There’s very little art in “The Museum,” the documentary film by Ran Tal that was shot entirely in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Artworks are seen only fleetingly, momentarily, and almost always as a background to people – museum staff and visitors – who are photographed with patience and at length. It’s not easy to make cinema out of art: to put on the screen a moving image of a work of art that’s fixed in space, unchanging over time; to connect the work of art – a discrete object, material, suffused with an aura of original source – to a sequence of complex images amenable to reproduction. But the decision to forgo the art displayed in the museum in favor of the human mosaic is fundamental to the film. The works of art that do appear in the forefront – not the background – are taken from the museum’s “hit parade”: Magritte’s “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” a Giacometti sculpture, Danziger’s “Nimrod,” over and over, and of course Klee’s “Angelus Novus.” The list of works seems to have been taken from the posters in the museum’s store, or from its PR slides.
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“The Museum” is made like a promotional film for the Israel Museum. At its center are the celebrations of the institution’s 50th anniversary. The decision to shoot the film during the period of the celebrations isn’t accidental: the film not only documents the events, it becomes part of them. There’s nothing in it that will make life hard for the museum, raise doubts about it, embarrass it. Occasionally an ironic tone seeps in, but it’s a surface irony, glittering and not wounding, sympathetic. The film tells the story of a high-power, high-budget national institution without an iota of criticism.
“The Museum” seems to consist of a broad spectrum of human voices and gazes – a blind visitor who engages with art through touch; a composer from Azerbaijan who immigrated to Israel and is now employed as a restorer in the museum, and is also a choirmaster; the usher in the Shrine of the Book who doubles as a cantor, and others – without a single narrative voice to stitch the film together. Accordingly, it’s said to be associative and impressionistic, present a multiplicity of themes and events, fashioned from different perspectives, bearing competing narratives.
But the absence of the one voice does not free the film from ideology. On the contrary: In its distilled images the ideology lacks a localized place and a distinctive source – it wells up from the multiple voices. In the film, it emerges from the form of the editing, the thrust of the motion and the mode of cinematic expression. As in his previous films, the director, Ran Tal, makes use of a technique that has by now become his trademark: a character appears on the screen silent, only walking or observing, while telling his story in his voice on a soundtrack that is not synchronized with the picture. But the absence of synchronization here does not create a rift between image and voice, deconstruct the integrated perception of reality or expose the components of the medium, as with the Soviet avant-garde, or in the work of Jean-Luc Godard, for example. Instead, it has the effect of connecting the character and his voice, resulting in a dramatic intensification of the story we are hearing – which is fawned over, sometimes to the accompaniment of saccharine music, in a mythicizing project. The effect is enhanced by slow camera movements, genteel photography and clean compositions.
Pogroms never stopped
What we get is the classic Zionist story, moving from the Jews’ humble life in the diaspora to their redemption through political sovereignty in their land. The film moves cloyingly between different chapters of the story: from the Roman emperor Hadrian who “erased all life here – this is an event that terminates life in Judah,” as one curator says, through Samuel Hirszenberg’s 1889 painting “The Eternal Jew.” The painting elicits pithy remarks from the museum’s curators: “The painting was done some 40 years before the Holocaust and in some way prophesies what would happen there” – because, as we all know, everything in Jewish history leads to the Holocaust; and “Today he’s perhaps not standing in the shadow of the Cross, but in the shadow of something else.” Meaning that pogroms against Jews never stopped, and it’s not hard to guess who it is that’s out to annihilate us today. The historic sequence takes us all the way to the Holocaust itself, of course, whose ghosts visit the museum.
Along the way we also witness the Remembrance Day siren, which “suddenly” brings activity in the museum to a halt (and really, how can we forgo a scene like this, which surely has never before been seen on the big screen?). The film follows a vigorous army education officer, who on a visit to the museum recounts to her cadets the various stations on the road to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, each station about 70 years. This is the stuff of ideology, and its connection to concrete Jewish history is highly tenuous.
The film seems to mark the officer’s explanations as ideological, but at the same time merges with them. Right after her speech on the short and vulnerable periods of Jewish sovereignty, the film cuts to news about a “terrorist stabbing attack at Damascus Gate.” And so, also in “reality,” we are constantly being attacked; our sovereignty is always in danger. Reality, mediated by the film itself, speaks for the national ideology no less than the education officer.
At times the film seems to free itself from the shackles of the national story. Jewish and Arab elementary school children are seen in a creative group at the museum, working together in Hebrew and in Arabic, in what looks like a binational utopia. One girl wants to paint the Israeli and Palestinian flags together. “We need something that symbolizes coexistence, not just the State of Israel,” she says. And one can imagine a similar sentiment being uttered in the editing room: We need a coexistence scene – childlike, innocent, heartwarming – that will adorn the humanistic, liberal national story. It’s precisely here that “The Museum” is felt as a public relations film about the beautiful inner Israel, ready for export abroad.
In a parallel scene, a discussion is held with museum staff about a collection of Palestinian clothing and embroidery in the museum’s storerooms (nothing is said about how the items got there), which is not exhibited to the public. “What would Edward Said say about that?” a Palestinian guide asks. The enlightened, savvy Jewish curator, unembarrassed, offers a detailed answer, concluding that when it comes to the Palestinian problem, “Whatever you do won’t be good.” And really, it’s just awful what those Palestinians are doing to us. They’re a problem with no solution. Despite our unflagging efforts, they always insist on making us look bad.
There’s only one genuinely ironic moment in the film: the festive cabinet meeting that was held at the museum to mark its jubilee. In the best tradition of ideologies, Netanyahu opens with pompous, tautological assertions. Later, as a singer croons “I saw a city enveloped in light,” the ministers are seen prattling, playing with their phones, not listening (apart from Miri Regev, a true culture minister, who sings full-throatedly). I saw the film twice. This is the moment at which viewers laugh out of despair, snort with contempt. But how easy it is to laugh at the Netanyahu government.
The film received a flood of accolades, including some in this newspaper, which emphasized its pleasant, comforting side. But what meaning does a documentary film like this have amid such a gloomy reality? What remains outside the frame? This film and the reviews about it are perhaps a manifestation of the current post-critical age: Within the avalanche, all that is left to do is imagine a return to better times, desperately clinging to official cultural institutions, to an exalted gaze, very “artistic,” but with very little art.