On Saturday evening here in Austin, I took in a double bill of Jem Cohen's Museum Hours and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. One is a leisurely exploration of Vienna's high art, life, and history; the other is a hyper-charged tone poem exposing the nightmarish underside of a distinctly 21st-century American dream. Here's to the extremes of cinema!
Many recent films have billed themselves as “celebrations of the power of art” (Martin Scorsese's Hugo is one notable example), but few of these self-aware tributes have approached the richness and complexity of Museum Hours. There are signposts of a storyline underpinning Cohen's film: Johann (Bobby Sommer), an elderly guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, befriends an American visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), temporarily staying in the city on account of a terribly ill dear friend; because she knows no one else in the city and has little money, she basically spends much of her time talking and exploring the city with Johann, a lonely soul himself. Much of the drama between these two characters revolves around their conversations, and only some of those conversations deal directly with their personal situations, such as they are. Instead, they seem to bond more over talking about art more than anything else, finding ways to connect the art that they see, whether inside the museum or outside of it, to their own lives.
Lest that sound like the makings of an impossibly dry and academic movie, that doesn't take into account the fascinating way Cohen uses a seemingly intuitive editing style to suggest all sorts of connections between art and life, old and new, high and low. In Museum Hours, Cohen will, for instance, cut from a painting standing at the Kunsthistorisches to a real-life image that looks like it, or vice versa, implying a visual link between past and present. At one point, he interpolates a montage of goods being sold at a flea market while Johann talks about the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as if to ask, “Are these tossed-off goods our own way of commemorating the deceased?”
Perhaps the key to grasping Cohen's unique vision comes in a lengthy sequence in the museum as a tour guide discusses the work of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, whose work Johann—he notes during his intermittent but deeply revealing voiceover narration—especially admires. As we hear the tour guide talk about Bruegel's extraordinarily detailed panoramas, Cohen cuts between those various details the same way he cuts between the various details of Vienna. In a sense, Vienna becomes the filmmaker's Bruegel-like panoramic canvas, and Museum Hours, among its many achievements, exudes an openness to the world that dovetails beautifully with the ways it suggests how art can constructively relate to that world. Cohen may risk presumptuousness with the implicit Bruegel comparisons, but damned if the best parts of Museum Hours don't match one of his canvases in scope, detail, and profundity.
From high culture to the trash heap, albeit through candy-colored, neon-lit lenses. Spring Breakers opens with a slow-motion montage of Girls Gone Wild-style debauchery, then immediately juxtaposes that with a relatively quiet sequence which features, among other sights, the spectacle of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens smoking from a bong. Right there, Harmony Korine, as much a cinematic punk flamethrower as ever, announces his having-it-both-ways intentions, pandering to our baser instincts and then slapping our wrists for indulging his airhead gaze.
Spring Breakers is ostensibly an exposé of the shallowness of what, in Korine's view, has become the new American dream: working toward a lifestyle that consists only of fun and money. The four college girls at the film's center all see spring break as the escape from their humdrum lives; while a couple of them sit in class, all they can think about is sex, which one of them simulating a blow job on a penis she draws on paper. Apparently, these girls have no other aspirations in life beyond the hedonistic, carefree pleasures spring break provides. Well, actually, that's not entirely true: There's Faith (Selena Gomez), who, true to her name, comes from a more religious background than the others and thus exudes an innocence that she never quite shakes even as the quartet wades into more troublesome waters later in the film. Even then, though, Korine never seems especially interested in examining the underlying reasons for why she or any of the other characters would make such a life-or-death moment out of spring break; he's too busy having fun with his deliriously lurid plotting, whooshing camerawork, and whirlwind Terrence Malick-style editing to approach anything resembling convincing character drama or penetrating analysis.
If Spring Breakers never cuts especially deep thematically or psychologically, Korine's impressionistic filmmaking style does occasionally pick up the slack, imbuing the situations with more pathos than they perhaps deserve, given how disinterested he seems to be on the level of characterization. Cliff Martinez and Skrillex's electronic score deserves a ton of credit in that regard, offering a mournfully ironic counterpoint to the decadence on display that almost all by itself imbues these characters' hollow ambitions with the irony they deserve. And then there's James Franco, who's indeed an absolute riot as the drug dealer who calls himself “Alien” and who, interestingly, turns out to not only be something other than the nasty drug-dealer stereotype you'd expect, but actually something of a tender-hearted sweetie who seems to genuinely love these girls and, more importantly, buys into the same ambitions as they do. These are all people seduced by money and power, and Korine simultaneously shares and criticizes their illusions, giving them the full, flashy MTV pop-music-video treatment. Spring Breakers may be a shallow movie about shallowness, but its surfaces certainly scintillate. Where else are you going to hear, for instance, “spring break” transformed into a whispery incantation, alternately celebratory and weighted with doom?
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.