I recently watched Museum Hours by Jem Cohen, which I really liked it. You could say it is a film about a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria who develops a friendship with woman from Montreal who is in town to sit with a comatose relative in the hospital, but it is really a film about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish Renaissance painter best known for his landscapes and peasant scenes, and iconic paintings such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and The Tower of Babel.
This is my favorite kind of movie: contemplative, intelligent, and behind the scenes. The Canadian is the perfect accidental tourist and her befriended guard is excellent as a nonchalant, back alley guide. The most brilliant thing about this movie is the use of segue. In one scene, a series of shots focus on details of a Bruegel painting with the guide’s voice listing the objects “…discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg…”, and then the images switch to nondescript ground shots in Vienna, as he continues “…a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can.”
This is when Bruegel really takes over and we understand that Cohen is telling us that the Bruegel room, in which the guard spends a lot of his time, is not stuck in the 16th century but is part of a continuum, and while there are many other works of art shown throughout the film, and many moments outside of the museum in greater Vienna, they all tie back to the inclusiveness of even the smallest details captured by Bruegel.
Close-ups of the museum goers still faces are compared to portraits of sitters who died centuries ago, and for one brief scene three visitors appear nude in the galleries, which for me means that without being able to peg an era by fashion, not much has changed in humans and we are still the same fleshy creatures as portrayed in the old paintings.
The transitions are numerous but subtle and never overplayed. A collection of museum items switches to a scrappy flea market, and the audio guide describing an Egyptian scroll plays on while the camera looks over the detritus of Vienna.
The most random shots, like B-roll of kids skateboarding under a bridge, take on Bruegel characteristics. One of the skater youth pictured here, wearing the blue-striped hoodie (third from top), might as well be sitting on the edge of a wooden horse-drawn cart or on a tree stump in a Bruegel painting.
My favorite transition is from a shot of small, old museum portraits to people pictures taped to the wall in a local pub. While the present live shots in the film pull the past forward, these photographs remind us how quickly our present slips into the past, thereby archiving our daily activities to be looked at with the same curious eye with which we view the subjects of past eras.
Some of the best commentary from the guide is regarding school groups. He remarks that the teenage students are always bored and impudent but they perk up when they see the paintings of decapitations because of their horror value, especially Medusa’s severed head of snakes.
He says they are also interested in nudity and comments that they can access all the free porn they desire on the Internet but questions “…where else [but at the museum] can one look at such a thing without shame?" Not only does the guard have the advantage of seeing countless visitors to help him take a pulse of society but as a guard he has a special invisibility status.
Despite the wealth of art and artifacts in the museum, the guard tells us that the most common question he gets is for directions to the bathroom. The parallel Bruegel detail to this is when a guest lecturer in the Bruegel room points out to her small group a man defecating by a stream in The Tower of Babel.
A polite visitor who needs the WC will be told how to quickly get there but the guard says that he and the others are tired of the rude visitors, who they deal with by sending them on the "scenic route."
Click here to watch a trailer for Museum Hours.