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“I Think Linearity Is a Trap”: Deborah Stratman Discusses ‘Last Things’

By Dan Schindel

A film still with holographic colors shows a figure in a field.

Still image from Last Things. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In her more than two dozen films, Deborah Stratman has explored various ways in which history, science, ideas, locations, and psyches (both individual and collective) intersect, often through cinematically unorthodox methods. Her newest work, Last Things (2023)is a terrific showcase for this tendency. Despite running only 50 minutes, the film’s thematic reach is ambitious, as it encompasses Earth’s entire geological history and possible futures. Stratman asks the viewer to approach this topic from the point of view of the Earth itself, imagining what time might look like from the perspective of a mineral, how rocks might conceive of memories. Different voiceovers meld perspectives from both scientists and science fiction writers, fusing the practical and the poetic—primary sources include the early Belgian sci-fi author J.-H. Rosny (a penname shared by brothers Joseph and Séraphin Boex) and contemporary geoscientist Marcia Bjørnerud. It is an essayistic glimpse into deep time, wondrous and thrilling. 

With Last Things beginning its theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives in New York this week, Documentary talked with Stratman over email about the film, her sources, and filmmaking as a kind of “dig.” The conversation has been edited for clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: I read in another interview that your original impetus for this film was the Rosny novels. What other things were you previously familiar with that you drew into your process here, and which parts did you discover through that process? For instance, were you familiar with Marcia Bjørnerud and her work before making the movie, or was she a discovery?

DEBORAH STRATMAN: The Rosny novels (The Death of the Earth and Les Xipéhuz) were the earliest catalysts. I’d originally thought I’d make an adaptation, which the film still is in some ways.  But the more I researched geology, microbiology, cosmology, extinction, the more seduced I was by all the deep-time realities out there. I decided to try interleaving the fiction with harder science, especially after I encountered Robert Hazen’s theory of mineral evolution in a natural history museum display. When the planet formed, there were only a few mineral types. But thanks to encounters with various forces and atmospheric changes—like the great oxygenation event, when cyanobacteria started belching out enormous amounts of oxygen, causing a mass extinction of all the anaerobic biota which until that time had reigned supreme—scores of new mineral varieties came into existence, or evolved, as Hazen might say. Life impacts minerals and minerals impact life.  

I can’t recall exactly when I discovered Bjørnerud’s books Reading the Rocks and Timefulness, but they definitely got swept into the general gleaning process. I love the clarity of Bjørnerud’s voice. She’s technical and precise but digestible for non-specialists. And critically for me, there’s a sociopolitical [dimension] to her understanding of geology, what she calls having a polytemporal worldview. The voiceover you hear in the film is partially from interviews we did and partially from lectures she gave in a course affectionately known as HELL (the “History of Earth and Life”) at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where she’s a professor of geosciences, which she graciously allowed me to sit in on a few times.

Clarice Lispector’s A hora da estrela I’d read some years ago, but it resurfaced front-of-brain once the film was gelling. And Roger Caillois’ Writing of the Stones I’d known, but I reread it more deeply. He’s such a cool diagonal thinker. I was already reading Ursula K. Le Guin and Donna Haraway, who led me to Lynn Margulis and her symbiogenesis theory.  

D: How much do you find that creating a film is a process of collating topics and stories that already interest you, as opposed to discovering new things of interest through your investigations?

DS: It’s both-and. I’m a fan of the dig. A big part of this film (and many prior) has been sifting and amassing filmic fodder. I inevitably bump up against things that were unknown to me that re-galvanize and redirect the projects. I have to shut off the research at some point and start distilling, or the pile of interesting bits gets too unwieldy.  

I’m an associative thinker and a believer in quotation, a collagist. When I point my camera at something and record, it feels like quoting. Except it’s a kind of quotation that distorts the fabric of what’s happening. It’s different than when the material is something I scripted or choreographed. In that case, the trajectory is inside-out. But my production habit is more frequently outside-in, framing stuff I didn’t plan. I call it “thrift-store” filmmaking because I often don’t know what I’m looking for, but I recognize something cool or useful when I see it.  

D: There are various methods of defamiliarization/recontextualization throughout Last Things. The opening shot is a painting of the Milky Way turned on its side, so that it looks like a striding figure. You’re addressing issues of anthropomorphizing and often, defying that tendency, here. How do you know when you’ve played with an image, sound, or concept enough to your satisfaction, to the point where it’s different but an underlying message is still legible?

DS: Thanks for pointing out William Herschel’s drawing of the Milky Way. I’m a bit obsessed with the fact that when turned 90 degrees, it looks like an approaching figure, with our Sun where the heart would be. It’s irrelevant to me whether a viewer picks up on this. But it is why the shot is where it is, at the beginning, signaling in a sort of morse, leaving an afterimage on your retina in its absence. Equally important to me is its source. It has been called the earliest known drawing of the Galaxy, but it’s just the earliest by a white male European scientist whose work was saved. I’d wager we were contemplating and drawing our interstellar context way before Herschel did.   

As for how to know when something’s the right mix of legible/oblique, I don’t think it’s quantifiable.  That’s the poetry. That’s the road you make by walking.

D: Much of the film explores the idea of geologic/mineral memory. Memory is nonlinear, while film tends to be linear, and so there’s some kind of organizing principle. What such principles guided your approach here?

DS: I agree that the film in its physical form or access protocol is “linear,” but I don’t believe that’s how film actually exists. Yes, a film meets your mind unfurling in a specific order, but your experience of the film is never simply that needle-in-groove now. If film were only that sort of time, then we’d be making movies for a viewership unable to hold onto moments gone by, like if everyone had some ultimate form of Alzheimer’s. Self and time would dissolve. Anyways, I think linearity is a trap. It’s just one of many planes for story-making. 

Guiding principles were to think inter-scalar, micro and mega, to press the mode of telling we call “science fiction” against science fact. Which was a bit like adjacent sliding tectonic plates, with lots of interesting action at the interstices! I think it’s good to question what sort of history or storytelling we pay attention to—which gets sanctioned, which gets preserved. With Last Things, I was thinking about habits of matter as a sort of ritual. Rhythm as a habit of vibration. Doing things synchronously links us with others into shared habits of mind. Crystal habits are specific, classifiable 3D patterns that minerals grow in; I thought of them as resonant forms. Arranging menhirs is a ceremonial marking that extends beyond written language. A henge is a ritual habit of matter. Last Things, when it’s working, is film as monument as vibratory machine.

D: There’s a lot of fascinating science and beautiful poetic rumination in the film; it’s the kind of heteroglossia that one could easily get lost in, like going down a Wiki rabbit hole. How were you satisfied that you had “enough” to constitute this specific film? Were there any topics/subjects you considered or even explored but ultimately didn't include?

DS: I’m not sure satisfaction is a thing I feel while making art. I get satisfied from stuff like getting my laundry done or digging a trench or putting away my books. There’s a tipping point where if I were to keep collecting, a film loses momentum and I get bored. Each film has its own gestation period. Some might be a day, others a decade. For essayistic films like this one, I accrue way more material than I can use. Then I condense that unruly, amorphous cloud to try to say as much as I can in as few moves as possible. There’s lots of things I explore but don’t use. Most things, I guess.

D: It feels vital that this was made on celluloid, since it is in its way mineral-based (light-sensitive crystals), meaning your film is of a kind with its own story, recording a memory in the same way that these rocks do. If someone found the reel hundreds of years from now, the images in sequence on the frames would still tell their story. Do you think about that kind of archaeology of film and filmmaking?

DS: Yes! Exposing celluloid is a special kind of stone carving. The light is carving the photosensitive emulsion, which is composed of suspended minerals. Despite being a “thing” rather than 1s and 0s, the medium still feels utterly transient. I mean, cinema has barely been around a century, so it’s hard to imagine its archaeology. I do think about the legacy of ideas, though, about what I have absorbed and what I will pass on. I guess if I want the things I make to be around a thousand years from now, I’d better start arranging henges.

Dan Schindel is a freelance critic and full-time copy editor living in Brooklyn. He has previously worked as the associate editor for documentary at Hyperallergic.