One of the innumerable great things about museums is that they’ve basically become the last places you can be alone with your thoughts. Sure, there’s context for each art work provided, and there’s people milling about, but it’s still a solitary experience - you can ignore those things. In those perfect moments, it’s just you, the space, and the art. There are moments of Jem Cohen’s narrative feature film debut, "Museum Hours, that capture that mood, that singular mindset.
As the edits speed by - people, paintings, sculptures, street corners - you start to feel sheer overload, a feeling so rare, one normally only obtained in those aforementioned churches of culture. But more often than not, Cohen can’t help but lead our eyes, can’t help but guide our thoughts, in a way that the great art he’s paying tribute to does not. He’s trying to create a film that is a museum. But it’s closer to a cinematic tour guide.
Yet it’s actually a different kind of museum employee who Cohen spends his time studying. Nonactor Bobby Sumner features as Johann, a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and a relatively lonely man. Since his time is split between working at the museum, drinking at the pub, and playing online poker at home, he’s more than agreeable when Anna, an age-appropriate Canadian friend, looks to him for companionship. They both look to be in their 60s, and Anne is in town to watch over an extremely ill, distant relative.
The film watches them pass the time, yes, but it’s also memorializing the passing of a very specific type of person. We look at Johann and Anna, intensely curious and open to the connections between their lives and the art they encounter; and then we look at the kids, on their cell phones, surrounding them in the museum. And we realize that, 50 years from now, their won’t be many people like Johann and Anna left.
That’s the point that Cohen dedicates most of his time to making, though the film pleasurably changes gears - if not tone - on a fairly regular basis, the camera gliding from art works to busy street corners to static frames of Johann and Anna conversing. His flippant initial offer, to translate her phone calls to and from the doctor caring from her relative, soon blossoms into an intimate friendship. In a series of honestly realized, down-to-earth compositions, Cohen dramatizes their mannered-yet-flirtatious encounters, watching as Johann introduces Anne to the sights of Vienna, and re-introduces them to himself, reclaiming the buildings and architecture from the numbness that the day-to-day grind had attached.
Never is the picture as pained and complicated as when Johann observes a lecture given on Pieter Bruegel, a Dutch Renaissance painter whose portraits of peasant life, in a sense, are mirrored by Cohen’s detached, static frames. The lecturer fights her conservative tour group, some of whom Cohen is too quick to ridicule (it diminishes the inclusive feel he goes to great lengths to establish), arguing against the common assumption that Bruegel’s work is quaint. As the group begins to sense her displeasure, her emotions start to crack, her face begins to bend. We haven’t seen her before, and we won’t see her again; the movie leaves her arc unexplained. It depicts the sadness below "Hours" - a disappointment with the current culture’s lack-of-interest in high art, primarily - to a downright mysterious effect.
It’s the film’s highlight, it’s banner moment. Never again do Cohen’s observations, or the way he presents them, feel so complicated. "Museum Hours" is too intellectually stimulating to be staid, but the lecture is one of the few moments when it feels alive, urgent, unpredictable. Too often Cohen settles for an essayist, or perhaps even didactic, tone. Johann’s personal and philosophical musings intone over the images in voiceover, it’s an aesthetic lifted direct from Godard, and from "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," another piece of cinema that re-purposed a European city as a symphony of both art and emptiness. Yet where Godard’s observations ranged from the profound to the inexplicable, Cohen’s too often remain simply predictable, or pedantic.
The characters speak about the beautiful innocence of nude portraits, the best of which are completely lacking in shame, and soon enough we see the patrons imagined nude. Johann and Anne speak of the young’s inability to appreciate art, and lo and behold, soon after her relative passes, we’re left staring at young kids too obsessed with themselves to appreciate the artworks around them. He wants us to ask "What is art? How do we relate to it? What are us philistines missing?" I can’t help but wonder who he’s talking to - this film won’t reach most art houses, much less multiplexes; his intended audience asks those questions already, maybe too often. His cries for the mainstream world to connect with high art feel calculated to condescend to the type of people who would never bother seeing this movie in the first place.
It leaves the viewer, it leaves me, feeling like a complicit elitist, wishing along with him that the masses could go to the MoMA instead of to see "Grown Ups 2," and slightly embarrassed that I’d find myself going along with an idea so reeking in naivete and cultural privileged. The film is dedicated to Cohen’s parents, "who took me to museums," and he may as well have added, "I wish yours had taken you, too."
The façade of his observational style quickly fades. You’re quickly made aware that every edit has a specific message, each of the films semi-connected movements (separated by blackouts) are intended to profess a specific lesson; about connection to each other, about seeing art in the rhythms of real life, about seeing the rhythms of life in art, about the necessity of studying art in the first place.
As such, the images are astounding, his framing is incredible; his film, beautiful, his directorial touch, undeniably humanist. But his strain for profundity is clearly felt, his own lecturing voice, articulating each message to us, never dissipates. His film aspires to join the high art that it depicts. But it remains on the ground, with the spectators, plainly articulating its own interpretations. It doesn’t respect us enough to let us think for ourselves. This is indeed a trip to the museum, full of joy and wonder, love and tragedy, pain and transcendence. But then, at times, at its worst, it’s just an essay.