Museum Hours ★★★

It's hard to imagine there's that many left who still believe that Standards Must Be Maintained In The Arts, and that patrolling a high/low divide is either possible or desirable. And yet there are people who find High Culture intimidating/elitist/etc., and believe in a mythical straw/boogeyman living in such rarefied circumstances that the slightest sound of electric guitar distortion or the merest TV reference or et al. would set bluehairs' eyebrows raised a whole two inches, which is why it's OK to be pre-emptively dismissive and not even engage with anything smacking of culture. All of which is ridiculous.

First shot has museum guard Bobby Sommers sitting placidly, roped-off behind a gallery, decidedly calm despite the faint rockin' ruckus seemingly coming from screen left. Throughout, Jem Cohen offers a number of images that level any kind of perceived contradiction between high/low, clean/dirty, old/new, rarefied/crass: I don't think there's a single shot of a church in which you can't also see advertising, to say nothing of numerous museum visitors snapping photos with their smartphones, an underground cave in which visitors drifting through on a boat are treated to inexplicable tinny music to break up the potential eerieness, etc.. The repeated point's that people's minds don't function like neatly stacked/segregated chests of drawers, with "high culture" up in one drawer and "low culture" somewhere down below, with the twain never meeting; engagement can shift from the sublime to the quotidian on a dime, which is as it should be.

All this is crystallized in the Bruegel lecture, which is both where the film peaks and I lost my footing. Cohen, dedicated lefty that is, has some too-obvious rhetorical punching bags in a pair of Ugly Americans who insist that Bruegel, unlike "modern artists," doesn't force you to wallow in ugliness (precise wording forgotten), that he must have been devout — i.e., that he must have been a respectable classical artist, one whose ideals conform with certain myopic lower-middlebrow American ideals about good clean living. People like this exist and they're exasperating, but their intrusive characterization is a bit much (though the guard's riposte, finally drawing their attention to a defecating figure in the corner of one painting, is well taken). Great scene overall though, but the film could've quite wonderfully wrapped up five minutes after that — the visual thesis having been articulated and more than enough digressions explored — and I got increasingly exasperated as the film meandered nowhere in particular. I'm sure Cohen has his reasons (he's a very smart guy), but eventually the contemplative glow faded.

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