I still remember well my exciting two weeks in Chicago in 2010, and many of my sweet memories are involved with its streets, buildings, people, and museums. While going here and there around the Loop and other areas of Chicago for many museums and galleries, I observed and photographed the streets and people whenever they happened to interest me, and those fabulous pictures and other curious artifacts in the Art Institute of Chicago and other museums were also something to be remembered from time to time.
While I was watching Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours” slowly strolling around Vienna and its famous museum, my mind went back to how much I absorbed from the streets of Chicago – and how much I enjoyed myself at the Art Institute of Chicago. When it is not looking around Vienna, the movie merely looks around the beautiful artworks in the museum with its two main characters, but, as it closely observes the paintings and museum visitors in its immersive meditative mood, we come to look closer at details, and then we also come to look closer at other seemingly trivial things outside the museum as if they were parts of bigger paintings to be appreciated.
At the beginning, we get to know a bit about Johann(Bobby Sommer), a guard who has been working in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for years. His job is mostly sitting at one spot in the museum for several hours, but he is not bored at all. According to his narration, he had his share of loud times through various careers when he was young and wild, and now he is happy to have his share of quiet, peaceful time at the museum while looking around all these gorgeous paintings hung on the walls – or the visitors who attentively look at them while never paying attention to him and his co-workers.
He particularly loves the paintings by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and, naturally, many of Bruegel’s famous works owned by the museum are shown to us throughout the film. Since I saw it from one of the books I read during my kindergarten years, “The Tower of Babel’ has been remembered well at the corner of my brain along with other famous paintings from the Renaissance era, and I especially like the moment when a guide points out a small naughty detail inside this painting. It is just a tiny figure, but it may make you smile for its naughtiness when you look at it closer.
As watching other Bruegel’s paintings, I realized again that they are always compelling and interesting to watch due to their distinctively detailed aspects. There are many notable things happening here and there in “The Peasant Wedding”, and the same thing can be said about “The Procession to Calvary”, which was the main subject of another nice art film “The Mill and The Cross”(2011). While Jesus Christ carrying his cross may look like the official center of this painting, he and other biblical figures are surrounded by so many other vivid figures and details that it is sometime hard to notice him when you look at this painting at first, and you will probably come to wonder about Bruegel’s intention as admiring his artistry.
In case of “Conversion of Paul”, a horse’s buttock is amusingly at the center of its composition, and the guide says that a small boy wearing armor besides the tree may be the real point of the picture. Considering the politically oppressive mood in Flanders during Bruegel’s era, such an understatement bushed by bountiful details might have been a wry way of artistic expression of his thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile, a stranger comes into Johann’s quiet life. She is a Canadian woman named Anne(Mary Margaret O’Hara), and she comes to Vienna because of her dying cousin whom she never met again after their childhood years. She has nothing to do except visiting her cousin in comatose state at the hospital, so she frequently comes to spend most of her time at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and that is how she comes to be noticed by Johann.
After he kindly helps her when she is having some difficulty with a map due to language barrier, they become a little friendly to each other under his tentative approach, and then they come to spend more time together while walking around the streets of Vienna. The movie wisely does not overplay the intimacy growing between them; they just happen to be lonely strangers drawn to each other, and they certainly feel good to be in each other’s company even though their time is probably limited.
Johann takes Anne to several places including an underground lake outside the city. He slowly begins to notice small things in his city like he did while observing the paintings and people in the museum, and now the city looks different to him more than before. Anne also enjoys many sights around the city while learning a number of interesting things in the city from Johann, and there is a good scene in which she enthusiastically describes about when she happened to see a flock of pigeons gathering on the bank of a river.
I only heard that the director Jem Cohen is a established filmmaker who made several feature films along with many short documentary films, but I can say that he is very good at capturing the mood of different places, and the movie is a mesmerizing work filled with details to be appreciated. I immensely enjoyed those beautiful paintings shown in the film while learning a little more about them, so I gladly listened to a long scene devoted to a part of guide tour at the museum, and I also looked at many small and big things in the city with considerable interest. Yes, the movie does feel like a tourism flick at times, but it is a very good one worthwhile to be revisited someday.