'Natural History': Vienna Review

Courtesy of Vienna International Film Festival
An immersive piece teasing much from its minimal still shots of stuffed animal carcasses, book shelves and empty corridors.

U.S. landscape-film auteur goes indoors and backstage with a documentary on Vienna's Museum of Natural History

Having spent his whole four-decade-long career specializing in photographing the great outdoors, U.S. experimental film iconoclast James Benning has finally cast his cinematic glance indoors with Natural History, a 77-minute piece set nearly entirely within a museum. And not an American one, mind you, but one deep in Mitteleuropa: Vienna's Museum of Natural History. The film marks Benning's second shoot outside of the U.S., after the Germany-set Ruhr in 2009.

Natural History shares many similarities with, say, the 1990 piece North on Evers or his 2000-01 American trilogy. Benning himself spoke of landscapes as "functions of time," with the elements sculpting terrain through millennia and human interventions blighting environments for good (13 Lakes, RR). In this context, an institution showcasing specimens of fauna is as much a "landscape" as the Hoover Dam or the Hudson River Valley.

Bowing at its host museum in September before making its theatrical premiere on Nov. 4 at the Vienna International Film Festival — where he also screened his one-shot-of-a-cloud tribute to recently deceased German filmmaker Harun Farocki — Natural History is well-placed for a good festival run, as it offers a different visual approach (underlined by probably similar concerns) on museology from Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery or Johannes Holzhausen's Vienna-set The Great Museum.

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Natural History is pieced together with a rigorous regime, its 54 static shots cut to lengths — varying from two seconds to five minutes — derived from a system based on the first 27 decimal digits of pi. But the math is just part of Natural History. Here, Benning didn't just go indoors but also backstage, with all but the film's first three shots — Carl Kundmann's "America and Australia" sculpture on the facade; the grand entrance hall; a close-up of a painting — featuring objects placed out of public view.

Many of the museum's vaulted artifacts are shown, from archaic books to stuffed bears, and from skulls on shelves to fish in formaldehyde. Then again, there's a reason why Benning refrained from using caps in the title of his film: This is not about a parade of relics celebrating history with a capital H, but at once also a look at the ordinary spaces in which these grand histories are mounted for posterity. Service corridors with hissing meters, ventilation valves and doors are shown; a loud signal punctuates scenes, as if to alert workers (and the viewers) how the museum — just like many a social institution — is propped up by (unseen) labor, whose traces are only seen in the form of their personal effects, desks, and cleaning equipment left in the middle of the a hallway.

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And then there's the sequencing of shots. Should we see a commentary on the much-debated issue about mixing commerce and culture with a shot of a hidden corridor filled with empty soft drink crates and — after a very short glimpse of a staircase — the image of a clean and bright aisle lined by two glass-fronted shelves filled with valuable tomes? Or is the viewer to contemplate the so-called civilizing process, with the film beginning with a shot of a statue fostering an exotic representation of indigenous American and Australian peoples, and ending with an unnerving medium shot of a (stuffed) orangutan staring at the camera for four and a half minutes?

But there's humor too, as Benning films a forgotten, suited mannequin stuck with a plastic pig's head; and beauty, as a shot reveals multiple rooms joined by open doors and framed by natural-life calendars, antique clocks and the like. Natural History is an immersive experience deserving of some focused looking and listening, and the result of an artist exploiting a commission to foster yet another breakthrough.

Production company: Museum of Natural History, Vienna
Director-producer-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor: James Benning

No rating, 77 minutes