(USA/Portugal/France, 50 min.)
Dir. Deborah Stratman
Programme: New Frontier
Ever wanted to watch a film that has images of cyanobacteria, strange hexagonal rock formations, under-cranked clips of breakdancers, choral “star people” holding mirrors, and experimental music including bits from the likes of Brian Eno? Well, have I got a 50-minute “documentary” for you!
I admit ignorance when it comes to Deborah Stratman’s previous filmography, art installations, etc., but if her fans are to be believed, her latest non-linear work, Last Things, follows nicely with her usual shtick. The film blends a mix of an intermittently startling score with swirling images. Sometimes they’re scientific; sometimes they’re fanciful. Ostensibly a rumination on the achingly long process of time as our planet goes through tumultuous change, death and rebirth, audiences are treated to shimmering, crystalline structures that mirror the geometric, fractal patterns we use to illustrate the branches of evolutionary change.
For cinephiles pining for such journeys into the hypnotic and topographic, there’s something to be lauded for keeping the experience to a restrained 50 minutes. Despite its best efforts to lean into the esoteric or aggravating, Last Things manages to avoid outstaying its welcome. There’s tremendous beauty indeed found in the microscopic shapes, but one’s appreciation for the work may depend on one’s ability to stomach material that would have been derided as “hippie bullshit” a few years ago and is sprinkled throughout the film like solar ejecta that blends with the multifaceted aggregate of sound and imagery.
At best, it’s an artful work to zone out to, soothed by the poetic readings from various sources, or bedazzled by the structures both mineral and animal that are seen dancing in black void. The irony of a formless piece used to illustrate such beautifully structured elements is perhaps not lost on the filmmaker. However, for a general audience, there’s little to do other than sit back, take it all in, and be comforted that despite its geological pacing, it only lasts for the briefest of periods.
I found myself drawn into the tales told by some of the scientists, these more overt statements all the more acute when buttressed against metaphysical ramblings. Like discarding a surface layer to discover the beauty buried within, I found myself hoping, incongruously, for the prosaic pontificating to be expanded upon. That way, the film could lose some of the looseness and, while that effect might make it didactic or even pedagogical, it could perhaps become a more coherent articulation of how these ancient rocks provide insight into the earliest moments of our solar system.
Wanting to run away from the circus and take on a 9-to-5 office job may be a similarly anathematic for those who revel in such cinematic experimentalism rather than, say, a David Attenborough narrated BBC show on the same subject. I admit here to be more silly than sublime, finding it more tedious than terrific. These are the words no doubt of a gormless, plebeian ignoramus who apparently is incapable of parsing the subtleties of such “high art.” I’m not entirely comforted by my mildly educated assertion that I won’t be alone in this bemused reaction to the whole affair.
A last thing about Last Things? It’s pretty, it’s poetic (for better or for worse), it leans into the profound, and it’s probably going to do very well for a subset of viewers who consider themselves avant garde enough to truly “get it.” For others, though, it will be either a trifle, or nothing more than a series of indulgences sprinkled with almost enough scientific reason to keep it reasonably entertaining.