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The Inner Life of a Museum

by Sarah Cowan on July 25, 2013

Film still from Jem Cohen's "Museum Hours" (photo via museumhoursfilm.com)

Bobby Sommer in Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” film still (all photos except book cover via museumhoursfilm.com)

Jem Cohen’s new feature film, Museum Hours, unfolds like a series of postcards from a lonely traveler, fresh with the pressure of on-site writing while calculating that the memory will be received miles and days away. Shooting primarily in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Cohen’s foreign camera seeks the familiar: the stony wrinkles around ancient Roman eyes, a clean white egg inside a still life, a child’s ill-fitting hat in Bruegel’s noisy pandemonium. Art, Cohen seems to say, is a refuge for the outsider.

Or at least it is for Johann and Anne, who wander the museum halls — he by profession, as a guard; she as the unwitting tourist without return ticket, money, or guidebook, called to Vienna by a family medical emergency. Played by non-actors Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara, the two form a bond that’s more opportunistic than romantic, born from their mutual solitude. Their conversations seem only loosely scripted, sprawling, dragging, and trailing off, always forgiving and generous, without the need to impress.

Johann tries his best to play art expert and city tour guide, although unqualified for either role. Anne is a surrogate for Cohen, more observer than observed. Spoken with unsteady whimsy, her commentary germinates from what I suspect are the director’s endless hours of footage, gathered on his own excursions. These characters do not drag plot along with them; documentary moments write their thoughts.

Berger-WaysofSeeingThe museum itself is granted the deepest inner life, and in its passageways Cohen administers heavy doses of art history. Art history buffs may even recognize Johann’s narration; it could easily pass for a screenplay adaptation of art critic John Berger’s 1972 book and television series, Ways of Seeing. Berger is thanked in the closing credits, as he should be: an art student’s diatribe against the capitalistic underpinnings of Dutch still-life painting, a revelation that sex and gore in Baroque paintings could rival Hollywood’s excess, and even the human museum of yellowed snapshots, centerfolds, and newspaper clippings in Johann’s local bar are all lifted straight from his writing. The Bruegel gallery is host to an excessively overt scene in which a docent forces a Marxist humanist agenda on resistant visitors.

Beyond these direct quotations, Cohen’s film profoundly expresses Berger’s theory of the relationship between subject, object, and spectator. In a scene that departs from the movie’s persistent realism, a middle-aged woman slumps on a gallery bench, flipping half-heartedly through a brochure; an older man surveys an expanse of paintings; a young woman’s hands fidget nervously as she sways before a frame. Suddenly, all three are stripped completely bare. In the wooden, hushed interior of the gallery, the bold image shocks.

But this is more than an absurd gimmick. Berger says that to be nude is to be seen, while to be naked is to be oneself. Cloaked in convention, the nude reigns in art history; nakedness is rare. “At the moment of nakedness first perceived,” he writes, “an element of banality enters: an element that exists only because we need it.” In Museum Hours, banality dwells in the filmmaking: these visitors, not particularly beautiful or with impact on the story, remain lazily themselves, undisturbed by their exposure. For me, the moment was a confession of reality — I suddenly became conscious of Cohen’s presence, wondering how he had secured permission for this.

MH_Mary-Margaret-OHara

Mary Margaret O’Hara in Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” film still

It’s unclear if the museum visitors who crowd the film bought admission that day or are hired actors and the galleries a set. A sea of sneakers squeaks past marble nudes. An audio guide buzzes in the ear of a boy fighting boredom. A woman engrossed in a painting turns from it and, glancing directly into the camera, explodes into a laugh. Is she surprised to be caught in a stranger’s lens or dismayed at missing her cue? Cohen is a provocative editor, and instead of cutting the take, it remains buried in the celluloid, a testimony to reality’s persistence even while the camera rolls.

Berger argues that truly great artists are uninterested in the viewer’s expectations, relying on neither the conventions of representation nor realism. So idiosyncratic is their vision that their subject is transformed into something inaccessible to the spectator. “The spectator can witness their relationship — but he can do no more: he is forced to recognize himself as the outsider he is.”

Museum Hours is about outsiders learning to see: Anne, freed from an agenda and consumerism, experiences her trip visually; Johann, whose career is observation, finds that interaction allows distance from the familiar (this culminates in the film’s poetic finale, wherein art and life combine seamlessly); we, in the dark, air-conditioned theater, remain hopelessly remote from Vienna’s snow-covered streets, limited to Cohen’s vision.

Film still from Jem Cohen's "Museum Hours"

Film still from Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours”

A follower of both the unplanned and the ordinary, his eye sees the drama of street corners and flea markets in the same way it does masterpieces in frames and glass vitrines. By refusing to feed our expectations for the generic, he gives us space to think, insisting on what Berger said best: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Museum Hours is currently playing at select theaters in New York City and nationwide.

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  • Greg Masters

    In 1988, the lead actress, Mary Margaret O’Hara, released a phenomenal record called Miss America.

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