Friday, December 7, 2007

Experimental Films of Len Lye

Last Saturday (12/1) Chicago Filmmakers screened 14 shorts from experimental film director Len Lye, providing a rare and wonderful look at the director's oeuvre. Lye (1901-1980) was a pioneer in the experimental film field, employing innovative techniques such as "direct animation," which consists of drawing directly onto the film stock, or etching designs with an array of tools, from ancient Indian arrowheads to modern dental instruments used to scratch the surface of the celluloid. His etchings create a warm, grainy effect; the movies that use this technique have an almost tangible feel, they're not glossy or finished and the interface of the screen dissolves so that the images themselves have the presence of a physical structure.

Tusalava (1929), Lye's first film, is a sequence of black and white dots and caterpillar-like creatures that morph across the screen, but also in a stretched, vertical motion that moves with the direction of the film through the projector.

A Colour Box (1935) is a series of printed dots and splotches of colors. The frame above has the texture of bingo marker ink dot on cardboard and gives you a good sense of the sort of physical texture Lye's images have onscreen. This film was financed by "GPO," the General Post Office in New Zealand that beginning in 1933 had its own film unit; stenciled letters reading "GPO" dance across the screen periodically, as a credit embedded directly into the main text of the film. Kaleidoscope, also released in 1935, is a pattern of stars, spirals, polka-dots, and ball-shaped figures that look like oranges, tennis balls and yin-yang signs. The kaleidoscopic imagery has a kinetic shape dictated by the soundtrack provided by "Dan Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra." It is a reflection of Lye's original artistic intention: "to compose motion, just as musicians compose sound."

The Birth of the Robot (1935) is a primary example of how Lye had many of his films financed through the use of advertising slogans (just as his mutual admirer, filmmaker Oskar Fischinger did, as well.) In Robot's case, the sponsor Shell Oil (which has its own highly-regarded film unit within the corporation since 1934) uses a drop of motor oil to reanimate a stranded motorist in the desert; the drop lubricates the man's brittle outline and he transforms into a robot, now resilient enough to navigate through the dry climate. The financier's final message flashes onto the screen: "The Modern World Needs Modern Lubrication."

Rainbow Dance (1936), is an example of early rotoscoping, wherein a silhouette of a a filmed male figure is superimposed across different (and very colorful) backdrops, many are abstract color "paintings" of world destinations. At the end, the film sponsor's name again dances across the frame: "Post Office Savings Bank."

Trade Tattoo (1937) features dancing flames to a mambo beat; moving lines that resemble converging railroad tracks; and other abstract color figures that mimic the rhythm of the musical beat accompanying it. This film has an actual credit list, noting Jack Ellit as the Music Editor. Again, at film's end a few words pop onto the screen instructing us to "Keep Up The Rhythm."

N. or N.W. (1937) might be my favorite film of the series, a public service announcement from the film's sponsor the General Post Office, reminding citizens of the right way to address an envelope. The film's title "N. or N.W." states the difference in specific street directions; a breakup letter written by a woman never reaches it's intended destination since she addresses it "North" instead of "Northwest," and luckily it doesn't for the lovers reunite and the film ends cleverly, "Yours, The End."

Colour Flight is a sequence of brightly colored shapes and thick strips of color moving through space to a heavy musical beat.

Swinging The Lambeth Walk (1939) is a series of colored dots and circular paint splotches; it also has a picture of something resembling a strip of film (is it an actual piece of film?) with colored sprocket holes that move across the frame.

Musical Poster (1940) is a moving propaganda poster against the Nazi regime reading, "Careful! The enemy is listening to you!" From the Harvard Film Archive: "During World War Two, Lye—adamant that wartime films did not have to be gloomy—made a number of films to assist the war effort. Musical Poster #1 (part of a long tradition of British “poster” films) was not only screened in cinemas but taken to factories and village halls by the Ministry of Information’s traveling film units. The film alerted the public to the risk that German sympathizers might overhear information about the war effort in everyday conversation."

Color Cry (1953) is a sequence of modern color block patterns; burlap textured colored patterns, and once again the image of multi-colored sprocket holes moving across the frame.

Tal Farlow (1980) is another favorite of mine, which consists of a series of white lines on a black background; vertical lines expand, contract and vibrate to a minimal loungy, 60s-sounding string instrument soundtrack, a visual analogy to the movement of sound waves.

Free Radicals (1958) was revised again in 1979, with a minute cut from its running time. It garnered the attention from experimental film master, Stan Brakhage who called it “an almost unbelievably immense masterpiece (a brief epic)” (Source: Harvard Film Archive), and left me with my jaw agape in awe. (The frame at the front of this post wherein the filmmaker scratches his name "Len" directly onto the emulsion, is also a frame taken from Free Radicals.) Lye is noted for being influenced by artist Paul Klee whose art, as he says, invokes "tak[ing] a line for a walk," a simple and apt description of the essense of Lye's Free Radicals.

Particles in Space (1979) was the last film of the night, another colorful expression of untamed movement and sound.

All Len Lye films shown last week at Chicago Filmmakers were on loan from the New Zealand Film Archive and are scheduled for screenings in numerous U.S. cities. As a follow up to the Lye experimental screenings, Chicago Filmmakers will have a showing tonight (Saturday, 12/8) of more experimental shorts from New Zealand from the years 1970-1979. I won't be able to make that screening, so anyone who does make it out for it, enjoy, and please let me know how it went.


Karen said...

Nice! I first learned of Len Lye in Bob Sklar's American Cinema lecture course at NYU! He can be pretty trippy and not the easiest to always sit through; but he's definitely an important filmmaker nonetheless. Thanks for posting this.

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theHman said...

I have this film. I'm going to upload it to youtube soon. Great pictures.