“Museum Hours” is now playing in Portland at the Living Room Theaters. Most recently this film screened a few nights at the Northwest Film Center, but this is another opportunity for Portlanders to see this unique film, which blends elements of documentary and drama.
As “Museum Hours” opens, Johann (Bobby Sommer) is standing guard. A long shot shows him unmoving in the background of a large space in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He is the perfect guard, invisible yet watchful. After credits, the film cuts to a woman’s back. She is on the phone, asking to borrow money for some sort of a journey. We learn later she is Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara).
Cut back to the museum, where Johann still stands and narrates in a voiceover. When he has free time, he gazes at the paintings himself, often finding something new. He is intrigued in particular by the detail in the paintings of the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, whose works in part feature peasants engaged in activities of everyday life with some odd eccentricities thrown in.
There are frequent shots of the paintings, sculptures, and artifacts in the museum, along with the patrons. One day, Anne enters the museum, and eventually a friendship develops between Anne and Johann. Johann learns she is visiting from Canada because her cousin Janet is in the hospital. Janet is in a coma, and it seems unlikely she will recover. Anne enlists Johann’s help in dealing with the medical staff. Outside the hospital, Johann becomes a tour guide for Anne, introducing her to parts of the city he’d almost forgotten.
This film, though, is not only about the developing friendship between these two lonely people. It is also about the world in which they live, and how the urban and country landscapes, along with the random people, creatures (birds especially), vehicles, buildings, and other parts of the surroundings create a kind of moving art outside the museum.
At first, this theme is subtle. Going back to the beginning of the film, notice that Johann is framed by a huge ornate doorway, as if he is a figure in a painting like the paintings surrounding him. (This opening shot is in the slideshow above). Next, as Anne is on the phone, her back to the viewer, she is also framed by a window and barely moving, again appearing as if she were in a painting. There are frequent cuts between details of fine art and “real life” in Vienna.
As Johann shows Anne around town, he realizes that in a way he is seeing his city anew. He remembers, “I hadn’t been there in years and actually liked these places.” The camera settles its view on items in a flea market, store fronts, massive buildings, a beautiful plaza, and much more. It is all worthy of a gaze.
When Anne and Johann are sitting next to Janet’s bed and simply looking at her, a painting is evoked. Later, at a cafe, a man at a pool table stands frozen, as if posing for a portrait. Paintings of Hopper, Rembrandt, and others come to mind as one looks carefully at the world outside the museum.
Johann observes an interesting interaction back in the museum. A guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) is talking about Bruegel’s paintings with a small group of art patrons. When one person remarks that his paintings appear timeless, she responds, “….can a painting really be timeless? They carry that time along with them, don’t they? Though much of it falls off along the way… like dirt from a turning wheel. And what if we can’t be so sure just what stories are being told?”
She sees Bruegel’s works as a link between medieval and modern times in which he blended the fantastic with reality, demonstrating “hallucinations of the real.” A patron disagrees with her on what is significant in his paintings, and there is a bit of a back-and-forth discussion. In the end, isn’t this one of the values of art, bringing creations into ourselves and drawing meaning?
These reflections on art, meaning, life, and reality quietly pervade the film. Interspersed often are shots from Vienna, then images of fine art. A particular image of an old man is immediately mirrored by a painting. As the film concludes, there is a fascinating discussion of a woman walking on a path as a line of cars, tail lights blazing red, is on the left in the roadway. A clarity arises.
This film is directed by Jem Cohen, a filmmaker who haw worked on videos and films with musicians including R.E.M. and Patti Smith (who is an executive producer). Cohen was fascinated by the Bruegel Room in this museum himself, and developed his ideas for “Museum Hours” as he reflected in particular on Bruegel’s painting on the conversion of St. Paul.
The style brings to mind at times not only the quick cuts in music videos but also echoes some of the stylistic choices of Jim Jarmusch. Natural and existing artificial lighting are used, adding to the documentary sensibility. Dialogue is crisp, somewhat minimalist, and periods of silence allow for contemplation.
There is a bit of singing by Anne, lovely and meaningful. Mary Margaret O’Hara, in fact, is a Canadian singer-songwriter as well as an actor. Bobbie Sommer is a nonprofessional actor. “Museum Hours” is his first film where he acted, adding authenticity. Also interesting is that Cohen used a 16mm film camera for exterior shots and a digital camera for interior, blending seamlessly warmth and coldness.
Cohen’s background shooting documentary street footage clearly comes into play in this film. He wanted to make a film that did not tell the viewer what to think, feel, or observe. Instead, he wanted a film to “encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of movie this is.'” Cohen’s concept was to deal with some big ideas but to provide a lot of small details and then let the viewer put it all together in his or her own way. He succeeds.
This is a great opportunity to see “Museum Hours” and then, it is recommended, talk about it with friends over coffee or a beer. There is much to contemplate, debate, and enjoy.
Tickets can be purchased on line or at the box office at the Living Room Theaters, 341 SW Tenth Avenue, Portland OR 97205. The phone number is (971) 222.2010. What’s cool about the Living Room Theaters is that you choose your seat and that there is food service in the theater (as long as you order from the varied menu a half hour before the screening time). This includes the best caramel popcorn, handmade truffles from a local merchant, a variety of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, and food choices such as tapas, pizza, paninis and salads.
Sources: Website for “Museum Hours,” Living Room theater website, IMDb website. Reprinted with some revisions.