Nothing Better Than The Real Thing: 'Museum Hours' and 'This Is Martin Bonner'
These two strangers are destined to become friends. Johann's kindness and easygoing nature are a perfect solution for Anne's loneliness and anxieties. Together, they draw us back and forth between the hospital's clinical quiet and the reverent hush of Vienna's famous Kunsthistorisches Art Museum.
In the museum, the artist who receives the most attention, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is not merely a convenient choice. Bruegel's vision of the world is as central to Cohen's film as it was to 2011's arthouse favorite The Mill and the Cross.
In one scene, we're treated to a museum-tour lecture on Bruegel's art. This may seem like a tangent, but it isn't. As we learn how to look at the Kunsthistorisches' masterpieces, we're also learning how to watch this movie. (Cohen's idea is to give us a Bruegel-style illustration of Vienna itself.) And better: we're learning how to look at our lives. The paintings become like mirrors that show us the truth about ourselves.
Cohen, known for his documentaries on (of all things) Fugazi and the Occupy Wall Street movement, looks here like a world-class artist. And he seems untroubled by the fact that he's made something most moviegoers are too impatient to appreciate. He told TimeOut New York, "Contemplative is one of those words that sends three quarters of the general populace fleeing toward Iron Man 7 . . . We're all bombarded, we're all being spun around in a blender, and my response to that is not to provide more of it in the films that I make."
Like so many of my favorites—Babette's Feast, Three Colors: Blue, and The Gleaners and I—Museum Hours is all about art's capacity to interrupt our lives and tune up our senses so that we can apprehend what's really happening. In doing so, it reawakens me to a world that is better and brighter than I remembered, and positively pregnant with meaning.
Nothing Better Than the Real Thing
Films like This Is Martin Bonner and Museum Hours can convince us that memorable, powerful moviemaking is possible without big budgets, digital animation, intense action, and razzle-dazzle. In fact, by keeping things "organic," artists are likely to end up with something more human . . . and more humane . . . than what the blockbuster factories produce.
Arriving for moviegoers in the same year as Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, these two movies make 2013 a landmark year for films about intimate conversations. All three focus on vast, dangerous, and exciting territories that can be discovered when individuals open up to one another. Where the "fast food" that dominates America's cineplexes tends to portray the world as a clash between "good guys" and "bad guys," these unconventional features explore the much richer hope and healing that can come from the risk of generosity and grace, the reconciliation of differences, the rewards of fidelity and friendship.
But hardly anyone I know has even heard of these movies. Perhaps they're doomed to be diamonds lost in the Netflix rough.
They shouldn't be. Seek them out. Show them to your friends. Discuss them afterward. Teach them to aspiring filmmakers. I suspect almost every audience will be pleasantly surprised. Further, I suspect that moviegoers will recommend these "organic" offerings in a more passionate and personal way than they do Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel or the emotional histrionics of the upcoming Oscar bait.
I know that I will. I already do.
Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of Through a Screen Darkly, four novels including Auralia's Colors, and a blog called Looking Closer (jeffreyoverstreet.com). He is also an editor, speaker, and creative writing teacher.