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A shot from Johann Lurf’s ★. Image: Vimeo

Space is a very abstract concept – most of us only ever experience it through images. Filmmakers make their own images of space inspired by other films, rather than experience. And yet, through cinema, we’re obsessed with space. Wanderlust doesn’t describe this feeling. We have no direct knowledge of space, it is antithetical to the nature we know – we are not sure what it is comprised of, it has no air to scatter sunlight, no trees or winds or oceans to connect to – and yet it seems that we know it instinctively, and identify with it. 

Viennese experimental filmmaker Johann Lurf’s ★ is a 99-minute feature-length cut of starry skies clipped from existing films, a plotless, brain-cleansing and calming movement through the skyscapes of cinema. Beginning with clips from silent films and creeping forward in time, with the original durations and accompanying sound retained, the project is an archival dive into film history, as well as a very abstract and beautiful film in and of itself. What a way to clear your mind.

In ★, there are no landscapes, no frames for the sky, no objects (unidentified or otherwise), no human figures, no moon, no planets. There’s no explicit story (how relaxing). Just deep-space skyscapes in cinema, a meta myth of stars, and a vehicle for time-travel through cinema’s archives of the place beyond Earth.

In lieu of plot, the film draws its energy from a sense of awe and wonder – it’s a project born of the big bang. And why not? Cinema contains more than plot, more than story even. Too often, in Australia, we conflate cinema with storytelling – with all the cultural nationalism and government-mandated ideas of commercial worthiness that go with that word. But ‘plot’ is merely events which happen to characters on-screen. That idea may be controversial – it is often the first sentiment editors try to cut from the essays I write, and one that provokes stunned stares from students in the class I teach at university. And yet I find myself less interested in the stories being told, and more captivated by how they are told, the new visual and cinematic languages that can emerge, and other ways – thematic, formal, stylistic – that filmmakers can innovate.

I find myself less interested in the stories being told, and more captivated by how they are told, the new visual and cinematic languages that can emerge.

Even in television, a conventionally plot-driven, episodically-resolving format, the trend of slow TV has given rise to hours-long do-nothing programs, purely pointed out the windows of desert-crossing trains and geared toward a hypnotic viewing experience, like SBS’s The Ghan. And yet back in 1928, pioneering filmmaker Germaine Dulac spoke of plot and story as stultifying forces: ‘The cinema can certainly tell stories, but one must not forget that the story is nothing. The story is a surface. The art of the screen is the depth that extends beyond this surface made perceptible.’

Because of its visual parameters, ★’s compass is deliberately, narrowly set. And yet there’s something markedly different going on here than any space documentary or science series you’ve seen that tries to explain the beginnings of the universe or the fabric of space-time. Lurf doesn’t make me think so much of the vastness of space or the unknowable magic of the cosmos, but the similar ways in which filmmakers have visually represented this expanse.

This infinite horizon isn’t always well-suited to the tools that cinema has so far provided us. Like Western art history, most of cinematic representation is founded on one-point or two-point perspective – a spatial language that has no bearing in a boundless three (or four) dimensional continuum without a horizon line as its visual anchor. Space is not a landscape!

★ shows that in fact, very few filmmakers picture the cosmos and all its negative space differently. There is George Lucas’ visual idea of hyperspace, in which a great leap forward is made, and dots becomes lines as we move past stars faster than we can discern them. There is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which moves us through a montage of images that feel spacey, but are not at all concerned with a vision of space that’s naturalistic. In that film’s Star Gate sequence (not in ★), Dr David Bowman shoots through coloured lights, away from his spaceship and toward the Star Child. The passage was constructed from a montage of op art paintings, moiré patterns, microscopic images of crystals and molecules, inky colours and chemicals shot in slow-motion in a water tank, and manipulated live-action shots of Monument Valley and the Hebridean Islands. It is more galactic than anything, because it is made with fidelity to an imagined feeling of hurtling through space, rather than a realistic image of the expanse between celestial bodies.

Lurf’s project reminds me that our world is not, in fact, made of language. We don’t really know what it’s made of.

In ★, Lurf’s real instinct is for rhythm: he cuts long takes into jaunty staccato pieces, then lets the lengths linger. In retaining the clips’ original sound, he makes space for even more originality: the globally-sourced clips are often of languages beyond our comprehension. It’s a relief, seeing as the language we have to describe space is so limited anyway: epic, grandeur, awesome, et cetera. Lurf often edits in the middle of words or sentences, as if to underline humans’ redundancy in making sense of their own universe. Of course – words are puny and ineffective. As someone who trades in words for my profession, I’m acutely aware of this. Lurf’s project reminds me that our world is not, in fact, made of language. We don’t really know what it’s made of.

Like exposure to other natural visual stimuli, our nervous systems seem crave looking at the stars, at space, at a basic level. After all, every group of people has their own mythology of stars, not just the Greeks, whose language we still mainly use to describe the constellations.

And yet, a century after cinema’s beginnings, Johann Lurf’s starfields show that film has mainly represented this great unknown with the same visual constants. As a project, ★ remains open; Lurf will continue to layer new material from cinematic archives and new films into his compilation. By taking an aural and visual approach to thinking through cinema’s possibilities, he reminded me of Tao Lin’s idea that the imagination is perhaps bigger than the universe, and that those imaginative possibilities remain wide open forever.

★ screens at Sydney’s SciFi Film Festival tomorrow, 18 October at 6pm, at Event Cinemas George St.