Primitive ‘Northern Lights’ fails to become visual spectacle

Sunday, March 20, 2016 - 6:57pm

The lobby of the Michigan Theater filled quickly on March 19 as patrons anxiously awaited the screening of “Northern Lights,” a live cinema performance put on by Finnish directors Britt Koostra and Arvid van der Rijt. Purely hand-crafted films are hard to come by nowadays, and live sound mixing executed by one of the directors is even rarer. Needless to say, “Northern Lights’ showed promise of being a completely captivating experience. Unfortunately, while having a few magnetic moments to draw viewers, the film’s primitiveness makes it extremely boring. 

Disregarding the ideas of plot and narrative structure, this 45-minute film is divided into three segments distinguished by their aesthetic: natural, abstract and man-made. Each section begins with a tiny image that only occupies a small portion of the screen. The footage loops for a few minutes before another image appears elsewhere on the screen. An uncomfortable, jarring pan showing birds flying, eating and splashing on a city waterfront opens the film. Following this video is another wide shot of the entire group, and a final image highlights the flight of a single bird. Suddenly, all three pictures disappear and we abruptly transition into the abstract segment. This section drags on for what feels like hours, simply presenting us with many of the different forms light can take on, from little circles to colorful lines. During the final portion, “man-made,” Koostra shows the audience a 3-D geometric sculpture from various angles.

In this immersive experience, Van der Rijt provides the film’s sound by hand. He effectively establishes the mood of each section by using the same music throughout, but frequently changes the underlying sounds. Occasionally these undertones artfully accentuate the on-screen image, but more often, these sounds are extremely crude and distract viewers from the film. Specifically, the beautiful melody that accompanies bright white circles as they dance across the screen is disrupted by a sound that that reminds me of my mom’s raucous hand mixer.

Despite the uncomfortable viewing experience, there is an important message that can be discerned from this film. Shamefully, it took at least five complete loops for me to realize that the opening shot was being replayed. Once other viewers became aware of this aspect, many found the incessant repetition to be horribly boring, but I was left wondering how I didn’t notice it sooner. With further reflection, I remembered that I had glanced at my phone when nothing I deemed as “exciting” happened in the shot. It dawned on me that the problem couldn’t be entirely attributed to Koostra’s techniques or subject matter. We as viewers often fail to notice the beauty in pure nature, the beauty found in its subtlety. 

“Northern Lights” is far from the visual spectacle its title suggests. Other than the audible and visual representation of the Northern Lights, which doesn’t occur until halfway through, nothing compels us to engage with the film.  Only the most dedicated of film fanatics can sit through its entirety (a handful of people actually got up and left during the first seven minutes), but, if you take the time to listen, it has something important to say.