Illustration by Iain Marcks
Austrian filmmaker Johann Lurf plots a course through space and time — at the movies
Specifying “the only title of this film is ★, and not Star, (Star), Star-Film, ‘*’, Star Symbol…or any other verbal form,” Austrian director Johann Lurf establishes the rigor and abstraction of his latest work with one neat Unicode requirement. A formal exercise taking on the eternity of the cosmos through a time-bound human lens, ★ is an ongoing history of cinematic starry skies.
Despite Lurf’s insistence that “the film is not a lullaby,” I found myself becoming drowsy throughout his plotless marvel. Not because the film was dull, but an expansive take on something so grand as the heavens might be too much for any individual to process. ★ is a draining experience in the best way possible, a constellation of views impossible for earthbound mortals, and imperceptible even in movies without Lurf’s intervention.
Like its namesake, ★ is coalesced from the cosmic dust of predecessors, over 550 films with a heavy emphasis on commercial and art house features. The clips are edited together without further manipulation, Lurf’s hard cuts undermining the grandeur and gimmick of Hollywood both as obviously and as unobtrusively as possible. Pushing time only forward — sometimes in jarring bursts, remixing credit sequences into jagged stutters by removing anything uncelestial — the sense of movement created is delightsome, with the frame wheeling around, zooming forward, often gently floating.
After a while, expectation for the camera to eventually land on “real” action gives way to the disorientation of actual outer space, where all points are equally distant, no focus, no fixed objects, including the audience’s POV. The many star fields breezing by like highway landscape were always cinematic illusion — actual stars are so distant parallax motion wouldn’t be visible save at near-light speeds — but the breakneck whiplash of Lurf’s sequencing highlights the surreality of what audiences took for granted as night sky.
Supercut is the term recently bestowed on re-edited and remixed films; like ★ they pick an entry point into the vast body of cinema and fixate. In the best, stacked illusions build up a new and different truth; many just identify and call out tired tropes. The genre’s subdivided between what could be termed collage films, which root through the toy box of Hollywood or other archives to cobble together, if not a new narrative, then a new connection between existing images (such as Anti-Banality Union’s 2014 State Of Emergence, which recasts Hollywood disaster porn as societal death wish), and formalist exercises where strict adherence to rules renders narrative impotent, but frees something new from the medium. Some, like ★, are also living objects, modified as time passes and growing with the seventh art.
A vast cinematic arena
Testament to Austrian appreciation for ideas as their own currency, Lurf says, “there is funding even for this niche of films as well as a professional distributor for those works, resulting in an extremely effective system of support for production and distribution — meaning freedom of expression as well as display of work on a national and international level. The financial footprint for the state is extremely small but the cultural output at the same time very strong — a good deal for both sides!”
Austria is a country with over a century of rich film history. Lacking national subsidies or an internal new wave or neorealist movement like the ones invigorating other European countries, the popular film industry became moribund through the 1960s, with even fewer experimental films created — those became television’s turf.
By 1981 the government began subsidizing films, just in time for 36-year-old Lurf to reap a full lifetime of cultural benefits. By his own account, his country imbued him with an appreciation for film. “Being raised in Vienna definitely had an influence, with regular screenings of experimental cinema at the Filmmuseum, lots of screenings on 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm. The Academy of Fine Arts and its theoretical courses were always mind-opening.”
Slipping the surly bonds
The average American doesn’t consider the trove of Hollywood-created content as cultural birthright, which is bizarre considering these films form a hefty chunk of our modern mythology; even those who don’t go to movies experience them through social osmosis. The films making up ★, many taking as much manpower and effort to create as Stonehenge or the Pyramids, belong not to people, but corporations — abstract yet legally concrete entities with lock-tight claims over material woven into the shared fabric of human experience. We’ve become so beaten down by these fictional entities’ reign that the idea that these films are our history, let alone ours to utilize, rarely if ever occurs to us.
Lurf does the favor of giving us a chunk of our culture back, making ★ feel cozily familiar and extremely weird to watch, identifiable moments striking nostalgic chords even as there’s a sense of breaking taboo. ★ does more than unlock American films, it also shines light into inaccessible corners of global film history, hidden not by commercial greed but academic triage.
“I was lucky to participate in an Artist-In-Residence in Tokyo for three months so I could research extensively there,” Lurf says. “I was also able to visit a number of film archives with my budget as well as scanning scenes in 16mm and 35mm — but as that process is very time and money extensive I was only able to scan as the budget would last.”
Looking to the skies
Though well-supported, Lurf’s scope was as vast as his subject; unsurprisingly money ran out long before his survey was complete, though that hasn’t slowed him down. “Of course I will continue on my own and with the good-will of filmmakers, film archives, and others who share the enthusiasm for my project; sometimes I am lucky to get material from a restoration process that is done anyway — each film excerpt has its own story [of] how I managed to get it.”
As new movies enter the world, ★ will gradually expand “like the universe itself,” Lurf says. His refusal to use shoddier copies of older films, lest there be a false comparison in quality across time, means there’s plenty of room to expand through the past, should archival work keep apace. In the meantime ★ Version MMIX — MMXVIII, its current 100-minute iteration, is to film history as the stars above are to the universe — a mere fraction of the visible whole, but dazzling to behold.
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Austrian filmmaker Johann Lurf plots a course through space and time — at the movies.