Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye

Screened twice last week at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD, as the kids call it), this 67-minute program consisted of fifteen experimental shorts by the New Zealand animator Len Lye, made over a period of half a century (1929-79). The crowd I saw it with greeted many of the shorts with derisive laughter, which seemd to me entirely appropriate. The program guide helpfully explains, for instance, that A Colour Box (1935), the second film in the program, "was funded and distributed by John Grierson's GPO film unit on the condition that Lye include some postal messages at the end," which simply means that about three and a half minutes into this four-minute abstract film, in which Lye provides "colour accompaniment" to a piece of Cuban dance music, tacky advertising slogans for the British post office suddenly flash on the screen, at which point everyone at the screening started giggling. "In Venice, the Facists disrupted screenings because they saw it as 'degenerate' modern art," but a more accurate way of describing it would be sublime kitsch.

The program is divided in two parts by a short reel change, and apart from the unfortunate Musical Poster #1 (1940), which I talk about below, the later films are more successful--if that's the word for it--at adapting Lye's talents to commercial ends. In Colour Flight (1938), the triangular shapes that move across the screen suggest paper airplanes, so it almost seems logical that the piece would end with a plug for an airline, with the musical choices--"Honolulu Blues" by Red Nichols and a rumba piece by the Lecuona Cuban Boys--evoking an exotic destination. This seems to me a vast improvement on the film preceeding it, N. or N.W. (1937), a stilted and, in its odd film grammar, highly mannerist live-action narrative, in which a relationship is saved by a friendly postman. The program describes the ending as "a very tongue-in-cheek treatment of the sponsor's message," though the irony was lost on me. The only other live-action piece in the program, Rhythm (1957), which edits black-and-white footage of a Chrysler assembly line to African drumb beats, is at best kitsch Dziga Vertov.

The use of African music in Rhythm, Cuban rumba music in A Colour Box, Kaleidoscope (1935) and Colour Flight, and a blues track by Sonny Terry in Colour Cry (1952-53), which Lye "imagined to be the anguished cry of a runaway slave" (begging the inevitable question: why a runaway slave?), all point to an unacknowledged colonial subtext running throughout his work. His first film, Tusalava (1929), in which the shapes on the screen move between abstraction--suggesting here a world before language--and primitive representation, was inspired by an Australian Aboriginal creation myth with a string of circles on a white background, reminding one of a tapeworm, evolving into a lizard-like creature that competes with early humans (deliberately rendered in the style of a cave drawing on a black background). In The Birth of the Robot (1936), a puppet animation piece comissioned by Shell Oil, a white colonalist drives his convertible over the pyramids. After dying in the dessert, he's resurrected as a steel man; then comes the punchline: "A modern world needs modern lubricants." This dichotomy between the primitive and the modern reaches its most distilled form in the aforementioned Rhythm, where Lye presents industrial labour as a primitive expression of masculine vitality (incidentally, Chrysler hated the film).

Tusalava was originally accompanied by a live piano score by Jack Ellit, which has since been lost, so it's impossible to know how this would've changed the tone of the piece, which in its present form inspires a certain thoughtfulness in the viewer; it was virtually the only piece no one laughed at. Recently, Michael Sicinski argued that Jim Henson improved on his hero, Norman McLaren (a filmmaker inspired by Lye), by making films explicitly for children, and that criticism could just as easily apply to Lye. I learn from the program that he "was adamant that wartime films did not have to be gloomy," and Musical Poster #1 begins as pure abstraction to draw the viewer in before hitting us with a series of paranoid slogans to the effect that "the enemy" is listening to everything you say (one title reads "Don't tell him where you go," and the word 'go' is shivering with fear).

Avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage are often credited with influencing the style of commercials and music videos, either as an indication of their signifigance (1) or in order to illustrate how oppositional art becomes assimilated by the mainstream, so it's amusing to discover how the avant-garde was influenced by advertising. The man who curated the screening, Roger Horrocks, was of course at pains to present Lye as a neglected artist who really had no choice but to whore himself out, and indeed there was a period in the 1960's where he abandoned film to pursue sculpture (a body of work of which I know nothing), though if it were true that every filmmaker had to sell-out just to get ther films made in the first place, I probably would've outgrown my interest in cinema a long time ago. (2) Even in Free Radicals (1958), a black-and-white abstract piece where Lye's scratchings on the emulsion suggest lightning and rain (to my tastes, his greatest work), which doesn't advertise anything, I can't say I felt very challenged by it. How then to explain the enthusiasm of P. Sitney Adams, Brakhage and Jonas Mekas for his work (all three are quoted in the program)? As a classmate of mine put it, the films were probably good for their time.

1. I haven't seen Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), Mary Jordan's feature-length documentary about the maker of Flaming Creatures (1963), though according to the reviews, it credits Smith with being a major influence on mainstream figures like Fellini, John Waters and Andy Warhol.
2. Pauline Kael was an expert at rationalizing the artistic compromises inherent in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. Of Hud (1963), she argued that the conflict between the desire of the filmmakers to make a noble, liberal-minded message picture and the masses' hunger for a nihlistic western was integral to the film's "Americanness."

1 comment:

  1. okay, i think you are being very harsh, and not taking the films for what they were. of course, we all have our own opinions. but some of the animation was very beautiful, and isnt that okay without it necessarily having to challenge you? arent there different types of art? no less valid than the other? and i think that the (albeit cheesy and disruptive) commercial elements to these films provide another level of interest, as historical documents if nothing else. they are traces of a man who did what he had to to pursue his work. and no, not all filmmakers have to 'whore' themselves to make work. some of them are independently wealthy.