“One molecule could say yes to another molecule and life was born” –– talking with Deborah Stratman about Last Things (2023)

Deborah Stratman on Robin Wall Kimmerer: “She talked about grammar and how we would know the natural world so differently if we used a language unlike English, that’s so noun-heavy. We’re just thinking about these things as these inert bodies, but in other languages, they’re way more verb-prevalent. And so instead of ‘the tree’, ‘the lake’, it’s ‘to be a tree,’ ‘to be a lake.’ I want people to think the same way about minerals. Rocks are verbs, and we just don’t have the right sensory doors to see them that way. If language was framed in a different way, we probably… I don’t know if it would solve any problems, but it seems like it would be more egalitarian.”

I am thinking about the box of ED-U-CARDS OF NATURE: Rocks and Minerals I inherited from my mother. Nominally a collection of informational flashcards printed in 1961, they contain gorgeous prints of alien-world-grade materials. Here a sulfur globule that looks like a geometric scarecrow; there is a mess of malachite that looks like how my brain feels sometimes––all bumpy and unyielding, too blue. The copy printed on their musty-smelling backs is as morphable as the rocks themselves, language that swerves from the chummily colloquial (“In the game of marbles, each player likes to have at least one ‘aggie’ in his pocket”) to the baldly confrontational (“In looking for specimens, you must remember that copper loses its bright luster on exposure to air just as your new copper penny soon becomes dull.”) I am fascinated and sometimes anxious at the way the cards address me.

When I mention to Deborah Stratman that her new film, Last Things, reminds me of these cards, she doesn’t push against the idea so much as she welcomes growth around it: “The film, on one hand, I do hope it’s a kind of deck that’s not pedagogical, necessarily, but that it’s kind of a learning tool, a questioning tool. I’m not interested in making a film that’s just about memorization or learning a kind of data set, because that’s such a particular way of filing and knowing––just one of many. The geopoetics, the kind of musicality, the more intuitive of the felt, like the knowing that happens through touch––I feel like all of those are just as valuable alongside the flashcards.”

It’s a thoughtful, generous response, almost like a nest of moss sporing up around a rocky structure to create a new entity which feels like a figuration characteristic of Stratman’s film art. Last Things, which played at NYFF this past year and then again for a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives in January, is such a multi-medium object. Last Things is a kind of rock-thought theory of life evolving thought evolving life. And then extinction, plus singing. A speculative-nonfiction, it features footage of minerals in labs, under microscopes, in the wild, on the seafloor. It also features footage of breakdancers, cave paintings, human bodies, and camel faces. It’s not that all these things are the same thing, but that they sound together in a single space. The film utilizes strategies as disparate as speculative fiction, science textbook sprawl, and avant-garde scrapbooking to tell the story of that earthly sound. “As a filmmaker,” Stratman says of this multi-pronged approach, “I’m at heart a collageist. I’m an associative thinker, and I make my films in the editing. Although editing for me includes how I frame the world, because it’s everything I edit out from the frame. I think, in terms of structure, most of the sound ideas and many of the image ideas come once I’m editing.” 

Last Things crunches 4.5 million years of planetary history into a 50-minute biosphere pageant at once de-humaned and vigorously hopeful for the future possibilities of a human voice. Of its varying source texts and urges, Stratman says, “There’s definitely an obsessive collection phase and then a kind of realization of, like, ‘I better start pruning or this is gonna take over my space.'” I suggest that this process might be a little like carving because I am unable to get my head out of a hunk of rock, and she nudges the metaphor into something less rigid. “It’s definitely about removal, acts of removal. I think of it as distillation, or draining a little bit. Like the fishermen, sometimes, I’ll just cast and catch the fish, but for a lot of the time––especially the more essayist films––I tend to drain the whole dang pond to get the fish.”

Speaking to Stratman via video call, we both keep our cameras off––her because of a janky Internet connection and me because I’ve learned to limit my self-scrutiny via the screen. We become voices in transmission across a pretty vast difference. There are a few time changes between us. I try to resist investigating this specific medium as a litmus test for the film’s wilding speculations. I am not entirely successful, least of all because the human voice plays such a vital structuring role in the film.

That structure is created by the braiding of a few tones. One such voice belongs to the filmmaker Valérie Massadian, who narrates in both French and English, and from a variety of texts. Massadian speaks aloud passages from Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, J.-H. Rosny’s “La mort de la terre” and “Les Xipéhuz,” from Roger Caillois’ L’écriture des pierres. The film doesn’t take time to clarify which words come from where, producing a kind of unified-feeling narrative out of discovered parts. J.-H. Rosny is actually a pseudonym for the Boex brothers, a pair of Belgian writers who wrote under an invented singularity––the perfect kind of half-truth, half-illisio sci-fi spade for Stratman to dig with. The passages quoted from “La mort de la terre” are among some of the most stunning written and spoken language the film provides. Here is an account of the far-future Earth (though from the 1910 publication date, less far-flung than it seems) detailing the total collapse of humankind and the rise of the metal-based entities Rosny calls “les ferromagnétaux.” The last things might be, among others, ourselves and our time. 

There is an intentional science-fiction element to this ending. Bonded as it is to Rosny’s speculative storytelling and Massadian’s “conjuring” (Stratman’s word) voice, the collage film reveals itself as near-eco-fiction (planet-horror?) by the end, a voice in the same chord that contains N.K. Jemisin and Jeff VanderMeer. Stratman, who confesses that she’s not above making a straight-ahead science-fiction picture at some point in the future, points to the genre name’s component parts as a potential heading, for now and next. “There’s a productive tension between them,” she says. “To use a geological metaphor, it’s almost like sliding plates or something, tectonic plates.” I consider the different timbres of Massadian and Marcia Bjørnerud, the structural geologist who provides much of the film’s science fact narration in audio taken from interviews with Stratman as well as freestanding lectures. Massadian’s voice is lower-toned and steady. It recites prose passages that move forward across the page and in time. Bjørnerud’s voice has hiccups, largely because it makes a map of annotating its matter, doubling back, revising. Stratman, who edited the voices together in tone and turn, goes on: “There’s something that happens at the interface between science ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ that has something to do with the way humans leave things behind. Which I think is storytelling, basically.”

Just as there are two voices and two forms that push at the story of Last Things, two central images activate and complicate the film’s speculation on history as the future’s sediment. The first arrives as the film surveys a series of cave paintings, prehistory challenged by the very trace of feeling. How could these figures exist before history if they still move across this rock? Rather than pre- or post- approaches to history-telling, Last Things presents flange, a kind of simultaneous occupation. You hear it in the soundscapes, an assemblage of effect and field recording and voice. And you see it in the last image Stratman presents, a re-articulation of bodies moving over rock surfaces: after the credits begin their roll (after the end, per se), the film interjects footage of breakdancers, a sequence of body art moving across minerals. Stratman talks about wanting to have a section edited in-camera, how such a sequence was an example of her, the storyteller, being “abducted by the moment.” How does a story tell us? “I’m walking, I happen to have my camera, I come across breakdancers, they’re doing this amazing art form. I just shoot everything in-camera.”

Last Things abducts me. It derails me, as when it punctures the self-seriousness that afflicts certain storytelling traditions, from documentary filmmaking to nature writing. Because of its playful collision of sound and image, often emanating from disparate objects and granted unity by virtue of Stratman’s edit, a mid-film sequence of a few hedges standing around seems to suggest that the rocks are talking, are speaking some of the words the film is saying. Watching this sequence the first time in-theater, I am struck by the giggles that emerge––not like any kind of post-ironic defense-system, but as a genuine affection for new possibilities of communication. Diachrony and synchrony go pop; “it’s just what was edited in-camera.” Of the Belo Horizonte Capoeira Percussion Collective’s soundtracking the breakdancers: “And it so happens that the piece of drumming music, which is not what they were break dancing to, emotionally fit with it. It was, I mean, both are recorded in Brazil, but they’re not at the same time, not with the same people. And so that kind of abduction is also, I think that can be a hopeful thing.”

It’s not that all stories are about storytelling; it’s that everything we do leaves a trace which tells a story. It’s not that all films are about filmmaking; it’s that a medium predicated on how and when and what to show reflects, like obsidian, the desire to show and the desire to watch. Surely film is a material, a storied medium with a cellulose acetate or polyester base coated with light sensitive miners. We’re watching silver salts and gelatin, all earth run through light. “I mean, of course we leave our bones and stuff behind,” Deborah Stratman’s voice says to me across earth and time. “But in terms of habits of matter and how we leave a trace, it’s so often through how something’s retold.” Last Things is such a retelling, a time capsule that moves forward through time––the projector begins, the film moves, the images fly, the film ends, darkness––and out of it; it forms a memory in us.

I have these ED-U-CARDS OF NATURE: Rocks and Minerals. Under the brim of the yellowing lid it says in janky scrawl “Lesley Greene Class 3-1A Room 204.” These words were written by the same hand that I have held and that has handed me so many things. They have a historical record all their own, just as they record my history in some discrete, speculative way. I am left behind by my mother’s hands. I retell “me” by them, to be a story. I leave that behind, too.

Last Things is now in theaters. Learn more here.

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