Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Museum Hours: So much more than art

A panorama of Viennese working class culture and a hymn to the museum, the new film Museum Hours inspires its viewers to look, yes, but also to see.

Director Jem Cohen hovers his magnifying glass over the streets of Vienna and the city's beloved Kunsthistoriches Museum. It is a privileged view for the less itinerant of us. Built in 1891 to house the collection of the imperial family, the Museum has long been a haven of history and the senses. It is also one of friendship: Johann, a gentle, middle-aged museum guard has worked at the Kunsthistoriches for six years; he comes to know Anna, a frequent visitor as of late, who has flown in from Canada to visit her ailing cousin.

The exchanges between the new friends breathe fresh meaning into the museum as a metaphor for life. The more you look the more you discover; the more you discover the less alone you feel.

Cohen invites us to notice details in the seemingly ordinary. We need not ascribe beauty or power to them, but simply notice them. That is how Johann passes the time so pleasantly at work. One of his recent discoveries is a detail in a Breughel painting: a skillet protruding from a reveler’s hat. This leads him to consider eggs, which in turn leads him on a quest to find eggs in every painting he can. This is what it means to be human: to use our powers of observation, and often patience.

Cohen puts you in uncomfortable places that you can either flee or inhabit. When confronted with an unexciting field of wheat on a hill, adorned with but a few winter-bare trees, you realize you are looking at a living painting. Suddenly you understand.

And yet, the scene continues to surprise. Once Johann and Anne approach the hilltop, only Johann is visible for some seconds. He is at the edge of the camera’s lens and Anne is just beyond it. For all the cinematic rhetoric this defies, it feels paradoxically organic. It is akin to looking at an awkwardly cropped Degas painting: it is capturing an unstaged moment in time, and it makes no effort to accommodate our expectations.

The familiar or under-looked details in Museum Hours - textured layers of paint on a canvas; a child's face - crystallize at the end of the film, in Johann’s soliloquy. The manner in which light hits an object, or the way a person expresses pleasure or pain, is worth noticing. Such details enhance our experience of the world, just as making a discovery at the art museum leaves us with a flutter in our hearts.

No comments:

Post a Comment