Some years ago I had the great fortune of seeing a Bruegel up-close, and marveling at the intimate minutia nestled away into its immense and bustlingly human canvas. On several occasions during Jem Cohen’s film, often when focused on the Bruegel’s of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches museum, I was reminded of Pablo Picasso’s notion that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls“, and I thought back to that day in the gallery, stood before my Bruegel, and wondered if Picasso was wrong, for what other than the dust of human life did this scene depict? The realisation, of course, was that most art is a depiction of the day-to-day; the once mundane; what Jan Švankmajer would call a scene of “the smell of humanity“.
At the film’s midway point, a guest lecturer at the museum proffers the question, “Can a painting really be timeless? They carry their time along with them, don’t they?” I pondered the idea that the appeal of art, beyond any aesthetic preference, must be the opportunity to glimpse a past otherwise lost, now buried in dust. I considered the scene in Museum Hours where Johann (Bobby Sommer) and Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) stand before the towering monuments of Cathedral Square, themselves nestled into an immense street scene, though more sparse than Bruegel’s, and then thought back to the shot which opened the film of the same street, focused on wet cement, cigarette butts, a folded note and abandoned beer can.
I considered a speech recalled by Johann, spoken by an art student, which begins with the student declaring that “when he looked at the paintings, he mostly just saw money, or more accurately, things standing in for money.” He goes on to suggest that “this was clearest in Dutch still-life’s, which were essentially just piled up possessions of the newly rich of that time. He said these were no different than if someone today were to paint a pile of Rolex watches, champagne bottles, and flat-screen TVs.” I thought about the cigarette butts and beer cans, and the Cathedral Square, and the café’s Johann and Anne visit, and the Bruegel’s in this new context, and thought that painting could be both timeless and not, because to quote Marcus Aurelius, “All things now are the same as they were in the day of those whom we have buried.”
So the characters looking through a shop window, or buying a loaf of bread in Bruegel’s ‘Children’s Games‘, are no different from Johann and Anne window shopping, or buying bread, or drinking coffee. I think of another Aurelius quote. “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept away by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.” This would seem to speak to two of Cohen’s preoccupations in Museum Hours, the topics of aging and friendship, both realised with longing and melancholy. Speaking to Anne, Johann remembers fondly his time as the manager of a punk band, and later recalls a time when he used to go bird-watching with a group he is no longer in contact with. “I’ve had my share of loud“, he says. “Now I’m having my share of quiet.”
Roger Ebert once wrote a review of The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), and realised by its end that for the entire piece he had been “preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics… rather than with reviewing.” I find that I have done something similar, but that I have been carried away by a far more pleasant preoccupation. I find myself responding to the film’s sense of affection, its unhurried pacing and warmth. I find myself not only loving the film but holding a deep respect for it, for the way it did not compromise its own intellect or insights in the fear that I would not understand them (many films make perfectly good points about their subject three times over, condescending their audience). I appreciated Cohen’s sense of artistry, his conceptualization of temporal and emotional space, and the way he cut and lit his film. Most of all I bow to this film for, yes, the boldness of its themes, and that it asked questions about time, love and memory, but more that it answered them modestly.
The film is articulate about its subject, which as I have mentioned is Johann and Anne. They do not fall in love, as most stories in this ilk would demand (it is revealed in the most subtle gesture that Johann is gay), but instead enjoy each other’s company, and each other’s stories, for the time they have them. Anne is visiting Vienna because her cousin is in hospital there, and so death hangs over the film like a crepuscular sky. But we do not fear it, because for the duration of Museum Hours, which is also beautifully and naturalistically played by its leads, we are in witness of something which seems to suspend death. The film is a tender and resonant miracle.
Museum Hours is in cinemas 6th September 2013.
Director: Jem Cohen
Writer: Jem Cohen
Stars: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Runtime: 107 min
Country: Austria, USA