Jem Cohen’s Museum hours is a sublime meditation on Art and LifeWednesday, January 15, 2014
Seeing new landscapes through different eyes
Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a soft-spoken museum guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna who, after spending his younger days travelling with rock bands, has worked at the museum for the past six years, getting to know each painting intimately. His favourite room is the Bruegel room where the Flemish Renaissance painter’s depictions of 16th century peasant life touch him most deeply.
Having just arrived from Montreal to visit her cousin who is in a coma, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) seeks advice from Johann about directions to the hospital. As the two talk about the city, they develop a friendship and he acts as her tour guide, escorting her to visit ancient and modern sites in Vienna.
By following Johan’s and Anne’s itinerary through Vienna, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours moves art beyond the boundaries of a solemn museum and takes it out into the city streets, the place for deep observations that make irrelevant the conventional and artificial distinction between art and life. In fact, Cohen masterfully and tastefully widens our views of that which is “inside” the museum to include what is “outside,” but never as a disconnected part of the experience but as an integrated whole.
So as the voyage becomes a transformed appreciation of the city and its history, a very observing camera places its gaze on city life in such a manner we’re bound to discover details that we may have never seen before. There are young boys on skateboards in the park, an old woman walking up a hill flanked by red cars, the walls of an ancient church, abandoned beer cans on the sidewalk, the faces of pedestrians huddled in the cold waiting for a bus, and the boarded-up storefront of a store — among other seemingly unimportant things.
Johann and Anne also spend some time in the hospital with Anne’s cousin who cannot hear them. Nonetheless, Johann gives fully detailed descriptions of some of Rembrandt paintings from memory, which he finds very dark and wise-looking. As for Anne, she sings her cousin a delightful ballad.
The back story between the woman and her cousin unfolds slowly, yet the film is not really about their story. Instead, it concerns observation and our connection with the world. Among the film’s highlights, there’s the discussion on Bruegel by the tour guide (Ela Piplits) as she speaks to a group of keen visitors. Dressed as a peasant to mingle into the culture of the poorer classes, Bruegel rendered a depiction of the masses that was never judgmental but focused on the small details of peasant life. As the director puts it, “This man (Breugel) took a very close, careful look at how working people, peasants lived and did it without a sentimental overlay, but with a respectful interest in the details of their lives.”
As Cohen draws most telling and thought provoking parallels between everyday scenes of life in Vienna and the subjects in the paintings we view at the museum, the narrative turns into an absorbing voyage of discovery conducted at a leisure pace that stimulates us to savour the essence of things while leaving the anecdotes.
This way, Museum Hours is a riveting experience that bonds us to a world of stillness, beyond the limits of our sensorial perception. It helps us to see with new eyes, enabling us to move towards a deeper, more truthful experience of ourselves and the world.
Where and when
Malba Museum (Figueroa Alcorta 3415). Friday at 10pm , Sunday at 6pm.
Museum Hours (Austria / USA, 2013) Written and directed by Jem Cohen. Cast: Mary Margaret O¨Hara, Bobby Sommer. Cinematography by Jem Cohen, Peter Roehsler. Editing by Jem Cohen, Marc Vives. Produced by Paolo Calamita, Jem Cohen. Runtime: 107 minutes.