In the 1958 comedy by Ronald Neame, the Horse’s Mouth, the film’s main character, an artist named Gulley Jimson, portrayed as equal parts guru and buffoon by Alec Guinness, may well be mad or have unlocked the door to artistic brilliance. He tells an acolyte too impatient to spend some time looking at a painting: “Thirty seconds of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothings.”
It makes for an apt commentary more than ever in today’s second-screen mentality when it comes to media consumption. That’s why Jem Cohen’s feature film Museum Hours feels like such a miracle, and the revelations arrive aplenty and effortlessly. He places two rather distinct characters inside the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard who has lived his life to fuller degrees than most ever will (he was once a disco and punk rock road manager and now enjoys the quiet contemplation the museum job offers him). Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian visitor who distracts herself from the weight of concern for a cousin in a coma lying in a hospital bed by visiting the nearby art museum.
The two meet inside Johann’s world of the museum. He is drawn to her for her repeat visits and something more intangible, he admits in an ever-present voice-over. It’s not a sexual attraction, as he is gay, and the actors’ aged, rugged features are so unglamorous and real they subvert any pretense of the superficial sort of romance Hollywood loves to pedal to the masses. With inevitable death hovering over their visits in the form of Anne’s cousin, they trade life stories. Anne worries about “over-sharing” and “prying” while Johann seems happy revealing his past with casual, fulfilled matter-of-factness. A respectful concern and reminder of the cousin constantly appears in their exchanges. And then there’s the art world.
Cohen does several inspired things with his film that meld art and life like a hand fits a glove. The most noticeable are the conversations on the pieces by the characters. Often, Johann offers his contemplation on the pieces in voice over. Some of it, however, is resigned to the patrons, like the children and teenagers who are not merely judged for their short-attention span but also appreciated for their sincere, visceral reactions to the art, even if it only lasts a few seconds.
Along with extreme close-ups of the art that reveal not only the age of the pieces but also accidental stains and the light reflected off the pieces that highlight texture, Johann also plays games to rediscover pieces he has spent so many hours with, like the dense pieces by Bruegel the Elder. Looking at the many tiny characters that form larger statements on religion, society and the politics of the time from whence these works came he finds a frying pan sticking out of one character’s head, and then he’s off counting all the eggs that appear in the paintings at the museum. On a wider level, he notes the state of the eggs and the context their state means within the stories of the paintings.
Cohen even weaves the bigger presence of life and death with art during a scene where Johann joins Anne at the bedside of her cousin. Anne asks Johann to describe a religious painting to try to get a rise out of her unconscious cousin, who Anne describes as an agnostic. His choice of words melds the real and the divine in a way that remains respectful to the work while also veering away from anything that would have possibly upset anyone who might question a reductive presence of God in this world. It’s an ingenious and subtle moment of transcendentalism.
The director also craftily fills his film with exterior montage sequences of a wintry Vienna that sometimes sneak in a few details of the paintings inside the museum. Birds perched on naked trees flutter away and there’s a cut to a frozen blackbird on a gray branch against an overcast sky inserted in between that is clearly a painting. There are also sequences of landscapes and details of rubbish in the snow. The camera also performs wonders inside the museum with shallow focus on artifacts from Egypt and other long-gone civilizations that appreciate the worn, decaying quality of the work as much as the work itself. Life and art and the fleeting quality of it all, it’s all to be appreciated, the director seems to state.
One of the most amusing elements Cohen employs to meld art and life include some rather candid moments that reveal actors slipping out of character for moments that feel so organic, many may miss these moments, as they subtly break the fourth wall of cinema. In one scene, the film is cut a split second later showing a character turning from serious, almost belabored concentration in her role as an observer of art, and then turning relaxed, as if the director has already called “cut.” It melds beautifully in a film about art taken out of original context in history and placed on display. There are also a couple of moments with Johann where he sounds boisterous or seems more relaxed, behind the walls of the museum, in a locker room and a cafeteria, that may as well have been filmed during downtime from the actual shoot. The layers of art and life exposed as both warm and serious and visceral last for mere seconds but have profound effects that echo throughout this decidedly un-self-conscious film.
Museum Hours runs 107 minutes, is in German and English with English subtitles and is not rated (any good art film has nudity, though). It opened Friday in the South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It has already opened in some theaters across the US and others will follow. For a full list of screening dates, visit the film’s official website: here (that’s a hotlink).