“Museum Hours”: When the paintings look back at you


“Museum Hours” screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Free for members; $7 at the door for everyone else. Not rated, 1:46, three and a half stars out of four.

It’s fitting, of course, that a film called “Museum Hours” would screen at a museum, although the classical paintings in Jem Cohen’s film would stick out like a sore thumb among MMoCA’s more contemporary pieces. Still, the film captures the contemplative feeling of whiling away a couple of hours among some of the world’s great works of art, especially in the company of a couple of engaging, droll guides.

Museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) has been at Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna for a long time, and from his perch, the patrons have become sort of an ongoing, moving exhibit. In voiceover, we hear his observations on the interactions between the art and the viewer. For example, he drily notes that the teenage school groups who come through are particularly fond of blood and nudity, and the Kunsthistorisches has an unusually strong collection of paintings featuring beheadings for their edification. (Some of the nudes, however, he sees as a bit “sleazy.”)

Also spending a lot of time in the museum is Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a wry Canadian woman who is overseas to visit a friend laid up in the hospital, gravely ill. Johann is curious about Anne, and they spend a few days in Vienna, talking about art, growing older and their wilder, younger days as heavy metal fans. Think of it as a chaste, middle-aged version of “Before Sunrise.”

Cohen weaves their growing friendship among beautiful shots and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of art, of history, of impermanence. Shots of paintings often are mirrored by shots on the streets of Vienna, as when a painting of a bustling village is paired with the street vendors outside the museum, selling waterlogged books and magazines for pennies.

At times, the connections can be quite playful — we overhear a woman admiring how unabashed the subjects in the nudes look  in the paintings. That’s followed by shots of other patrons — now completely naked.

The subtext, of course, is that paintings act like reflective surfaces, and we see what we want to see in them. “Museum Hours” has a slow, reflective rhythm that may test some viewers’ patience. But others may wish MMoCA had late-night hours after the screening.

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