' Cinema Romantico: Museum Hours

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Museum Hours

“How do you know Cradle of Filth?” This is what Johann (Bobby Sommer), a gentlemanly security guard at a Vienna art museum, asks Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a Canadian visiting an ill relative in the Austrian capital, over coffee. A one-time band manager, he has revealed his adoration of heavy metal. She, in turn, has referenced AC/DC, Judas Priest and Cradle of Filth, though she wonders if that last one is really more like “death metal”. We would likely not confuse either of them for having even rudimentary knowledge of metal music, let alone being genuine fans of it, but then a first look or cursory glance does not yield full understanding of the complete picture. This is the lesson which "Museum Hours" imparts again and again in a myriad of stimulating ways.


Jem Cohen's modest and intimate film might be described as a unique amalgamation of fiction and documentary. The foremost setting is the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Cohen is not shy about filling the frame with its assortment of famous and stylized paintings and sculptures - often literally filling the frame with them, as if the viewer him or herself is a museum patron, standing on the opposite side of the velvet ropes and taking it all in. This might make it sound like "Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, in which Werner Herzog more or less used a film as a wondrous excuse to show us something we might not otherwise get to see, but that under sells the central relationship.

Cohen connects the artistic dots with the simple story of Johann and Anne's easygoing friendship, their expression of ideas and desires and secrets becoming as integral as the art. Sommer, a non-actor, possesses a voice that sonically resembles a museum’s soothing tones and often the film simply stops to grant him his inner thoughts. He confesses to us, and to Anne, a life of growing solitude, online poker and stillness, a tourist not only in his own city but in his own life. Likewise, as Anne sits solemnly at the side of her friend’s hospital bed, companionship is shown to be as vital of love.

Eventually the characters depart the city for the countryside where the camera remains fixed for an extended shot, gazing out across an amber field. From a distance, Johann and Anne enter the frame, walking to their right, before exiting the screen, then re-appearing, meandering back to the left, and evaporating from view once again. The shot has, in essence, become a portrait, presenting a broad and beautiful canvas, effortlessly illustrating how the view can change.

At another point Johann discusses a painting of Christ, except that what has stayed with him is not Christ’s image but the color blue. The blueness of the sky. The blueness of the river. It made me think of a Lissie concert I attended last year, the way it rejuvenated and cleansed me, and how when I expressed this sentiment, an old friend, now a Lutheran minister, remarked that this was my own way of having fellowship with God. Maybe that thought seems absurd, but while the frame of a painting can seem so finite, not unlike the world itself, it never truly is. We see it from our own angle.

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