Drifting Architectures: Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables
The Illinois Parables, a documentary by the Chicago-based filmmaker Deborah Stratman, begins with a brief series of shots from above the titular state’s landscape. Illinois is “flyover country” after all: most coastal Americans see it as a undifferentiated stretch of farmland, flanked by the Mississippi on one side and cut through by the country’s two longest interstate highways, I-90 and I-80. Flat and barren, Illinois was built for passing through; yet, between The Illinois Parables’ opening and closing shots, Stratman rejects this transitory reception, choosing instead to fix a solid gaze upon the setting. Composed of ground-level images of Illinoisan environments, the film delivers eleven “parables” that weave fluidly through the state’s geography and history. Within this frame, Stratman uncovers the social and physical structures left behind by the diverse peoples that have—for religious, racial, or natural reasons—simply passed through.
The film’s first parable focuses on the Cahokia Mounds—low hills, subtly diverse in color, man-made by a pre-Columbian civilization in what is now Collinsville, Illinois. Evincing a natural look, the mounds leave a pseudo-organic trace of the powerful society that built them centuries ago. Thirty minutes later, Stratman returns to a different collection of mounds. Instead of indigenous artifacts, these house tiny munitions bunkers—a more straightforward presentation of man intervening in the natural landscape, looking for safety beneath its surface. Mounds come into view at the end of the film, too, but this time their artifice is amplified: they make up Michael Heizer’s Effigy Tumuli, an artwork in which sculpted animal forms bulge subtly from the earth. In The Illinois Parables, the mound—disrupting an otherwise flat natural landscape—reveals itself as a fundamental architecture of power and permanence. It is not only an index of human presence but also of desires, among different communities, to erect monuments and to store objects, to solidify that presence in the face of erasure.
Between these sequences, Stratman introduces a disunited cast of characters in search of refuge in Illinois: the Mormons, who settled in Nauvoo but were met with hostility; Étienne Cabet’s Icarians, a utopian community that briefly followed the Mormons in Nauvoo; the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, who fled Italy in 1938 with his Jewish wife; Chicago’s blacks, segregated in the city’s Black Belt following migration from the American South; and more. The state’s physical landscape on screen, at least on camera, clearly bears the marks of these lost, rejected peoples. “Their families are obliterated,” a voice, quoting de Tocqueville, recites thirteen minutes in. “The names they bore in common are forgotten. Their language perishes, and all traces of their origin disappear. Their nation has ceased to exist, except in the recollection of the antiquaries of America.” In The Illinois Parables, with pensive shots set to a richly-detailed soundtrack, Stratman allows the language of the setting—natural, built, imagined—to speak. The voiceless people within it try to embed their own idioms, or objects, into it: antiquaries, flags, signs, bones.
Their leftovers accumulate and become the state’s physical landscape. Parable to parable, Stratman underlines the ephemerality of what would appear to be permanent formations. The artist Lucy Raven, writing in the catalogue for a 2010 exhibition in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, identifies this subtle instability as one of Stratman’s trademarks. There is an “invisible, drifting architecture” in her films which, in Raven’s words, “suggests the uncomfortable feeling of being enclosed without any visual referent to entrapment.” Raven refers specifically to Stratman’s dynamic use of sound, which she designs to articulate structures through vibration, not matter. Yet while Raven focuses on sound, Stratman likewise relies on visual referents in The Illinois Parables to facilitate these “uncomfortable feelings.” Early in the film, she cues a set of weighty bell rings to close-ups of a still, natural environment. For a moment, the film’s aural and visual landscapes align to create the foundation of a scenic “architecture.” But the setting is revealed to be a diorama, wholly fabricated, a fissure which highlights the music’s constructedness and unsettles the organic sense of place that had briefly come into focus.
Moving from mounds to roads to simulations to towns, Stratman ultimately presents a meditative, yet thorough overview of the state’s vernacular architecture—burial mounds and grain silos, rotting rural shacks and hollow prefab apartments, barns swept up by tornadoes and schoolhouses consumed by fire. People rely on these architectures (or, institutions) for shelter, but the referents Stratman employs are fragile: highlighting their physicality, she also foregrounds their impermanence and precarity. At one point, a painting of a burning building (a school or church) fills the screen; the building is frozen in a moment of active decay. When the painting fades away, it is replaced by a shot of the building itself, solid and vibrant, in real time—as if the painting’s paused scene had been rewinded. It becomes difficult to differentiate between movement and stillness, past and present, sturdiness and collapse, entrapment and safety. This layering of referents and modes of temporality thus calls into question the stability, even reality, of the visible structures and institutions that order our communities.
But we hold on to these structures nevertheless. They mark the state’s landscape and limits; they provide physical enclosure, even if, in their impermanence, they present the sense of lost-ness that for Stratman has long fueled the flow of people and information in Illinois. Why is nothing stable, the people might wonder? In an illustrative turn, a parable about tornadoes bleeds into one about Fermi. Can science defeat nature? Perhaps, but Fermi’s work on nuclear power only led to a new genre of disaster. A short animation further visualizes the unsettling drift from nature’s architecture to that of the controlling institution: an image of an atom morphs into a small piece of machinery, then into a laboratory. What supports our institutions? Faith and science, image and reality, elemental and societal: we grasp at these as sources of truth and miss, time and time again. Stratman refrains from absolute judgments; she simply “sculpts” time, as she once said, crafting a surface that reflects and refracts, in multiple dimensions, the people that pass by. Illinois’s is a history of exchange and anxiety, like a game of Jenga. Each group repositions a block, contributing to both the immediate and total structure. In The Illinois Parables, the highly particular, unstable architecture they have assembled comes forcefully into view.
The Illinois Parables had its New York premiere at the New York Film Festival, and screened at Anthology Film Archives November 16 – 22, 2016.
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.