Rock On
By Chloe Lizotte

NYFF 2023:
Last Things
Dir. Deborah Stratman, U.S., no distributor

When I took a road trip through the American Southwest, the landscapes instilled an abstract fear in me. Barreling down a single-lane highway, I reached the crest of a small slope and looked out toward what could—or should, to keep it at an appropriately safe distance—be Mars: immense monoliths of stone, eroded and chiseled in alien ways by the passage of millennia. It was impossible to process the scale of these rocks, or to gauge my car’s relative distance from them. That pit in my stomach might have been the feeling of confronting my own insignificance, but I don’t think I reached an insight that was so clear-cut. Instead, I think I was afraid that I could never comprehend just how minuscule we are, even on the most basic, obvious level. My brain can only quietly, pathetically short-circuit when I confront a huge rock and all of the history that it represents.

It makes sense, then, that Deborah Stratman begins her new film about geologic time, Last Things, by scrambling any coherent sense of scale. Both microscopic and galactic-sized things appear roughly the same size within the film’s fixed 4:3 frame; it’s up to you to decide what you’re seeing. The film opens with a black screen, over which the portentous, beautifully earthy voice of filmmaker Valérie Massadian welcomes us into prehistory: “All the world began with a yes—one molecule said yes to another molecule, and life was born.” Massadian is reading from Clarice Lispector’s novel The Hour of the Star, but that’s not cued onscreen; even if you’re unfamiliar with the text, you can still grasp that this disembodied speaker is detailing the origins of life. Stratman responds to these verbal evocations of early organisms with geometric visuals, which she plunks into the center of her black screen: white pinpricks assemble into a jagged cloud, and a pair of twinkling rays are probably meant to be stars, but they could also be microscopic refractions of light passing through minerals.

A first viewing of Last Things is a bit of an overload: these poetic monologues from Massadian demand space for reflection amidst abstract images that arrive in quick succession. By the time the credits roll, Stratman reveals the source texts of the narration—Lispector, Belgian novelist J-H. Rosny’s works of science fiction, surrealist-adjacent Roger Callois’s writings on minerals—but these voices have been collaged together into a collective narrative for a single voice. Stratman juxtaposes this trippy voiceover with more straightforward images of a grayscale geology lab; we hear the dull whirring of machinery used to analyze these rocks, distilling their lifespans into numbers and scans. Meanwhile, Massadian philosophizes about the souls that could be housed in these stones, the basis of a transcendental “religion without rites.” Last Things finds a new structure for a nature doc by weaving these two strands of inquiry together: the spirit of imagination contained in these texts, hand-in-hand with the slow-moving analytical breakthroughs of science.

In her artist’s statement, Stratman sums up Last Things as a film “about evolution and extinction from the point of view of rocks and various future others.” But the idea of perspective here requires deeper consideration. At one point, Stratman plops us into the middle of a group of egg-shaped standing stones, obliquely invoking druid-era mysticism. She cuts through medium shots of several, stationing them in the center of the frame. This generates the anthropomorphized sensation of a standoff in a Western: could they be interlocutors, or something else? But that’s silly—why would we assume that a rock’s point of view would resemble that of a human, or an animal? Stratman is trying to envision a different kind of perspective; she already complicates the singular “I” in the voiceover, blending multiple texts into one chorus. Whatever a rock perceives or internalizes, it is likely far stranger than what we could verbalize in the dreamiest of metaphors.

So, to push back on those limitations, Stratman expands the purview of the film even further. She adds a second voice to the narration, that of geologist Marcia Bjørnerud. In contrast to the steadiness of Massadian’s delivery, Bjørnerud speaks organically about her field of study, with palpable excitement. She tells us about chondrules—round, molten droplets that date back to the origin of the solar system—and contextualizes them conversationally, as tiny “pieces of the sun” that we can poke and prod at up close. Soon, Bjørnerud tells Stratman about what it means to have a “polytemporal worldview,” a central concept in one of her books, Timefulness. Each rock is like a little world with a story, she says—they’re living archives of everything that has happened to them, and thus bring all of geologic time closer to the spectator. When we hold a chondrule in our hand, we’re interacting with the formation of the solar system, the birth of the sun. For that to make some logical sense, it’s necessary to uncouple time from the present instant. When Stratman alights on lines of wind erosion on a rock face, we are up close and personal with an ongoing, eons-long process.

Stratman’s filmmaking practice asks something similar of us when we encounter an image: we are not seeing a single photograph of a single event, but engaging with the web of associations that surrounds it. In earlier works like The Illinois Parables and O’er the Land, she contemplates how historical and cultural narratives are always embedded in larger contexts—and stories that are still unfinished. She also encourages us to arrive at these destinations on our own, to imagine and dwell on the missing links between visuals and sounds. Perhaps it follows that Stratman actually wanted to become a scientist when she was younger, since she was drawn to the mysteries of astrophysics and “the hugeness of things,” as she described it to Tone Glow’s Joshua Minsoo Kim. She changed course when she realized that her job options would be depressingly unethical, mostly “under the umbrella of military or corporate big money”—antithetical to the scientific ethos of Last Things, as represented by the enthusiasm in Bjørnerud’s voice. But importantly, Bjørnerud’s advocacy for a polytemporal worldview is far from spacey or new age; she positions it as a way of detaching from self-centered obsessions with human mortality, helping people to embrace ideas of durability and environmental renewability. It seems idiotic to want a rock to talk back, in a human sense, when we could reframe our own worldview instead.

This is where Last Things resonates with Stratman’s more overtly political films—it seeks to disrupt the human-centric perspective that’s enabled the pillaging of natural resources. Capitalism, in its emphasis on individualism and immediate gratification, is a clear antagonist of sustainability. In contrast, by provoking awe and curiosity, Stratman wonders how to preserve humility in the face of geologic time—not so much as a way of “saving” our civilization, but as a way of acknowledging that life marches on. It’s probably too self-involved to say that this film is about the end of humanity; the rocks don’t care, we’re a blip. But by expanding the limits of our own thinking, we could form a healthier relationship with the habitat that we’ve ravaged. It’s natural to experience awe and fear when looking out over the lip of the Grand Canyon, and perhaps that’s a good feeling—an awareness that we’re only scratching the surface can free us from a woefully self-enclosed life.

Toward the end of Last Things, Stratman arranges a group of people in the desert, holding small mirrors, reflecting bursts of sunlight back toward the viewer. Lyrics from an 18th-century hymn flash onscreen as they’re sung by a chorus of voices (again, a multiplicity): And am I born to die, to lay this body down, and must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown? The credits begin, but this is a false ending: Stratman switches course to a 30-second vignette, of street performers breakdancing on the sidewalk. I was surprised by this ending at first—the scene in the desert seems to fit the constellation of themes and motifs so perfectly—but then again, an ending that clean, with that much emphasis on the lyrics of this hymn, would feel wrong for a film that’s challenging the limits of perception. The breakdancing brought me back to some of the images earlier in the film, of colliding, excited particles—pure motion and exploration, here on a human scale, there on a scale invisible to the human eye. It’s all relative, contained in the strata.