There have been news articles about how refined Hollywood script analysis is becoming. It turns out that certain story beats happen at more or less the exact same place in many current films: The statement of the theme comes in the first few minutes, the false victory after 55 minutes, and so on.
These kinds of articles usually evoke handwringing over the death of cinema. I'm hardly immune to these feelings, but I know in the back of my mind that thrillingly unconventional movies will continue to be made, and often for little or no money. Museum Hours is one those movies
In the spirit of the film, which is both scripted and improvised, documentary and fiction, I've assembled several notes about it in no particular order.
—Museum Hours is set in Vienna, and it reminds me of three other films I love that are set in that city.
—In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were young, sexy backpackers on a train. They spend a night walking in Vienna, having long conversations about the world and their futures. In Museum Hours, Johann and Anne are middle-aged strangers who meet in a Vienna museum and take long walks around the city. They have long conversations about art, the world and their pasts. But this film is not about a love affair.
Before Sunrise and Museum Hours both feature poems by W.H. Auden, who lived in Vienna at the end of his life.
—Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher took a switchblade to Vienna's exalted cultural institutions. But there's no sadomasochism, or blood, or even raised voices in the gentle Museum Hours. The museum of the title is the Kunsthistorisches, where Johann works as a guard and Anne comes to visit. In both films, there is tension between the hyper-cultivation of Vienna's art institutions and the banal squalor of people's lives.
—In The Third Man, Joseph Cotten stars as an American who visits Vienna in search of a friend who turns out to be dead. He meets someone else. In Museum Hours, Mary Margaret O'Hara is Anne, a Canadian who visits Vienna to care for a comatose distant relative who has no other family. She meets someone else (Johann, played by Bobby Sommer). Very late in both films, the couples travel along waterways beneath the city—in the sewers in one case, and through an underground lake in the other.
—This movie reminds me of movies about art, especially The Mill and the Cross, which imagined the world of Bruegel the Elder when he painted the fantastical work of the title. In Museum Hours, among the many masterpieces in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are some marvelous Bruegels. Johann tells us he likes to pass the time on his shifts looking for certain details in the paintings, such as frying pans. Director Jem Cohen gives us details of Bruegel's rustic tableaus of hundreds of individually detailed people—a child wearing a too-big soldier's helmet, for example, or a man defecating in a river.
—In the closest thing Museum Hours has to a conventionally staged dramatic scene, a visiting curator lectures a group of tourists; as their questions prove to be obtuse and literal-minded, she becomes more strident and impatient.
—If Bruegel is the spirit-painter of Museum Hours, the spirit-filmmaker is Jean Luc-Godard. Don't be frightened, though: Jem Cohen is the warm, empathetic student to Godard's forbidding, unyielding Martin Luther. But like Godard, Cohen is interested in the history of culture and how it intersects with history and our lives today. There's a brilliant, Godard-worthy passage in which Johann recalls a cocky young grad student co-worker who told him that the Dutch still-lifes produced by the likes of Vermeer were essentially celebrations of newfound wealth—that the burghers who commissioned them wanted to show off their watches and necklaces in what amounted to 17th-century rap videos. There's a great line about early capitalism and late capitalism, too.
—Cohen is no newbie, with associates such as Patti Smith (who gets a producer credit on this film), Jim Jarmusch, Ian MacKaye, Vic Chesnutt and R.E.M. But he comes from a background of non-commercial cinema. Museum Hours isn't commercial, but it's concerned with commerce, like Godard's films.
—Museum Hours is a great film.
—The poverty of artists is a theme of Museum Hours. Vienna in winter looks like a terrible place to be a foreigner alone (as it was for Mozart to be sick and poor, as it turned out). Cohen gives us details—marvelous blues—of Rembrandt portraits where there's evidence of the artist's poverty impeding his ability to get paint. Johann tells Anne that many of the great masterpieces earned their creators very little money when they were painted. They often died poor and forgotten.
—Johann and Mary are two unforgettably ordinary middle-aged loners. Johann loves Bruegel, and Mary follows suit. And they both love heavy metal. They were young once.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Viennese waltz."