Everyone’s familiar with the stereotype of the aloof aesthete. Usually a white male of middle age, this straw man haunts the collective imagination’s university halls, library stacks, arthouse theaters, and, most conspicuously, those sealed-off sacristies of art: museums. Too busy burying his nose in books of poetry, his eyes too accustomed to the dim lighting of the interiors he roams, this eminent specter has lost the ability to see the world right in front of him. He’s become lost in a world of imitation, so entranced by the artist’s mirror that he’s forgotten all about the miraculous reality that inspired the reflection in the first place. An unwitting ascetic, this museum-dweller has turned away from life itself, sealing himself off in a dusty mausoleum consigned to the distant past. Perhaps such people really do exist in real life, but they have no place in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which aims to blur the boundaries between art and life rather than enforce them.
At first glance, Museum Hours’ narrator might seem to fit the profile of the figure described above. Johann (Bobby Sommer) lives a solitary existence, and spends much of his time wandering through Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. His profession immediately complicates this possibility, however: as one of the museum’s security guards, Johann is situated between the museum’s goods and its patrons, patrolling the borders between life and art. While the film never includes anything approaching a security problem, Johann’s position as a mediator is demonstrated by the way he splits his time watching the museum’s collection and its visitors. Cohen cuts suggestively between images of artworks and those observing them, shooting both with immense curiosity. Both Cohen and his onscreen surrogate are more interested in what art and reality tell us about each other than what divides them.
The film’s scope expands when Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) begins to show up at the museum. A Canadian visitor to the city, Anne arrives with no connections to anyone besides the coma-bound cousin she has come to visit. Anne and Johann strike up a friendship, and begin spending increasing amounts of time together both inside and outside the museum. When Johann guides Anne through the streets of Vienna, Cohen unfolds the film into a city symphony, using the same detail-searching eye with which he explored the museum to capture the hidden beauty of urban life. The film’s goals are explained midway through the runtime by a museum guide who tries to convince a crowd of bumbling philistines (by far this otherwise generous film’s cheapest caricature) to look beyond the nominal subjects of Brueghel’s paintings and take in the painter’s rich documentation of human life. This interlude might have come across as unbearably pedantic if its message was anything less humble and sincere: Cohen asks us not to look for closed off meaning in art, but to focus on the way art is flooded with messy, mundane, glorious life.
Though Johann’s job is one most associated with keeping boundaries intact, enforcing distances between museum patrons and the works they might damage if they draw too close, Museum Hours is in the business of erasing boundaries. Cohen isn’t a proponent of art for art’s sake; one of his most brilliant moves is to acknowledge critiques of art’s cultural status, then proceed to spin them to art’s advantage. It’s true that our experience of art is mediated and determined in part by economic and erotic factors, he admits, but shouldn’t it be, since life itself is often driven by the same forces? This contamination isn’t a liability, he insists, but an immense asset. It’s this cross-pollination that allows us to see a Brueghel landscape and a dirty Vienna street with the same sense of rapture, the same richness of perception. Johann and Anne fade in and out of this canvas, sometimes assuming a central position in the composition only to withdraw into the background. Their relationship is yet another thing the film refuses to compartmentalize, never dismissing or consummating the romantic potential of their friendship. They drift together and apart through art and life, letting their time together and in the museum enrich their hours outside it and apart, and vice versa. Cohen refuses to saddle this story with a thesis, but the film does suggest an implicit request: when you emerge from the theater, don’t shield your eyes at the sudden flood of daylight. Instead, drink it all in; Museum Hours will be all the more powerful for it.