Museum Hours’s underlying thesis is fairly self-evident: that the beauty of art can be found in every corner and crevice of life, from the debris on wet streets to the careful gait of an old woman caught outside in bad winter weather. But this idea isn’t one that people necessarily think about in their day-to-day life. It requires a practiced contemplation in looking at the fragments of the world, and at art, and Jem Cohen’s film is devoted in not only teaching that way of looking, to provoke the curiosity with which we examine art, but using the approach as a structural device. Though Museum Hours features a coherent narrative, it more accurately feels like an essay film, with its many digressive anecdotes and ideas provided via voiceover from Kunsthistorisches Art Museum security guard Johann (Bobby Sommer). His stories are about, among other things, the city of Vienna, his particular fondness for the museum’s Pieter Bruegel room, the inexplicable reason why he finds himself befriending some people over others, and the schoolchildren who are brought to the museum on field trips and impatiently complete with one another to act the most bored.
The narrative is simple, as only a few events keep it moving along: Johann quickly befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian woman who keeps returning to the museum. She finds herself in an unfamiliar city to attend to her ailing cousin, who’s in a coma and likely to remain that way or soon die. Because she doesn’t have much money, Anna, like Johann with his long and tedious shifts, doesn’t have much to do. And so he becomes a helpful friend, translating the periodic updates from the hospital staff and showing her the less-expensive, less-touristy parts of the city; in the process, he rediscovers Vienna all over again. Over pints and coffees the two converse about art, their low-key professions, and Johann’s amusing memories of being a concert promoter in the 1970s. Sometimes they meet at the museum, where Anne has had time to absorb the artwork and share her reflections with Johann. Even though the film gives the indication that time seems to be standing very still, at least for its protagonists, it manages to instill a meditative resonance instead of becoming entropic. The film challenges the staid quality ascribed to museums by looking at how the physical world can change, be it materially or within the subjective view of a person. Johann talks at length about the little details he keeps finding in Bruegel’s works despite having looked at them countless times. Later, the film cements this idea via a talk provided by a guest lecturer, Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits), who makes the argument that the titles of Bruegel’s works, such as The Conversion of Paul, are perfunctory descriptions that don’t necessarily encapsulate the breadth of detail in his paintings or even the focal interests, innocuous and distracting objects and people, like a child wearing a soldier helmet or the frequent presence of horse’s backsides.
Cohen evokes Bruegel’s unsentimental, documentary-like approach in his own work, capturing alternately beautiful and sometimes not-so-beautiful images, mostly shot on 16mm, of the city and the museum, of paintings and tourists and flotsam and jetsam. The considerable time he gives each shot forces the viewer to contemplate the images as if they were all artwork. This process never becomes tiresome or didactic; instead, the message is delivered so subtly and gently that one cannot help but be carried away by the ebb and flow of the film’s lulling pace. Even the scenes inside the hospital, where Anne and the occasionally visiting Johann sit and watch her cousin, invoke a serene and meditative tone. The film doesn’t need to do much to underscore Anne’s helplessness with regard to her dying family member. She politely but urgently asks Johann to describe some of the gallery’s paintings aloud, in an effort to revive her cousin. In later scenes, Anne gently sings to her, presumably the same ballads the two performed together as children in a choir. And though these scenes are undeniably elegiac, Museum Hours maintains a mostly neutral outlook with regards to the cousin’s outcome. Instead of using the earthy, colorful atmosphere of the museum as an antidote to the brightly lit and sterile hospital scenes, Cohen sticks steadfastly to his thesis and asks us to look more closely at the rhythmic heart monitor and the quiet sounds of IV fluids dropping into its container. Like everything else in the film, they too possess a beauty worth noting.
Given the rich tenor of color present in the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum’s artwork and the sights and sounds of Vienna, not to mention the varying availability of light in Jem Cohen’s scenery (from overcast skies to the warm-toned lighting in some of the museum’s galleries), it’s actually breathtaking to see how the Blu-ray transfer is able to so seamlessly move from one image to another and from 16mm to digital video. Though the crisp high-definition image still demarcates a slight difference between the two formats, this somehow only augments the film’s visual beauty. The sound is equally sharp and vibrant, and its quality can be best appreciated in the museum scenes, where the aural depth and expanse can be undoubtedly felt in the highly acoustic setting.
The extras are few but memorable. Three are rare shorts by Cohen, including Amber City, Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man), and Anne Truitt, Working. The latter is a fascinating, 13-minute invitation into the niche interior world of the titular visual artist, whose explanations about her work and predilection with color are delivered in an amusing and casual manner. The essays included in the booklet provide not only thorough and intelligent analyses of the film (by Luc Sante and Cohen), but also some interesting production context. Museum Hours operates within both the fictional and documentary realms and Cohen’s insights into the production process, his insightful trips to Vienna and the museum, and his casting decisions, illustrate the thoughtfulness he applied in the film.
This generous release of Museum Hours from Cinema Guild, with rare extras and astute essays, is perfectly attuned to the film’s big ideas and immaculate beauty.