Almost three years ago, I dragged myself out of the soft bed at the Hotel Palacky in Karlovy Vary earlier than I should have and, without sufficient doses of coffee, took in a late morning screening of James Benning’s natural history, and left the cinema famished but giddy with what has by now become a familiar sensation of uplift.
Like every Benning film I've had the pleasure of seeing, natural history, set inside the Vienna Museum of Natural History, frees you up from your fixation on pre-determined narrative shapes while sneaking in a new way, or ways, of seeing a story. The images are intoxicating in and of themselves, but what’s delightful is the almost musical syncopation of the piece, from the asymmetrical editing, with some cuts lingering while others gone before you can blink almost, to its sound design, the industrial hum of the museum’s veins (storage rooms, boiler rooms, etc.) acting almost as a melodic counterpoint to the relatively hallowed quiet of the museum spaces. Benning's films are ruminations on duration, not merely the passage of time but also the passage of space, and natural history is in many ways the same, but obviously Benning's playing around with his normally rigorous structuralist maneuvers.
We tend to consign the capacity of art to change our lives to our formative years as connoisseurs of whatever culture we consume, when it really should be, and often is, an ongoing proposition. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is the weak shit of the time-trapped. Needless to say, the effect natural history had on me was exactly the same as the effect Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes had on me five years ago: life-altering.
A year ago, my head was swimming in more than its usual soup of anxieties, thinking of time mostly and the speed in which it steals days and people and love and dreams. Then I wake to a Facebook algorithm reminding me it’s been a year since I was a third world country hick at the other end of the first world and time and love and dreams were my allies. Time flies. Then you die, right. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that: it’s ONLY been a year. Or, rather, it's ONLY been three years give or take. I’m not quite sure why I find that oddly soothing nor why I find this film oddly hopeful still. I know it’s only a movie, and a strange one to attach such emotional and existential baggage to, but sometimes it’s all I’ve got and some days, man, some days, it’s all I need.