It’s summer and the movies are rollin into the theaters. I’m dying to go to a movie theater again, but it’s a little bit of a trickier transition than going back to an art museum where, even if you’re at a packed blockbuster show, the person next to you is unlikely to be shoveling popcorn into their gaping mouth hole. (No shade, we are all that person at the movies.) Anyway, it’s fun to think about when blockbuster movie events collide with the museum world. In the first iteration of this series, we highlighted movies and TV that use museums to enforce the importance of a person or event. To follow the progression of how we tend to feel in the summertime, these posts started out a little bit serious, but will progressively get a little sillier. Today, in true Will Smith’s “Summertime” fashion, we’re getting flirty with it and talking about how art museums often stand in for romance and sophistication.
There are actually quite a few articles about iconic museum scenes in movies – many are round-ups of the most iconic scenes, some are in-depth analyses of a single iconic scene. You can feel free to Google “museum scenes in movies” if you read this and are offended that I left out your favorite. 🙂
No surprise here, especially if you’ve taken the What Kind of Art Museum Nerd Are You quiz – unlike history museums, that serve to affirm character’s self-actualization, art museums tend to serve as a trope to signify romance, sophistication, or introspection.
First things first. You can’t think about an art museum in the movies without thinking about the Art Institute of Chicago in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In the midst of the hustle and bustle of their busy day, Cameron, Ferris and Sloan find some respite and joy at the Art Institute. They hold hands with children, they take in artworks, Sloan and Ferris share a passionate kiss besides some stained glass, and Cameron does his thing with the Seurat. It’s a masterpiece, and honestly, is how I would like every visitor to approach their day at an art museum. John Hughes has said in the film’s commentary that this was a self-indulgent scene for him because as a high schooler, the Art Institute was a safe haven.
Now I OBVIOUSLY love the Cameron scene with Sunday on La Grande Jatte. But! There is an air of pretension to it; as viewers, we may feel if a painting has never made us question life’s purpose, maybe we’re not doing looking at art right.
Along those same lines, part of what makes the scene so much fun is because teenagers feel out of place in an art museum. We know how we expect to see people behave in art museums: quietly executing the slow museum plod from piece to piece, bending forward to read a label, straighten up to look at the artwork, repeat, maybe listen to a docent for a while. The three high schoolers in Ferris Bueller get lost in artworks without glancing at labels. They’re in control of their own experience at the Art Institute. They exhibit a quirkiness that’s very on brand for the archetype of a character who loves an art museum, reinforcing and affirming the idea that most of us regular folks just don’t get it; at the same time, reinforcing and affirming that museums are typically places of deep concentration and their silly behavior is fun because it’s somewhat wrong. (But to be clear, it’s not wrong, and please recreate your favorite parts of this scene every time you visit an art museum, and I promise you will have more fun.)
Speaking of the “museum person archetype,” art exhibits in movies often serve to reinforce the character traits of a desirable individual. I loved this odd little movie (bc Domhnall Gleeson), About Time (2013) (not to be confused with the 2009 movie The Time Traveler’s Wife in which Rachel McAdams once again gets involved with a time-traveling gentleman. Weird typecasting). Is this one of the most iconic museum scenes ever? Absolutely not. Is it debatable to say this is an “art” museum scene? Perhaps. But do they use this setting to reinforce that Rachel McAdams’s character is both quirky and sophisticated? You better believe it. No spoilers (for this 8 year old movie…) but Gleeson’s Tim stalks McAdams’s Mary at a Kate Moss photography exhibition. I’ll give credit here to the fact that Mary isn’t necessarily an art nerd, she’s just obsessed with Kate Moss, which is the weirdest personality trait I can call to mind. Anyways, he stalks her to this exhibit, which is classically modern-art-museum: white walls, larger-than-life canvases, lots of words on the walls, precious few benches. McAdams’s character is a book editor by profession, and if that doesn’t scream “art museum nerd,” I don’t know what does. When he finally catches sight of her in the exhibit, she looks completely relaxed in the setting. She’s knowledgeable about the exhibit she came to see, and like the trio in Ferris Bueller, doesn’t silently bend to read labels or need anyone to explain anything to her. It’s the perfect way to affirm that she’s educated and sophisticated.
Speaking of art museums and love interests, who could overlook the funny talking scene in When Harry Met Sally? Set beside the instantly recognizable windows beside the Temple of Dendur, there’s a shift in the energy between Meg Ryan’s and Billy Crystal’s characters, and an understanding between them. This is a romantic spot, although also where my partner and I once saw a child puke right into their father’s hands :). While doing research for this article, I learned that Billy Crystal improvised this scene. He said that when you start to fall in love, you find yourself doing weird voices, and so he went for it. And listen, as someone for whom trudging around large art museums is a favorite pastime, I have to say that if you trudge through the Met with someone and find yourself enamored with them by the time you get to the Temple of Dendur, this is spot on. I think that’s one of the reasons art museums are great stand-ins for romance. You’re not walking around an art museum, especially one like the Met or the Art Institute, with someone you don’t like very much. It’s the perfect setting for that moment in their romance.
I consider myself very fortunate to be young enough to have never gotten hooked on Woody Allen films. He’s one less problematic powerful white man for me to have to decide how I feel about. I debated including any of his films in this post since why do we need to keep talking about problematic figures and also there are already articles about how he deploys museums in his movies. I actually have watched very few Woody Allen movies, but he sort of laid the blueprint for museums signifying pretention and romance, and introspection. You’ll find Manhattan (1979) on most of the round-up lists.
When Midnight in Paris (2011) came out, people slated it as a must-watch for me. Owen Wilson is fun and Rachel McAdams is ONCE AGAIN typecast as wife of time travelers!!!! Ok that’s the real point of this post. Please comment with other movies where Rachel McAdams finds herself in a relationship with a time-traveling man!
Though on the surface Woody Allen’s museum movies seem to be about the romances between the folks visiting museums (since people who don’t like each other can’t visit museums together), they really are about romancing the idea of one’s own intelligence. *Main character energy* if you will. Owen Wilson’s Gil embarasses his cursed with time-traveling-partners-Inez to prove this in the iconic scene in the Water Lilies room.
I love that this scene opens with Paul, the supposed expert, saying that the “juxtaposition of color” is the most important thing about Monet’s water lilies. I don’t exactly know what the most important thing about the water lilies is, but that is just like in the episode of Blackish where Laurence Fishburne dazzles museum-goers by telling them that the artists all have an “excellent mastery of their medium.”
Basically, art museums in movies and TV serve to demonstrate the enigmatic and enlightened aspects of a character, or to characterize the arc of a love story. It’s on point – as professionals, we say that we can use artworks to process emotions that would be uncomfortable to speak about directly. Indeed, it’s an excellent plot device to have estranged lovers sit down in front of an artwork and discuss what they see in it, rather than blatantly discuss the issues they face in their love life. Ergo…that Boy Meets World scene from the top of essay? A brilliant piece of screenwriting.
So if you take one thing away from this essay, it’s that Rachel McAdams is typecast as a “time-traveler’s partner.” And if you take two things away, it’s that, and that the writers at Boy Meets World were really ahead of their time, but Topanga lost a lot of her autonomy in the later seasons. Did this post have a lot to do with museums? You tell me! And stay tuned for part III of Blockbusters, plus a very special guest edition at the end of the summer!