaginatively told, this narrative is one of love and vulnerability, a story that explores our fragile relationship with nature.

Fiction

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City

Choire Sicha

This sharp satire of life in a “large city”, a gentle pseudonym for New York, follows the lives of a group of young men searching for work and purpose amid the swirling events of the recent financial crisis. A former New York Observer editor, Choire Sicha’s first book flits urgently between grand political dramas and their trickle-down effects on real life. Along the way Sicha analyses social norms on an almost atomic level, from marriage to the nature of currency. It’s disjointed maybe, but it’s those basic units – whether in love or money – that make up any “large city”.

Architecture

The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors

Edward Hollis

Even the title of Hollis’s follow-up to the The Secret Lives of Buildings suggests sentiment: how buildings and their guts can move us. So this time we’re inside. From Versailles to online game Quake to the curiosity cabinets that begat the first museums to the Big Brother house, Hollis teases out the human element, the odd detail, the enchanting story to show us what goes on behind every window, wearing the inside out. — rb

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