Monday, November 26, 2007

The Films of Len Lye

Free Radicals (1958)

As I've written previously, I was first drawn to the New Zealand-born experimental filmmaker Len Lye's work by Kristin Thompson's blog post earlier this year, with her subsequent update alerting me to a touring program that featured almost all of his films, from his first work, Tusalava (1929), to his final Particles in Space (1966).

Lye moved to London as a young man - he had planned to visit the Soviet Union, but stopped in England - and the first phase of his film work was completed there. Near the end of the Second World War, he moved to the US, and made five distinctly different films in that country, of which he became a naturalised citizen. Most of Lye's works are very brief, with the longest pieces around seven minutes in length; some are just a minute long. He worked in many other art forms, too, and was especially known for his kinetic sculptures.

Lye's first film, Tusalava, best illustrates his early interest in imagery from the South Pacific, with motifs based on Maori and Samoan iconography. It's a complex and sometimes humorous work that melds images from the natural world with sequences reminiscent of science fiction robots; many sections recall the pulsating intensity of small life-forms seen under a microscope.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

A few years later, Lye made his best-known film, A Colour Box, a vibrant direct-animation work (the images were painted directly onto strips of film, an extraordinarily painstaking process given the small scale of the endeavor). Like many of his 1930s films, A Colour Box was in fact a commercial, for the General Post Office in this case (it was specifically designed to promote new parcel-post rates). After the success of the film, Lye made a half dozen films - including the above Rainbow Dance - with an ostensible advertising purpose, for clients such as Shell Oil, the GPO and Imperial Airways.

The commercial messages are almost always subsidiary to Lye's experiments with colour, shapes and process, and are sometimes added at the conclusion as an apparent after-thought. Lye received much encouragement at this stage of his career from the great documentarian John Grierson as well as from Alberto Cavalcanti, an even more cosmopolitan filmmaker than Lye himself (born in Brazil, he had worked in France before coming to England); Grierson headed the GPO Film Unit, while Cavalcanti was a producer and technician.

Even where the starting point for some of the films is more conventional, such as in the post office advertising film N or NW, Lye quickly subverts the realist trappings, concocting a multi-layered film that plays with editing and voiceover while delivering an amusing message about the need to correctly address letters. That said, there's no doubting the period in which some of the films were made: Colour Flight drums up business for Imperial Airways' connections to the colonies, while Trade Tattoo celebrates the high water mark of Empire, with the slogan "The rhythm of trade is maintained by the mails" flashing across the screen over carefully transformed images of an industrious motherland.

After the Second World War and his move to the US, Lye's work takes a radically new turn. While his first postwar work, Color Cry, recalls the dazzling colours of his best-known British films, the images themselves are starker and less jaunty; his choice of music, too, is more downbeat, the Latin-influenced music of earlier films replaced by a plaintive blues song. His subsequent work is even more spare: colour disappears from films like Tal Farlow and the stunning Free Radicals, which feature intense sequences of lines and cross-hatches, and have a particular obsession with the vertical, foreshadowing Gerhard Richter's "Curtain" series of paintings. These later films are accompanied by insistently rhythmical musical works, including African drumming, and have a mesmerising power that is all the more intense for the films' brevity.

(As previously, I'm indebted to Roger Horrocks's work on Lye, and to Kristin Thompson for highlighting Lye's films and for prompting me to actually see the films).


Pacze Moj said...

I've seen Rainbow Dance and read a bit about Lye. One thing I either remember or have completely made up is that Hitchcock once wanted to work with him!

Gareth said...

Now that's an interesting tidbit! He seems to have been a remarkable character, and very much an artistic polymath. I'd like to see some of his other non-film work, too, to see where it all fits together. I guess it wouldn't surprise me that he and Hitchcock might have crossed paths in the 1930s in England; one of his films for the GPO certainly shows a strong grasp of mainstream shooting techniques of the time (which he then promptly subverts).

Pacze Moj said...

Found it:

"The success of Lye's experimental work for the GPO occasionally brought him a commission for special effects. His most notable client was Alfred Hitchcock who asked him to do some hand-painting for the 1936 feature-film Secret Agent."

Page 153 of Roger Horrocks' Len Lye: A Biography.

There's a bit more, too -- the hand-painting included flames, which, when projected, were mistaken for the film actually catching fire -- and it's all readable on Google Books.

Gareth said...

Thanks for the details: I had to return the Lye book to the library, not realizing it was available online. With end-of-semester pressures I was scanning through it more than I would have liked, and missed that intriguing reference! I added "Secret Agent" to my Netflix queue: it seemed as good an excuse as any to see the film again...


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