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Saturday
Oct132018

★: THE JOHANN LURF INTERVIEW

Johann Lurf stands alongside such auteurs as Guy Maddin, György Pálfi and Christian Marclay as one the world’s great cinematic ‘constructuralists’; filmmakers that build monumental montage movies, reconfiguring frames from hours of other artist’s footage into new and beautiful film visions. His latest is ★, a breathtaking collage of night skies, galaxies and deep-space starfields sourced from over 550 films, dating from the silent film era until mid-2018. “Your audience is getting 115 years of cinematic history in 95 minutes, which should not seem daunting at all,” jokes the Viennese filmmaker, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from Munich ahead of his film’s Australian Premiere at the Opening Night of Sydney’s SciFi Film Festival

SCREEN-SPACE: How do you define the artistry of the great cinema montage? It is a good period for the constructuralist movement, with films like Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog (2017) and György Pálfi’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012) finding festival exposure and critical acclaim. Where does the power lie in a good montage film?

Lurf: It lies in its complexity. There are many different aspects that you can highlight with a simple idea, with the concept of pieces or segments of films pieced together. In the case of The ★ Film, it is an easy to explain concept, but then it opens up and there are many aspects that you have to compare. There are the visual layers, then the fantasy and the romanticism of the single clips, but then the audio provides more historical contextualization. You can also begin to see how the stars were being used by the mechanics of cinema and what they are representing. The great montage film makes us focus not only on a specific  element or theme, but also helps us understand a ‘meta-layer’, something that we as a society or as humans have in common.  Like Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), which is clearly not just about a clock but is about us, the human race.

SCREEN-SPACE: ★ has no narrative structure and no traditional human connection on-screen, yet it is an engaging, often very emotional film-watching experience. What is your theory of why it has connected with audiences so universally?

Lurf: When you see an image or hear a sound, it takes you only a split-second to interpret it. When we are immersed and engaged by a film, we do that for every second of the experience. We understand which emotion the character is experiencing, regardless of whether they are a man or woman or kid or Japanese or whatever, when they experiencing something sad or profound or adoring, we share that. Our senses are so acutely trained to read images, sound, language, it is impossible to escape being influenced. The machine of cinema we are sitting in is perfectly designed to affect our senses, so the basis for an emotional connection is already there. And then you have the range of images in the film, the language and the music, which build upon that.

SCREEN-SPACE: The vastness of space and the confines of a cinema are both essentially deep, dark voids illuminated by millions of points of light. Your film bridges those voids, it’s fair to say…

Lurf: I’ve never heard it described in such a great way as you’ve described it just now (laughs). I definitely see them as very much connected. The predecessor of cinema is the night sky itself; for the many thousands of years that humans have been looking at the night sky, they have been looking at a very similar image as modern audiences do with cinema. It is a three-dimensional space represented in a two-dimensional way, like how a picture is recorded by a camera. The night sky is moving, but you can’t see it moving, so you have this contradiction, whereas cinema is the other way around – frames, moments captured in time, that are still images but that appear to be moving. But we can look at both and contemplate what we see and what they mean to us. Another similarity is that you look into many different pasts when you look into the night sky – some of the stars are already dead, others are still shining. Staring at the stars is like entering a warped sense of time, pasts that we are able observe, and cinema can do that as well.

SCREEN-SPACE: You set yourself and adhere to very strict artistic guidelines in ★…

Lurf: The work I’ve done before – my shorts, the found-footage or researched-footage films – I utilize the ‘hard cut’ because it is an intervention that is clearly the artist’s choice, or my choice. At the same time, it doesn’t modify the source the material, meaning I don’t have to remove something from the image or slow down the footage or anything like that. I merely accentuate through editing, which for me is the most respectful way to use other artist’s work. It is a hard intrusion into the original work, but it can only be read as my act of selecting and cutting. The material should speak by itself, without me being too didactic or offering too much commentary, because I always love to have my audience interpret, or misinterpret, what they see. Misinterpretation is an impressive creative moment, because it means you have to ask yourself, ‘What am I not understanding here?’ It forces you to re-engage, to get closer to the work. I think those moments are the most inspiring that you can have in a cinema.

SCREEN-SPACE: You have cited the starscape in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli as the starting point for your fascination with the cinematic night sky. Is their a starfield in your film that you recall as being the most beautiful, perhaps your favourite?

Lurf: Actually, I try not to think in terms of what is ‘the best’ or apply some kind of superlative. In fact, I love more than 90% of the starry nights in the film and I don’t want to compare them to each other; they are so different to one another, it is impossible to judge whether any one is better or worse. Some have fantastic audio, or one looks great, or one might create a floating sensation.

SCREEN-SPACE: Are you dodging the question because your favourite is, in fact, 'Dude Where’s My Car?'

Lurf: (Laughs) No, I’m dodging the question for conceptual reasons. To pick one or two or a Top Ten out of the film would be to assign other clips a lesser quality, which I can’t do.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you foresee the film travelling as extensively as it has?

Lurf: I had no idea how people would react to this film, so that they are reacting at all and with such enthusiasm is very pleasing. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be in Sydney for the screening; I’ve just come from Ireland, and today I’m in Munich, and next week I’m in Norway and then I’ve two screenings in Spain, then back to Italy. It has been quite crazy what is happening with the film and it makes it me very happy.

Johann Lurf's ★ opens the SciFi Film Festival on Thursday October 18 at Event Cinemas George Street. Ticket and sessions details here.

Johann Lurf ★ Trailer from Johann Lurf on Vimeo.

 

 

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