Film Review: “Museum Hours” — A Slice of Sleepy Intellectualism

Critics have been more than kind to Museum Hours, respectful of its sleepy intellectualism in a 2013 summer of brainless action flicks.

Museum Hours. Directed by Jem Cohen. At Kendall Square Cinema and other movie houses around New England.

By Gerald Peary

taking in the scene in "Museum Hours."

Johann (Bobby Sommer) taking in the passing parade in “Museum Hours.”

I recall a droll funny strip, perhaps a Dilbert, in which the comic characters pass a security guard sitting upright behind a desk, where he presumably holds fort for many hours a day. “I wonder what he’s thinking?” one character asks the other, as they walk by. The punch line is a bubble above the head of the impassive guard, revealing what occupies his brain: “I wonder what balsa wood tastes like.”

The museum guard protagonist of Museum Hours, Jem Cohen’s indie feature, is, fortunately, a more imaginative, active thinker than the bloke above. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is employed at the wonderful Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and relishes his hours standing about. He makes time each day to interface with the world-class art collection that he is charged with guarding, and he’s especially delighted by the Bruegel room. Here is the best selection of Pieter the Elder in the world.

Johann also studies the patrons who come and go.

The most frequently asked question, Johann explains in voice-over, is “Where is there a bathroom?” Very rude patrons in search of relief are sent by Johann and other guards on “the scenic route” to the needed toilet. As for teenage visitors on school trips, Johann has become philosophical about their inattentiveness, their texting in lieu of looking at masterful paintings, their tuning out the insights of their lecturing teachers. He’s amused that teens’ favorite art works in the museum are those with imagery akin to schlock horror movies. Art-dead high-schoolers wake up when standing before any of the Kunsthistorisches’s formidable collection of painted beheadings: John the Baptist and other headless victims.

When Johann checks out the crowd, he’s attracted to some of the people, he explains, but he’s not sure why. I’ve certainly no idea why he, or filmmaker Cohen, decided that Johann would enter conversation with Anne (English-Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), in Vienna from Montreal, and spend the rest of the film accompanying her about his city. Anne is dull, dull, dull, and this movie is dead, dead, dead during the numerous scenes in which Johann and Anne converse. Johann’s vivid, curious mind in German voice-over dumbs down as he delivers tedious talks to her about the history of Vienna in slow, faltering English.

There’s practically no plot. Anne has come to Vienna because a cousin of hers is there in a hospital in a coma. Johann helps Anne by speaking for her in German to the doctors and nurses. Between trips to look in on her unmoving relative, Anne walks about Vienna with Johann, has beers with him, checks out paintings with him back at the museum. There is no sexual tension between them: Johann alludes once to an ex-male boyfriend. There is nothing between them. Again, dull, dull, dull.

Critics have been more than kind to Museum Hours, respectful of its sleepy intellectualism in a 2013 summer of brainless action flicks. I can say that the many random shots of Vienna are nicely framed, sensuous to look at, complementing the various shots up close of paintings and sculpture in the Kuntshistorisches. Best, we are privy, in the middle of the film, to an insightful lecture by real-life art historian Ela Piplits, standing amidst the holy Bruegels.

“Can a painting really be timeless?” the historian challenges one of the clichéd pieties about art. “It carries its time along with it.” As for the sentimentalized belief that Bruegel created “Quaint scenes of peasant life,” Piplits counters that the Flemmish painter was a tough-minded documentarian. She points to a tiny, tiny figure in the corner of an allegorical painting of the Tower of Babel. Cohen’s camera comes in close: it’s a hearty peasant, ass-forward, taking a crap!

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