Focus: Essay Film Festival 2018 – ★: Johann Lurf’s Cinema of Attractions
We are pleased to be partnering again with Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival. Alongside this, we have commissioned a special essay from Andrew Northrop, who writes on Johann Lurf’s ★, exploring the film’s relationship with spectacle and with spectatorship. ★ screens at the ICA on 29th March, alongside a conversation between Lurf and critic and curator Olaf Möller.
Borrowing from over 550 films, Johann Lurf’s essay film ★observes the starry night sky’s various representations throughout cinematic history. Of course, the contradiction is that, although cinema ontologically owes its form to light, these images are for the large part constructed artificially, ranging from crude star-shapes exposed onto film to vividly complex CGI nebulas. Watching these myriad stars is a reminder of cinema’s ability to produce spectacle; something underlined by the film’s credit sequence, which plays a computerised take on vaudeville music, recalling cinema’s formative appearance within variety shows at the turn of the 20th Century.
Early cinematic productions eagerly experimented with technological advancements and photographic techniques, solidifying what Tom Gunning refers to as “the cinema of attractions” (Gunning, 1986); cinema as a series of spectacles inciting curiosity. From spectacles emerge familiar images; tropes and trends. ★ observes how those relating to the stars have flourished and persevered, and how others have only appeared in passing. When hand-tinting became a valuable cinematic technique, allowing films to incorporate colour associations into their visual language, blue was used to indicate coldness or the change from day to night (Yumibe, 2015). A blue tint is utilised in a scene from Gaston Velle’s Voyage autour d’une étoile (A Voyage Around a Star) (1906) where a group of women peer through star-shaped holes in the set, signifying the wonders of the universe. ★’s examples are sequenced chronologically, meaning that the clip’s early appearance in the film establishes a visual thread. As the clear majority of the following clips use blue in some manner – either colouring the stars themselves or appearing as background gradients and hues at varying degrees – there’s a sense that this thread can be followed back to the cinema of attractions.
Other tropes and trends appear more fleetingly: there’s a burst of hard rock music, an intermittent patter of existential monologues and observations, and a wide range of camera movements varying in speed. What soon emerges is a sense of instability; a feeling that visual culture’s oft-outdated pieces of debris are negating visual and audible coherency across the cinematic timeline, despite the shared goal of portraying the stars. The same goes for certain technological leaps: an example from one of the Star Trek films, identified by its monologue and soundtrack, presents a level of polish and depth that goes unmatched for some time.
In turn, Lurf’s ability to observe the unsteadiness of a seemingly unified image is exactly what makes watching ★ so rewarding. There’s the universally recognisable sci-fi’s – the Star Wars and the Star Treks – and arthouse gems such as Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl (1984), but there’s also stoner comedies like Dude Where’s My Car? (2000), coming-of-age comedies such as Mystic Pizza (1988) and anime including Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001). Collated without bias and sans any discussion of critical or commercial success, the film’s selection of clips is so broad that the experience of noting their familiarity is entirely subjective to each viewer. And just when you think you’ve deduced your whereabouts on the cinematic timeline, a recognisable score abruptly corrects you.
When Thom Andersen presented his structuralist revaluation of Hollywoodian depictions of Los Angeles in Los Angeles Plays Itself(2003) it was a bold example of the essay film form’s ability to deconstruct popular culture whilst jointly recognising our immersion within it. The same observation can be applied to ★, though the chosen visual topic encourages becoming lost in thought, and Lurf’s decision to forego having a voiceover or any text-based attribution heightens this. The night sky starts to feel like a surface; sometimes impenetrable, sometimes malleable, teasing the mind to make whatever tangible associations it can. This allows ★ to become a truly participatory experience, saying as much about our expectations of visual culture as it does the various technological advancements that cinema has used to fuel spectacle.
Gunning, T., 1986. The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde. Wide Angle, 8(¾), p. 86.
Yumibe, J., 2015. The Phantasmagoria of the First Hand-Painted Films: How the silent screen burst to life with color. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 March 2018].