The World Viewed
Max Nelson on Museum Hours

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a strange and rare kind of movie: a narrative feature about how we look at things. Most dramatic films are essentially teleological; they propose some end that has to be arrived at through a series of advances, setbacks, struggles, and retreats. Looking, by contrast, is stubbornly static. The eye sees an object and lingers on it, not because it thinks the object good for anything, but just because it likes it, the way people like certain foods, songs, times of day—or even certain other people. Lacking any clearly defined end or goal, this contact between eye and object also lacks any clearly defined limits; the length of time the eye rests on its catch depends more or less on the extent of its curiosity, or on its not being distracted by some other object it likes even better. Looking is, in its purest form, solitary, even solipsistic—the eye creates a world for itself, and calls it good.

Cohen has challenged himself not only with dramatizing something fundamentally undramatic but also with socializing something essentially antisocial. He achieves this by equating the disinterested pleasure we get from looking with the similarly disinterested pleasures of family, friendship, and love. The impulse to delight in a picture, an object, a gesture, or a song for its own sake is, Cohen suggests, not very far from the impulse we have to delight in our fellow human beings for their own sake—the impulse that draws Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) from Montreal to Vienna to the deathbed of an estranged cousin, and the impulse that leads Johann (Bobby Summer), an aging guard in the magnificent, sepulchral Vienna Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, to approach the lost Canadian woman and offer her his help, or maybe just his company. He’s drawn to her over the other patrons of the museum’s magnificent Brueghel room just like he’s drawn to certain figures in the painter’s teeming canvases over others. She interests him, with her tousled hair and her slightly creased face and the look of disappointment in her eyes, and it’s one of the movie’s great mysteries that his aesthete’s fascination with her (really, their shared fascination with each other) is indecipherable from true kindness.

Lengthy passages in Museum Hours are drawn from Cohen’s time spent wandering Vienna camera in hand: offhand portraits of children swiveling impatiently in chairs, museum-goers strolling from room to room, cramped trolley riders, urban professionals of all ages hurrying to work, rustling leaves, street vendors, rain-soaked photographs lying on the ground, buildings that still bear the traces of their torn-down neighbors, abandoned storefronts, birds in flight—all interspersed with similarly precise details of works in the museum’s collection. A flock of birds glides off a Vienna office block and suddenly appears frozen mid-flutter in a painted sky. A kindly, red-faced man has his expression mirrored in a Renaissance-era portrait, and it’s unclear to what extent we ought to distinguish between the two. Brueghel, argues a visiting museum guide (Ela Piplits) in the film’s centerpiece lecture, was just another kind of documentarian.

Cohen doesn't seem especially interested in the morality of looking at other people with the same kind of interest we might have in their painted counterparts. (Do we, for instance, sell others short by reducing them to catalogues of external details, however expressive or moving those details might be?) He’s more concerned with demonstrating that those who do look at others this way, whether out of habit or nature or both, might still be able to cultivate meaningful relationships in the process. The unclassifiable, entirely Platonic friendship at the center of Museum Hours starts in the museum and continues into Vienna’s streets and bars, but it’s always predicated on a shared attachment to this very particular way of looking; on both parties’ willingness to keep the other a little far off, in a space where each can give his or her eyes and ears free rein. It’s also predicated on their shared loneliness: Johann spends his evenings playing online poker, Anne by singing softly to the comatose cousin she knew well only in childhood. Their friendship keeps them alone, but it gives each one a vicarious share in the other’s aloneness: he rediscovers Vienna, he tells us in voiceover, by seeing it through her eyes.

It might be said that it’s misguided at best and ethically dubious at worst to conflate life and art in the way that Cohen’s film, and its heroes, aspire to. “For myself,” the dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in a speech addressed (but never delivered) to a graduating class of Juilliard dance majors: “I make a distinction between seeing daily life and seeing art. Not that seeing is different. Seeing is the same. But seeing art is seeing an ordered and imaginary world, subjective and concentrated…There is nothing everyday about art... And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it.”

Perhaps Brueghel’s paintings have such a prominent place in Museum Hours precisely because their world is so disordered, so close to reality, so radically unconcentrated. The young boy standing under the poplar tree in the center of the canvas, his oversized helmet falling down over his eyes, is the true focus of The Conversion of Paul, Piplits argues—but you could make just as strong a case for the two donkeys mooning the viewer in the foreground, or for the steep cliff on the edge of which most of the painting’s figures are precariously perched. In an adjacent painting, a tiny figure crouches by a lake and defecates; in another, passersby fail to notice Christ’s trek to Calvary. For Cohen, there is something everyday about art, or at least Brueghel’s art, and it’s this grain of everyday-ness in the painted world that gives Anne and Johann the right to look at that world in roughly the same way that they look at their own.

Cohen believes in these paintings, or at least convinces us he does. He suggests that there’s a kind of life in them, a chaotic, messy order not far from the one that governs our own experience. One explanation for his heroes’ loneliness is that they recognize this life and can’t manage to engage with it from any perspective other than that of the detached museum-goer, trapped outside the frame. Even the artworks themselves seem lonely, as if they’re trapped inside the frame: one late Rembrandt self-portrait stares back sadly at the people passing it by, their shadows reflected in the painting’s glass pane. Though Cohen sets up countless parallels between the world inside the frame and the world beyond it, it’s the contrast between the constant motion of the Viennese—whether meandering through the museum halls or power-walking in the street outside—and the absolute stillness of the painted world that most resonates; the contrast between a changeless, ageless life and one marked by flux, disruption and loss. Anne spends the film living under the constant threat of her cousin’s death, to the point where her own life starts to seem like a suspended sentence, and art a kind of reprieve. She brings Johann to the hospital and asks him to describe the museum’s most famous paintings to her unresponsive patient. It’s another sort of vicarious looking, meant, like Johann’s evocation in the film’s final minutes of a long-gone childhood storefront, to place the listener outside of time altogether—whether in an idealized past or in the “ordered and imaginary world” of art.

“I am interested,” Denby intended to tell his listeners, many of them critics-to-be, “to bring your attention or recall to your experience not [a] professional way of seeing, but a more general way… the way you yourselves I suppose look at pictures, at buildings, at political history or at landscapes or at strangers you pass on the street.” Or the way Cohen looks—casually, curiously, out of equal parts pleasure and necessity. He has a way of looking at art that allows for the satisfaction of thought but not the restrictions of Grand Theory, and a way of looking at the world that takes in everything, from an abandoned pair of pants found in the street to an empty bag about to be blown away by the wind.

This general way of seeing has the effect of bringing art a little closer to life. It’s what we practice when we try to describe something interesting we’ve seen to friends, even though we know we won’t do it justice, because not to describe it at all would be even worse; when we go to a movie with someone we care about and keep glancing at them to follow their reactions; when we go for a walk we’ve taken a hundred times before and notice for the first time a detail that reminds us of something just read, watched, or heard. Or when we walk out of a film like this one, grateful that there’s so much to look at, and a little overwhelmed that we have, relatively speaking, so little time and so few opportunities to see it.