The Films of Len Lye at the Harvard Film Archive

From: Brooke Holgerson (email suppressed)
Date: Tue Nov 20 2007 - 09:15:09 PST

Monday November 26 at 7pm at the Harvard Film Archive
Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye

This early experimental film premiered at the London Film Society. It
imagines the beginning of life on earth, as single-cell creatures evolve
into species with distinct identities. Evolution leads to conflict, and
two species struggle for supremacy. Jack Ellitt's original percussive
piano score has unfortunately been lost and the film is now screened
without sound.
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1929, 35mm, b/w silent, 10 min.
_A Colour Box_
Lye's first direct film, which combines popular Cuban dance music with
hand-painted abstract designs, amazed cinema audiences. Color was still
a novelty, and Lye's direct painting on celluloid creates exceptionally
vibrant effects. The film won several major awards, though some
festivals had to invent a special category for it. In Venice, the
Fascists disrupted screenings because they saw it as 'degenerate' modern
art and controversies surrounding the film attracted millions of
viewers. The film was funded and distributed by John Grierson's GPO Film
Unit on the condition that Lye include some postal messages at the
end. /Presented courtesy of The British Post Office./
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1935, 35mm, color, 4 min.
Lye's second direct film was sponsored by Churchman Cigarettes. For
/Kaleidoscope /Lye animated stenciled cigarette shapes and is said to
have experimented by cutting out some of the shapes so that the light of
the projector hit the screen directly. He developed a number of other
stencils, such as a yin-yang, a diamond shape, a wheel, a star, to
complement his hand-painted images. As in /Colour Box /Lye used music by
Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra.
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1935, 35mm, color, 4 min.
_The Birth of the Robot_
This experiment was a "prestige advertisement" for Shell Motor Oil. As
conventional animation became dominated by Walt Disney, many European
filmmakers turned to puppets as an alternative. Lye enlisted the help of
avant-garde friends such as Humphrey Jennings and John Banting to make
the amusing puppets. Exploring the still-complex color process, which
involved the combination of three separate images, Lye created such a
vivid storm scene that reviewers hailed it as "proof that the color film
has entered a new stage." The music is Holst's /The Planets. /
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1936, 35mm, color, 7 min.
_Rainbow Dance_
This live-action film exploits the triple images of the Gasparcolor
system in an unprecedented way. Lye filmed dancer Rupert Doone in black
and white, then colored the footage during the development and printing
of the film, adding stenciled patterns. /Rainbow Dance /is packed with
new filmic ideas such as moving figures that leave behind a trail of
colored silhouettes (like Duchamp's /Nude Descending a Staircase/)/.
/This experiment was sponsored by the GPO Film Unit on the proviso that
Lye include a Savings Bank advertisement. /Presented courtesy of The
British Post Office./
Directed by Len Lye
UK1936, 35mm, color, 5 min.
_Trade Tattoo_
/Trade Tattoo /went even further than /Rainbow Dance /in its
manipulation of the three-color Gasparcolor process. The original black
and white footage consisted of outtakes from GPO Film Unit documentaries
(such as /Night Mail/). Lye transformed them in what has been described
as the most intricate job of film printing and color grading ever
attempted. Animated words and patterns are combined with the live-action
footage to create images as complex and multi-layered as a Cubist
painting. Music was provided by the Lecuona Band, another Cuban group.
With its dynamic rhythms, the film sought (in Lye's words) to convey "a
romanticism about the work of the everyday in all walks of life."
/Presented courtesy of The British Post Office/.
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1937, 35mm, color, 5 min.
_N. or N.W_.
When Lye was commissioned by the GPO Film Unit to make a live-action
film about the need to be careful in addressing letters, he decided to
make it an experiment in subverting the orthodox language of film
editing (which he described contemptuously as "the Griffith technique").
The film turns a simple story about a lovers' quarrel into a montage of
bizarre camera angles and point-of-view shots, accompanied by lively
jazz music. Lye's favorite sequence (showing the young woman getting
dressed and going for a walk) was so extreme that the Film Unit cut it
and it has since been lost. The surviving seven minutes of the film are
still astonishing. /N. or N.W./ ends with a very tongue-in-cheek
treatment of the sponsor's message. /Presented courtesy of The British
Post Office./
Directed by Len Lye
UK1937, 35mm, b/w 7 min.
_Colour Flight_
This riot of color was a showcase for Lye's hand-painted and stenciled
imagery. Sponsored by Imperial Airways (the forerunner of British
Airways), it incorporates the airline's "speedbird" symbol. The music
consists of "Honolulu Blues" by Red Nichols and a rumba by the Lecuona
Cuban Boys. /Time Magazine/ raved about the film, describing Lye as
England's alternative to Walt Disney, a David-and-Goliath comparison, as
Disney's films are the product of a big corporation whereas Lye was a
one-man band who painted or stenciled his designs by hand.
Unfortunately, like Lye's other films, /Colour Flight/ was not eligible
for distribution in the US due to its status as an overseas advertising
Directed by Len Lye
UK1938, 35mm, color, 4 min.
_Swinging the Lambeth Walk_
The Lambeth Walk was a popular dance with a characteristic hand gesture
(the Yiddish 'Oi!'). Lye edited together a number of "swing" versions of
the music (including Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stephane Grapelli on
violin), and combined them with a particularly diverse range of direct
film images, scratched as well as painted. Lye was particularly pleased
with a final guitar solo (with a vibrating horizontal line) and double
bass solo (with a stomping vertical line). This time Lye did not have to
include any advertising slogans. Friends at the Tourist and Industrial
Development Association, shocked to learn that Lye and his family had
become destitute, arranged for TIDA to sponsor the film -- to the horror
of government bureaucrats who could not understand why a popular dance
was being treated as a tourist attraction.
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1939, 35mm, color, 4 min.
_Musical Poster #1_
During World War Two, Lye 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. Lye
was adamant that wartime films did not have to be gloomy. /Variety
/described this film as "a fantastic but effective blending of color and
sound to draw audience interest."
Directed by Len Lye
UK 1940, 35mm, color, 3 min.
_Color Cry_
In 1944 Lye moved to New York City, initially to direct for the
documentary newsreel /The March of Time/. He settled in the West Village
and mixed with the artists who later became the Abstract Expressionists.
He encouraged New York's emerging filmmakers such as Francis Lee, taught
with Hans Richter, and assisted Ian Hugo on /Bells of Atlantis. /Lye's
own film /Color Cry /was based on a development of the "rayogram" or
"shadow cast" process, using fabrics as stencils. Lye synchronized his
film to a haunting blues song by Sonny Terry, which he imagined to be
the anguished cry of a runaway slave. His American films used the 16mm
Directed by Len Lye
US 1952-3, 16mm, color, 3 min.
_Tal Farlow_
Lye created a series of scratched images in the 1950s -- more regular or
geometric than his usual style -- to accompany /Rock 'n' //Rye/, a track
by jazz guitarist Tal Farlow, but he did not get far with the editing.
He returned to this direct film in 1980 but died before it was
completed. His assistant Steven Jones finished cutting and synchronizing
the film under the supervision of Lye's widow Ann, who had been closely
involved with all of Lye's American films.
Directed by Len Lye
US 1980, 16mm, b/w, 2 min.
Intended as a publicity film for Chrysler, /Rhythm/ uses rapid editing
to speed up the assembly of a car, synchronizing it to African drum
music. Chrysler was horrified by the music and suspicious of the way a
worker was shown winking at the camera. /Rhythm /won first prize at a
New York advertising festival but was then disqualified because its
sponsor had never given it a television screening. P. Adams Sitney
wrote, "Although his reputation has been sustained by the invention of
direct painting on film, Lye deserves equal credit as one of the great
masters of montage." And in /Film Culture/, Jonas Mekas said to Peter
Kubelka, "Have you seen Len Lye's 50-second automobile commercial?
Nothing happens there...except that it's filled with some kind of secret
action of cinema."
Directed by Len Lye
US 1957, 16mm, b/w, 1 min.
_Free Radicals_
In arguably his greatest film, Lye reduced the medium to its most basic
elements -- light in darkness -- by scratching designs on black film.
His scratches were as energetic as lightning in the night sky. He used a
variety of scribers ranging from dental tools to an ancient Native
American arrowhead, and synchronized the images to traditional African
music (a field tape of the Bagirmi tribe). The film won second prize in
the International Experimental Film Competition, which was judged by Man
Ray, Norman McLaren, Alexander Alexeiff and others at the 1958 World's
Fair in Brussels. In 1979 Lye further condensed the film by dropping a
minute of footage. Stan Brakhage described the final version as "an
almost unbelievably immense masterpiece (a brief epic)."
Directed by Len Lye
US 1958, revised 1979, 35mm, b/w, 4 min.
_Particles in Space_
In his last great film, completed a few months before his death at the
age of 78,
Lye returned to the black-and-white techniques of /Free Radicals/ and
his "white ziggle-zag-splutter scratches in quite doodling fashion/./"/
Particles in Space /explores some "particularly vibrant, ziggy little
images," that are reminiscent of the freest and most vigorous forms of
Abstract Expressionism. The soundtrack combines /Jumping Dance Drums/
from the Bahamas with drum music by the Yoruba of Nigeria and the sounds
of Lye's metal kinetic sculptures. The opening titles illustrate Lye's
mastery of the scratching of words on film.
Directed by Len Lye
US 1979, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye was compiled by Roger Horrocks for
the New Zealand Film Archive and The Len Lye Foundation. Notes on the
films by Horrocks, author of Len Lye: A Biography (Auckland University
Press). Special thanks to Andrew Lampert, Anthology Film Archives. The
Harvard Film Archive is located at 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge.
617-495-4700 or for more information

Brooke Holgerson
Harvard Film Archive
email suppressed
For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.