Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film

Shelf Life — Ian Cheney [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 15, 2024

The playful vignettes of various cheesemongers, makers, and even competition judges in Ian Cheney’s Shelf Life are much like the dairy product itself — each a little different, some more enticing than others, but all delightful in their own way. Much like Cheney’s last film, The Arc of Oblivion, Shelf Life features experts from around the world reflecting on and explaining a particular microhistory: here, it’s the world of cheese. First, we meet Jim Stillwaggon, a cheesemaker and philosopher living “somewhere in the Pyrenees,” who waxes poetic on how time enriches flavor. Later in the film, microbiologist Rachel Dutton shows us the living nature of cheese, reflected in the dust mites that live on the rind. There’s even a cheese librarian, Jean-Jacques Zufferey, who introduces the audience to his prize cow. All of these people are connected by cheese and a preoccupation with the “life” of the food, whether it be a fascination with the creation process or love for the endgame of its consumption.

Taken on a surface level, Cheney’s latest is a slight but amiable little documentary on many people’s favorite food, but a deeper watch reveals Shelf Life as much more. This isn’t just a superficial survey of fromage; Cheney uses the food as a lens through which to meditate on aging and mortality. Through the art and science of cheesemaking, Cheney delves into the complexities of time and its impact on both the human experience and the natural world: Stillwaggon’s reflections on the maturation process of cheese parallel humanity and ripening with age; Dutton’s scientific approach to living and dying furthers this examination, illustrating how life continues to thrive and evolve in the most unexpected places.

And this is where Cheney’s filmmaking talent lies; the metaphor that makes study of aging and the ripening of cheese might not be all that profound in conception, but as with The Arc of Oblivion, the director takes care to explore his chosen subject matter through his films’ structure and visual storytelling. Each segment and interviewee are used to present a different perspective, from the initial curdling to the final aging process. This construction, of course, mirrors the stages of all life, but the progression is subtly underscored by the film’s pacing and the careful attention to detail in each shot. The beauty of the metaphor of time’s inevitable forward march here is in its simplicity and universality, and the way Cheney presents this as something to hold gently in ourselves rather than some grand, unlocking idea.

But where The Arc of Oblivion succeeded in its, well, arc, Shelf Life struggles. Cheney’s latest can occasionally suffer from a loss of focus, meandering through its various segments without the strong connective tissue that made his previous film so compelling — the sequencing can make the sum feel like an enumerated list of related tangents rather than a cohesive essayistic work. This results in individual stories and insights that are each fascinating in a vacuum, but an overarching narrative that sometimes feels fragmented and unable to hold its thematic thread throughout the runtime. Still, Shelf Life’s charming characters and humble efforts to marry the universal appeal of cheese to deeper philosophical probing are largely able to help mitigate its areas of wanting. After all, a cheese course is never meant to be the entrée.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.