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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Time to meditate with the film ‘Museum Hours’

The Magic Lantern continues to open one interesting film after the next. And other than the fact that most of the films showing at Spokane's only independent art moviehouse won't play anywhere else, the range of themes and styles and genres is surprisingly wide. From musical docs to thought-provoking works of art.

Following is my Spokane Public Radio review for the art film "Museum Hours," which won't appeal to everyone. But if you like art, and the confluence of art and human experience, you'll likely appreciate it:

Artists tend to see the world differently. The best artists can transform images of the world from what most of us may see as pedestrian into something special – something that may actually be deemed worthy enough to display in a museum.

Or, for that matter, screened in a movie theater. This ability to see beyond the ordinary is certainly true of those filmmakers whose work goes in distinctly non-mainstream directions.

Take the film “Museum Hours,” which opens today at the Magic Lantern. If I were forced to describe writer-director Jem Cohen’s film in 25 words or less, it might go something like this: “A Vienna museum guard meets a Canadian woman and, as he helps her find a hospitalized friend, the two strike up a budding relationship.”

Imagine how an ordinary American film following that simple plotline would play out. Got it? Now, forget everything you just imagined. Because Cohen, a New York-based maker of art films and documentaries, is about as far from ordinary as it is possible to be.

Cohen tells his story through Johann, played by Austrian actor Bobby Sommer. Johann is a 60-something security guard working in Vienna’s famed Kunsthistoriches art museum. If you came upon Johann, you might see him as merely another authority figure, an addendum to the art surrounding him, put there only to make sure you follow the rules. … But you would be wrong.

As he discloses in voiceover, Johann has enjoyed a life full of experiences that have given him the maturity to understand, and appreciate, the mere fact of existence, not to mention art that represents it. Johann also appreciates the people who visit his museum. It is through his eyes, and through Cohen’s camera, that we begin to see these visitors as art, too.

One such visitor is Anne, a woman from Montreal played by Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara. Johann’s simple offer of help, which involves guiding her to a local hospital, gradually evolves into friendship. Anne has come to be with a cousin who is in a coma. With nothing else to do in her spare moments, and no money to do it with, she begins to spend time with Johann, exploring both the museum – and Vienna itself.

And what has become clear by now in “Museum Hours”– demonstrated by the film’s ample use of voiceover, the visuals that footnote Johann’s lucid commentary, the lingering shots of art in the museum AND of ordinary life in the streets outside – is that writer-director Cohen isn’t interested in any typical storyline. Or maybe any storyline at all.

What he IS interested in is far closer to what may have interested the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the mid-16th century when he was capturing images of Dutch peasant life. To Cohen, perhaps echoing Bruegel, there is no Art Representing Life. There is only life itself.

Which might not make for an entertaining evening for lovers of movie action. At times, to be truthful, “Museum Hours” seems slower than drying paint. But for those who love spending their hours contemplating the nature of art, Cohen’s film may just feel like a relaxing, thoughtful meditation on the question of what, in the end, constitutes culture.

Re. the trailer below: This official trailer captures a lot of the imagery of the film "Museum Hours," but it definitely makes the film seem more lively than it really is. Most of the film, in fact, is far slower, far more quiet, far more meditative.