Jem Cohen’s resplendent and contemplative Museum Hours requires patience and full attentiveness. For those willing to immerse themselves within the world he meticulously crafts before the viewer’s very eyes, there will be no greater joy in going to the movies this year. It’s a film built around looking at all of the things people take for granted and the slow, sometimes inscrutable moments in time around them. It’s a film that I would gladly write thousands of words about – analyzing every moment to infinity and back again until all actual meaning would drift away and it would turn into bullshit – but the point of Cohen’s work here is to see and interpret it for oneself.
There’s no real plot to speak of in the film, merely conversations to illustrate the building of kinship and the images that bring them together. It’s a touching metaphor for the power of all visual arts, because how many relationships – romantic, friendly, acrimonious – have been forged as a result of discussing what we take in? I dare say every relationship is informed by the art in our lives, and strengthened by our thoughts towards the things we don’t see as artistic on a passing glance. Cohen invites the viewer to take in everything in the world of its two primary subjects on a deeply intimate level.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. He spends most of his day taking in everything around him, and once his thoughts on the works of art surrounding him are exhausted, he turns to thinking about the greater place of art in the world and the subtle nature of the art around him. A former heavy metal band manager who has “had [his] fill of loud,” Johann is perfectly content sitting behind his faded security rope and in front of an ornate wooden door for the past six years. He narrates passages of the film like a cross between the analytical poeticism of a Werner Herzog and the candid observation of Woody Allen. He is the informed and educated everyman. He’s the blue collared man in the white collared world.
Johann one day through his observation notes a woman named Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who returns to the museum every day as a form of solace and a way to kill time on a shoestring budget that doesn’t allow for any other activities. Anne is visiting from Montreal, having borrowed money to visit an estranged cousin that’s lapsed into a coma. He gets a pass for the woman and they begin hanging out regularly inside and outside the museum. They have a shared love for observation, and while their relationship isn’t remotely romantic, it’s built on the kind of strong love for discourse and thought that belies their mutual passions.
Filmmaker, artist, and music video veteran (R.E.M., Fugazi) Cohen has done something truly unique. He’s crafted a film full of humour, warmth, and realistic levels of drama out of the asides people take for granted every day. His view of the art gallery as a place of wonder doesn’t stop within the frame of Rembrandt or the space on a male statue where a penis has somehow gone missing. He takes the art outside of its habitat to show it all around us in some of the most beautiful ways. Some films don’t waste a breath of dialogue. Cohen’s film doesn’t waste a single frame.
Shooting on both digital and 16mm, Cohen captures moments and images that would appear to be void of meaning for those who aren’t paying attention. Through the friendship of Anne and Johann and his ability to make the viewer care about them by only knowing them for a short while, these “voids” carry the stories of the ages. Some images are harder to discern meaning from than others. Some are simple. Some link up. Others don’t. The pair could be talking about anything from hobbies, to black metal, to sexuality, or Johann could be telling a great story with a killer punchline equating the economics behind running a museum and paying to see a movie. The moments captured by Cohen around the pair are very much real from skateboarders passing by fogged up glass windows to shots of a haphazard junk sale on a slushy, banana box lined street while a recording speaks about the book of the dead. These observational moments are real. The characters and their dialogue – no matter how pragmatic – is the artifice. One informs the other to a great degree.
What makes it all come together and worthy of a recommendation to anyone wanting to truly watch a great film, is a shrewd moment of self-critique about halfway through that’s remarkably egalitarian for a film about art. An art scholar (Ela Piplits, in one excellent and lengthy sequence) is put to the test by those in her tour who don’t subscribe to the interpretation of works of art she has spent her lifetime working about. They are simple questions, but one leads to another and gradually she becomes a bit standoffish, but never unprofessional. She ends the conversation having exhausted all of her knowledge by simply saying “There’s no reason we all have to share my opinion.” It’s the nature of criticism and the very nature of art distilled into a pitch perfect summary of Cohen’s M.O. and punctuated by a single cutaway shot at the end to reveal that Johann was listening in from afar the entire segment: the whole scene, another observation.
Of the critics who have previously written about Museum Hours, many liken it to an essay film, but there’s something far deeper than that going on when every shot can almost sprout reams of prose on their own. Cohen has made an unpretentious and honest work of art, asking viewers to take everything in to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them. The story doesn’t matter as there really isn’t too much of one to speak of, but the stories are up to the viewer to discern and there aren’t any wrong answers. It’s one of the best examples of a filmmaker deftly making an unpretentious work and making viewers care about singular images and the details within them. But then again, there’s no reason why you need to share my opinion on this.