Quick, name the last great movie you saw that was a real-life story about how friendship works. Not a fraternity fraternity or some other Hollywood formula for fraternity, but a film that makes you think, “This is how people really get along. This is how we talk to each other and share our lives.” Now ask yourself when was the last time you saw a great film about art. How many museum films can you expect to see in any given year? I looked at a list of the first 100 or so films I watched in 2013 and only one film fits these criteria. Luckily the film, “Museum Hours”, was perfect for all of them.
The first shot of the film introduces us to Johann (Robert Sommer), a security guard at the magnificent Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Sitting serenely beneath the masterpieces of the likes of Rembrandt and Bruegel, he seems as unremarkable as the caretaker we pass every time we visit the gallery. But over the course of this film, director Jem Cohen will make us pay attention to him and many other things that we usually overlook, because they all have very rich experiences to share, if we just pay attention to them.
“What is it about some people that people are curious about?” Johan asked in voiceover. He talks specifically about Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a middle-aged Canadian woman who visits the museum, but is actually in Vienna to care for a comatose cousin, especially since she is the only relative the hospital can reach. Alone in a foreign city, he also needs help, and Johan does what he can, giving him a museum pass and accompanying him to visit the hospital. Neither of them has much money, but it just gives them time to talk and get to know each other as they explore the city on the cheap. As we follow them, we also get to know the city, not in a glamorous touristy way, but in a more simple and original way: the serene textures of quaint streets, and the warm and inviting atmosphere of working-class cafes. and bars.
This story may remind us of another famous film about a couple exploring Vienna, Richard Linklater’s wildly romantic “Before Sunrise”. But unlike the young couple, there’s no chance of a romantic encounter between the main characters here, for reasons that I’ll leave for you to discover. Here the two talk with no agenda other than enjoying each other’s company, discussing their families, their jobs, and their honest reactions to the artwork in the museum. Johan was able to give beautiful descriptions of many of the paintings, as he spent hours looking at them. Anne’s response was more impulsive: she saw Adam and Eve hanging naked on the wall and spoke of an old boyfriend who would walk around naked “as if he were wearing a tuxedo.” He caught himself mid-sentence: ”
The film then takes a mysterious turn with a sequence of museum-goers walking around naked like some of the figures painted on the walls. Does Cohen make direct comparisons between classic nudes and live figures in front of his camera? Or does he evoke the state of total openness that great art can inspire? Paradoxically, the museum seems to be a place that closes the openness, dressed with an aura of class and courtesy. In another key scene, the museum’s guide (Ela Piplits) discusses Breugel’s paintings with visitors, politely entertaining their amateurish interpretations before offering exhaustive (and exhausting) explanations of the historical and artistic context in which to appreciate the works. This guide’s range of knowledge is impressive, yet somehow oppressive; his passion for these works is clear, yet it threatens to stifle those he eagerly invites to share his enthusiasm.
To his credit, Cohen’s eyes are more open and looser in producing meaning both within and outside the Kunsthistoriches. For him, the streets of Vienna were as beautiful as picture galleries as museums; he even juxtaposed the audio from the museum guide with a scene from the flea market. There is a wide variety of everyday sounds and images that manage to be detailed but difficult to understand. Cohen, a New York-based filmmaker, has street punk sensibilities, having made musical films with the likes of Patti Smith and Fugazi. Like these artists, he excavated poetry from raw and earthy quotidian material. This happens to be the same quality found in Breugel’s grim panorama of gloom and human salvation from more than 500 years ago. As Cohen brings new life to the museum experience, he also brings the artist’s subtle eye to everyday life.
The key to uniting the two worlds is Sommer and O’Hara in the lead roles. Also not a professional actor; O’Hara is a “non-disciplined” artist who describes himself with many interests; his face shone with an inner glow of charismatic kindness, while his speaking style had a captivating flexibility that resembled that of a hummingbird. Sommer, a former road manager for a rock band who now works for the Viennale Film Festival, has an attitude that exudes a zen-like calm. For Cohen to entrust his film to two unproven talents, and for it to pay off in the beautiful moments between the two of them, proves a unique approach to casting that sees the star power of one’s simple humanity.