If you spend enough time in art museums — or movie theaters, for that matter — it should become apparent that visual art is less about a particular family of techniques for putting images together than it is about a particular way of looking. While some expressions lend themselves to oils and others to tempera; some to marble and others to bronze; they all rely on a certain way of seeing the world. Seeing these works in the museum context as art even triggers a shift in our mode of observation. The trick of the artist is to find a way to transfer that subject-of-art viewing style to the world in general.
The genius of Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is the way he takes the viewing mode engendered by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and transposes it into a movie theater. Cohen is less the writer or director of this film than he is its curator, picking and choosing images to place into conjunction and leaving us, the public, to observe them.
There is a sort of story to the film: Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a retired wood-shop teacher now working as a museum guard; Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian woman with little money, drawn to Vienna by the hospitalization of her only living relative, a comatose cousin she hasn’t seen in years. In a more typical film they would be the obvious subject, and indeed we spend a lot of time with their heavily-improvised scenes.
But Cohen casts doubt in a central sequence that barely involves either of them. A guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) leads a small tour group through the museum’s collection of Brueghels. She points out how the ostensible subjects of Conversion of Paul and The Procession to Calvary are deemphasized and lost in a sea of more mundane — and even profane — topics. The masses of people filling The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Children’s Games, or The Peasant Wedding are presented as they are, with neither praise nor condemnation.
Much of the film consists of candid 16mm shots of a wintry Vienna, which in any other movie would make up the B-roll. It’s easy for the audience to tut-tut at a modern Coca-Cola billboard sticking up in the foreground in front of a beautiful old building, but Cohen speaks to us through the lecturer: if we were seeing a poster in the background of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting, would we cluck so disapprovingly? Why do we assume that we’re meant to look down on the modern mixed with the ancient, rather than seeing it as an honest representation of a scene as it is?
Of course, as an audience we’re free to receive these images however we like. An obnoxious member of the tour group insists that the religious titles of Breughel’s paintings imply the primacy of the sacred subjects, and the lecturer agrees that that’s a valid approach. But again, like one of Breughel’s peasants this man is simply part of the scene for us to observe; Cohen doesn’t judge him as a philistine, but rather positions him as an interlocutor essential for the lecturer to make her points.
Even this analysis only scratches the surface of Museum Hours, though I think it’s the key to unlocking what treasures the film contains. There’s plenty to see here, and you can return again and again to wander through these halls and each time see something you hadn’t noticed before.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: I’m actually going to give this one a pass, based on some of Anne’s monologues at her cousin’s bedside, carried out as if they’re having a conversation.