Wednesday, April 08, 2015

God is in the details

Given Jen's previous insistence that our date night films should have a plot, Jem Cohen's Museum Hours - an airily arty film about art - possibly wasn't the wisest of choices. However, at the end she declared it "quite good, although I was asleep for half of it".

The plot - such as it is - is almost entirely irrelevant: Canadian Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is called to Vienna when an estranged cousin falls into a coma and, in search of a guide and confidante, befriends Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard at the city's Kunsthistorisches Museum and a fellow lost soul (albeit more figuratively than literally). Nothing much else happens, and it's fair to say that the inclusion of identifiable central characters is purely a way of grounding ideas that would otherwise be abstract - having established the pair's relationship, Cohen is quite happy for it to be absent from the foreground for a long period in the second half of the film.

Cohen - who directed Fugazi documentary Instrument and has also worked with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and The Ex - includes John Berger in the credits, and certainly Museum Hours is all about ways of seeing and the importance of appreciating the minutiae. Johann and tour guide Gerda (Ela Piplits) draw attention to the fact that so much is going on in the paintings of Dutch artist Breugel (many of which are a prized part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum's collection) that the viewer continually sees new things and changes his or her perspective as regards what the focal point is.

The film isn't purely a lesson in art appreciation, though. It's also an American's ode to the culture, history and mystique of a European city, and an encouragement to view or read the urban landscape with the same level of exploratory scrutiny and fascination as you should a Breugel painting - a point underlined at the end when Johann starts describing city scenes beyond the museum's walls in the same way he's been describing the celebrated artworks hanging on them.

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