All Fall Down

Annie Buckley on Deborah Stratman

Deborah Stratman, O’er the Land, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 51 minutes.

DEBORAH STRATMAN’S FILMS feature multiple explosions and a jarring mix of noises and near-silent drones, so it is curious to also discover that an endearing innocence often prevails, a longing for some kind of miracle—a flying saucer or a goblin—just around the bend. This sense of wonder remains at the heart of Stratman’s O’er the Land (2009), featuring the true story of a man who fell through the sky and lived to tell about it. William H. Rankin’s 1960 book The Man Who Rode the Thunder chronicles his survival following a harrowing plane crash, when he tumbled through the frozen atmosphere and a live thunderstorm before hitting the ground, with only a tree to break his forty-minute fall.

Near the start of Stratman’s film, a polite recorded phone message from Rankin reflexively informs viewers that we will not be hearing directly from the lieutenant colonel as he is “eighty-seven years old and no longer [does] interviews.” Stratman uses an actor to read Rankin’s account midway through the film, pairing it with dramatic footage of stormy skies and a sound track fraught with high-pitched whines and rumbling murmurs, the aural dissonance emphasizing experiential and emotional depth, if stepping on the voice-over at times.

Bookending this unnerving scene are wavering shots of Americana, veering near the beginning toward cliché (in the form of marching bands, football games, trailer parks, and firefighters). These quietly unfold into another America—the border patrol scanning the desert, a theme park for gun enthusiasts, an animal-testing lab. A yellow sign reporting the current threat-level propels us squarely into post-9/11 America, the primary subject of Stratman’s wary gaze. It is fitting in this context that, by the close of the film, doubt has been cast on magic, too, heralded by a bright yellow mockingbird flitting wildly about in its laboratory cage, dazed by recorded birdcalls.

Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land has its Los Angeles premiere at REDCAT on Monday, February 23. For more details, click here.