Last Things — the latest from Chicago-based experimental artist Deborah Stratman — begins with a voiceover which reads aloud the introductory prose from Clarice Lispector’s swan song novella, The Hour of the Star. “All the world began with a yes,” a voice declares over a blank screen. “One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of the prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes.” Genesis begins as molecular affirmation; humanity arrives long after. Lispector’s words thus set the scene for Stratman’s dense, 50-minute philosophical-geological inquiry, a bold posthuman gesture that dethrones the human as linchpin of both history and evolution and asserts, instead, the primacy of the mineral kingdom.
Rocks, as Last Things suggests, evolve. Citing Robert Hazen’s mineral evolution hypothesis — which suggests the process to be largely a byproduct of living organisms — the film situates itself within a thirteen-billion-year-old narrative of matter, its migrations, and its evolution. Though earth rocks have existed for eons, they store no recollection of their journey. They’re an archive without memory; they endure and will continue to endure after the Earth’s death. In her scattered and elusive, essayistic style, Stratman examines the implications of mineral evolution on humanity and vice-versa.
Though cryptic and eccentric, this is far from Stratman’s most impenetrable work. Much like her previous film, The Illinois Parables (2016), Last Things frequently reformulates itself, armed with an arsenal of approaches. The movie embodies a variety of perspectives, from outer space to microscope slides, as Stratman’s images — landscapes, crystal and rock formations, sketches, spelunking and laboratory footage, celestial satellite imagery, microscopic forms, etc. — collectively embody an otherworldly thrill. The soundtrack (including pieces by Brian Eno and Okkyung Lee) and sound design (by Stratman herself) are often glitchy, alien, and sublime. Stratman’s rendition of rocks, in addition, highlights the complexities of their history and evolutions. She imbues them with a vastness far beyond the dismissal often extended to the inanimate objects. Images are often accompanied by voiceover interviews or passages from texts (always narrated by unseen figures); these narrated passages are eclectic. Scientific mineral theory enmeshes with speculative fiction — fact and fiction married — and there’s a slippery ambiguity at work in Last Things’ lack of citations (at least, until the end credits). The disparate sources which fuel the narration thus culminate into a singular and chaotic vision.
The extinction of humanity — an increasingly inevitable prospect — is at the meditative core of Last Things. Yet the film downplays this drama and de-emphasizes our cosmic importance. At one point, Stratman includes a shot of Casa do Penedo, the northern Portuguese landmark-home erected around four massive stone boulders. The domestic architecture builds off its pre-existing geological landscape. It’s a perfect culminating image; human constructions are at the mercy of mineral formations, and the eradication of our species and the decay of everything material we’ve produced is just a ripple in the history of our earthly co-matter. In refuting tendencies of anthropomorphic thought, the film becomes an empowering reminder of our own insignificance. Yet any hint of didacticism shrivels away in Stratman’s hands; instead, she embraces pleasure in the unknown and the sprawling ambiguity of the universe.
DIRECTOR: Deborah Stratman; DISTRIBUTOR: The Cinema Guild; IN THEATERS: January 12; RUNTIME: 50 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.