If one's considering the origin of the word museum, it's not hard to find that it comes from the Latin mousa, which in English comes out as muse. Now, in Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses, daughters of Zeus who looked over arts and sciences. More generally though, in classical literature the muse was a kind of female presence who was called upon for creative inspiration. Considering that museums today are largely thought of as buildings in which culturally, artistically, or scientifically significant objects are displayed for public consumption, it's easy to see how the notion of the muse would figure into the name of these wonderful public spaces. In terms of etymology, though, it seems as though the true root is the Greek mouseion, which was a temple dedicated to the muses.
And yet today the word muse is thought of more as a verb. To muse is to either be absorbed in one's own thoughts or to look upon something in a thoughtful manner. After watching Museum Hours, which may very well be the the best movie ever about museums and their power, I tend to think it's more concerned with muse as a verb than as a noun. One of the chief ideas that is expressed throughout the movie is positive and negative space in art and how it is undermined by subjective experience and what we choose to notice and prioritize in an image. And ultimately writer/director Jem Cohen is attempting to bring this mindset outside of the museum and into the world at large; in asking what we notice when we actually visit a museum (presented most clearly in a scene in which a museum guide offers a tour of a Bruegal exhibit that includes some very pesky tourists), he proceeds to venture beyond the limits of these nearly sacred spaces to ask that we notice the peripheries of a scene as much as the subjects of it. That we look, examine, and appreciate the myriad of details that are nonetheless obscured by the focal point of attention. While it pushes for a subjective experience of art that may be troublesome to purists, the film's attempt to capture the wondrous details of existence that are only available to the observant eye make it a particularly inspiring piece. Hence, my personal idea that Cohen's movie is more in line with the verb muse.
And yet the movie is still fairly difficult to fully comprehend. The above statements are merely what I gathered from the film, and it's never perfectly clear what Cohen is attempting except to offer an ode of sorts to the wondrous existence of museums in general. One thing that is for sure though is that amidst the more academic facets of the picture is a rather moving tale of a man and a woman who bond over the many beauties museums offer, as well as the small yet profound details of the world outside these public spaces. Bobby Sommer, in a controlled and completely convincing performance, plays Johann, a Vienna museum guard who has seen it all and is now quite content patrolling the museum and surveying the art and the people who view it.
Enter Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a foreigner who has suddenly arrived in Vienna due to a medical issue involving her cousin. Anne is somewhat overwhelmed by this new place, and she uses the museum where Johann works as a kind of sanctuary, a quiet spot to breathe and reflect. Johann, who narrates the film through extensive voiceover (never irritating as Sommer has a contemplative, soothing, pleasant voice), is inexplicably drawn to this fairly average looking woman. What is it about some people that makes one curious? he asks before introducing himself.
What follows is a carefully wrought examination of two adults who have a mutual appreciation for museums as well as the world around them, who understand the value of human interaction, and see the fact that they are strangers as an invitation rather than an inhibition. Cohen's camera is stubbornly rigid in his presentation of these events. when they meet, rather than a basic two shot, we only see Anne. Later, at a restaurant, we see the two conversing at a table, yet instead of employing a shot-reverse-shot technique, the camera stays put at an angle where we can't see the front of Johann's face. When Cohen does cut, he goes to a random shot of a waiter bringing food up a flight of stairs. We expect the waiter to bring it to Johann and Anne's table, yet when we return to their conversation we see the waiter off in the background serving a different party. Traditional editing doesn't seem to do much for Cohen here, perhaps because he wants us to consider an image rather than have it taken away by a cut. And when we see the waiter in the background, it's as if Cohen is suggesting visually that just as in paintings, we should consider the space around us in full rather than simply hone in on the subject.
What's impressive is how much feeling Cohen manages to pack into what is in many ways an essayistic film. It hardly ever seems as though Sommer and O'Hara are even performing. These actors, who both have wonderfully expressive and interesting faces while also a very comforting degree of common man normality, have inhabited the shoes of Johann and Anne as if they've been these people their entire lives. The film avoids romance and sentimentality at all costs; it's the rare story in which we get to see adults embrace their maturity rather than fall victim to their more childish selves.
We do not quite know how to feel a thought, John Crowe Ransom once said. It's a fascinating phrase and I'm still not entirely sure what it means, but watching Museum Hours I felt a merging of feeling and thought through the ways the characters let themselves be drawn into the the spaces surrounding them while simultaneously looking from a distance and analyzing their feelings and perceptions. In the credits, Cohen dedicates the movie to his parents, who took me to museums. Museum Hours does touch on humanity and the world around us, but at the end of the day it still seems to be about the nature of these peaceful, intimate public spaces. And in investigating just how they work on those who visit them, Cohen may very well have proven Ransom wrong.