The heavens have always exhilarated and terrified us. Comets loom particularly large in the mythology of the cosmic sphere, if only because they come around so infrequently. Caesar was born under one, and he didn’t exactly end well. The Star of Bethlehem is often represented as a comet. Archaeologists looking into ancient Chinese oracle bones believe we’ve been marking the passing of these high-speed icy rocks for at least a few thousand years. And now, in our era of rapid scientific progress, the European Space Agency is landing robots on them.
Chicago-based artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman takes this history of superstitious awe and scientific discovery and refracts it into …These Blazeing Starrs!, an experimental documentary that combines the old fear of the dynamic sky with the equally eerie images brought back to earth by contemporary spacecraft.
The film is deliberate, unsettling and beautiful. Stratman begins with a quote from 16th century poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas describing comets as harbingers of famine, plague and civil war. She then turns to images of these shooting stars, alternating between stills of aging pages and fresh video extracted from the firmament. Her varying techniques include the use of magnifying glasses to simultaneously examine and obscure details of pre-modern illustrations of astronomical experimentation. Star charts and almanacs that predict doom appear with inverted color, much in the same manner as a particularly overzealous History Channel special.
Yet here the purpose is not short-term attention but rather a much deeper sense of dark magic, particularly as these symbols of blind adventure are interpolated with the actual record of space travel. Stratman excerpts footage from NASA missions like Voyager 1 and Deep Impact, highlighting the weird shapes of the comets and their shadowy surfaces. It is not always clear what one is looking at in …These Blazeing Starrs!, leaving us as unmoored as these great travelers of the universe.
The cumulative effect compresses human history, re-injecting the contemporary comet with some of the same magic that we saw in them hundreds of years ago. Much of this comes from the soundtrack, an element just as eclectic as the images. It is a blend of music and scientific noise, including sounds from NASA and S.E.T.I. It slows down the already icy pace of the space mission footage, creating a mood of nearly frozen observation.
This deliberate pacing and the intellectually attuned trance it inspires have something in common with Stratman’s latest, Cinema Eye Honors-nominated short, Hacked Circuit. That project looks into the crevices of cinema rather than those of a flying object, taking the form of a long-take visit to a sound studio where a foley artist recreates the soundtrack to a scene from The Conversation. Despite the looming stature of her subject matter, be it the majesty of the heavens or the revered name of Francis Ford Coppola, Stratman extracts mystery and wonderment from the smallest of moments by allowing them to breathe deeply.
Courtesy of Doc Alliance and their latest programmed event, titled “Retrospective of Deborah Stratman: In the Middle of the Landscape of Surveillance,” you can watch …These Blazing Stars! and Hacked Circuit below for free through April 19th. We’ve also included a delightful bonus short, Ray’s Birds, in which Stratman takes a visit to a bizarre and feathered English tourist attraction.
…These Blazing Stars!: