Sunday, September 15, 2013

Museum Hours (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Museum Hours

Experimental video artist and photographer Jem Cohen delivers a thoughtful and provocative film with "Museum Hours", which is as much about how we interpret works of art as it is about two introspective people.

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a Kunsthistorisches Museum guard in Vienna. He passively sits behind a velvet rope as he watches visitors shuffle past the Brueghel room. Pink fleshy and startled faces ogle at the Dutch Master paintings and the motley inhabitants in the paintings stare back.

One afternoon,  Anne, a Montreal tourist (Mary Margaret O' Hara) catches the interest of Johann and they begin a conversation. Anne is concerned about her cousin Gerda (Ela Piplets) who is terminal in the hospital. The two talk about locations, culture, daily life and philosophy. Anne is excitable and self-deprecating while Johann is a bit passive and reserved. The two make an interesting and poignant coupling. Johann's exchanges are interspersed with his opinions on the tastes and values of the museum goers who may or may not get the full meaning of what they are observing. Brueghel's manic and heartfelt works depicting religion, sorcery, grotesquerie  and the ultimate overlooking of Nature is juxtaposed against the white Winter desolation of Vienna with its stark geometry of icy streets, hard right angles and pale blank faces. Johann has spirit for the memory of a young punk rock student who argued that all museums should be free and the downfall of Capitalism. Johann is a figure out of Paul Bowles, content to lie supine under Moroccan shades, smirking at western commerce. Anne for her part, is delighted by the happenstance of life.

Both actors flow with such easy chemistry that they seem people in a documentary. O' Hara, an avant garde singer who has worked with Leonard Cohen, Hal Willner and Morrissey, gives a slightly quirky, yet wonderfully human performance as someone fearful of solitude. Her voice rises and falls without warning and she sings like a cat who has lost eight lives.

In the film, the works of Brueghel are living organic entities which provoke nudity from their visitors. The best most subversive segments of "Museum Hours" recall the work of Peter Greenaway and Bunuel. The paintings themselves thrive within their medieval carnivals, seeming to mock and cajole the sharp edged architecture of a 21st Century Vienna beyond.

With its crisp colors and delicate Chinese ink textures, "Museum Hours" as an artifact by itself  is as much a painterly work as the paintings and the characters that drift infinitely along its digital path.

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