Take Your Time: Museum Hours, The Quiet Room, and Mariner 9 in Review

by Paddy Johnson on September 10, 2012 TIFF

Still from Jem Cohen's Museum Hours

As I wrap up my visit at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, I’ve begun to notice an emerging theme: duration. I’ve already complained at length about the run time of Spring Breakers, but there’s plenty more to discuss in the Wavelength and Future Projection programs. Jem Cohen’s feature film Museum Hours and Liang Yue’s installation The Quiet Room, at The Gladstone, both offer notable examples of a work playing off slow pacing, while Kelly Richardson’s Mariner 9 at The ROM fits the bill a little less successfully.

“Don’t worry about what kind of movie this is,” Director Jed Cohen told the TIFF Bell Lightbox audience yesterday afternoon, explaining that success for him was making that question unanswerable. Instead, he compared his movie Museum Hours to a braid, in the sense that it wasn’t about any one thing, but rather multiple ideas that were threaded together over the course of the film.

The piece itself has Anna, played by Mary Margaret O’Hara, fly to Vienna from her home in Montreal after she finds out her cousin has slipped into a coma. No one knows why she fell ill. Anna befriends a guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer) upon visiting the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, and we see her relationship both with Johann, and also with art, develop from there.

As one might imagine, this isn’t exactly a fast-paced movie. There are a lot of shots of Johann and Anna looking at art, or reflecting on some detail he’d only just noticed in a painting. None of that is particularly thrilling or revelatory—in fact, it might even make some audience members a little sleepy—but relative to the rest of TIFF, which runs on a wildly frantic schedule, the film offers a welcome reprieve.

For me, the success of this film lies in the fact that it never attempts to aggrandize the purpose of art, but rather, shows the practical place it holds in our lives. We see this when Johann observes that teenage boys visiting the museum often respond to their strong collection of severed heads, and it’s apparent even in the editing; one close-up of a painting of birds in flight is immediately followed by a near-identical shot of birds just outside the museum. In a more obvious metaphor, when we learn Anna’s cousin has died, the next shot is of an Egyptian tomb in the museum. Art, as told by Cohen, is simply a reflection of what we see and experience.

Chinese photographer Liang Yue takes a similar approach. I probably didn’t need to watch all 19 minutes of her three-channel video projection at the Gladstone, but I did so anyway. The slow shots of rippling water and snow, paired with the strange stillness of the landscape in the distance, was soothing to watch. It would have been even nicer if I hadn’t had to listen to Matchbox 20 drifting in through the walls of the bar next door, but perhaps the piece will be given a better home in its next installation. It’s clearly worth showing again.

Kelly Richardson’s Mariner 9, at The Royal Ontario Art Museum, also had installation problems, as only a narrow corridor was devoted to the piece; it fits, but it’s noticeably shrunken. When it was first shown at The Spanish City Dome in Whitley Bay, Richardson told me, it had been 12 meters across.

The piece itself is a panoramic video installation in which Richardson imagines the surface of Mars hundreds of years from now. We see old equipment, some working, some rusting, strewn across the barren landscape, with the sun distant in the hazy sky. Richardson’s attention to detail here has to be commended—there isn’t a rock in that image that hasn’t been considered—but the video and sound loop simply isn’t long enough to sustain a viewer’s attention. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem like it; the video is 20 minutes long, but the combination of repeating sound and uncomfortable viewing arrangement mean that few viewers will ever realize this. In this case, more, rather than less, would have been preferable.

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