The Dance of the Film Strip: Len Lye’s Cinematic Idiom of Activity and Cadence of Color.

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

Fresh from his travels around the South Sea on the steamer, Euridipes, the New Zealand born Len Lye gained shore in London of 1926 with the ambition of bringing a real sense of motion and completion to the avant-garde experiments with cinema.  Lye, beginning from his student days where he had dealt with motion exclusively in sculpture, was apprehensive about how the medium of film had been peripheral, and consequently only meagerly affected,  by the vibrant,  exhilarating and determinate thinking which had been productively swirling about the ideas of modernism and art.  Joining The Seven and Five Society in London (which had already moved to general consensus with the modernist project) almost immediately on his arrival, Lye  set forth with his first filmic attempt to merge time and motion in the rhythmic possibilities of the films photographic material.  This first endeavor by Lye was the film “Tusalava”, which was inspired by symbolism and design originating from Australian, Polynesian and Maori cultures.  The 9 minute endeavor attempted an analysis of genesis, development, and the vital interconnectedness of existence which Lye found encapsulated in the archetypal forms of these culturally various, but ultimately mutual, imagery and its permutations.

Tusalava (1929)

Though Lye was going to keep this concern with the genetic, growth, and architectonics of the self and community for the entire course of his  life (and the 1968, 3 hour lecture, “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid” is a surreal signpost to this concern), the questions of motion and rhythm were to come to the fore in the work which followed and which constitutes the direction of the majority of Lye’s work.

Noting the illusionary motion of the screen vs. the real motion of the film strip though the projector (and the real film strip the artist could handle physically) Lye considered a means of integration of screen-motion which could blend with the actual effect of the film strips physical nature and its continuous movement in the projection of the finished film. This integration was a method to bring the overt modernist thoughts about the formal and specific material of the film and connect this with a correct language of film- The most important function of film, and what this material language is set and prepared to reveal (and correctly talk about), are the multiple signs of a true cinematic language of  motion, time, rhythm and form.  For Film this meant that the motion through the projector of the film, the film strip itself as medium, and the projection-light which brilliantly captures the vibrancy of color and shade would be used to generate, underline and elaborate the rich fields of  rhythm and motion.

Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939)

Lye’s answer to the modernist conundrum of film, and an answer which was brilliant in its definitive simplicity, was to directly apply forms and color to the material of the film strip.  At times this painting was left by itself to form a vibrant and seductive play of light and dance, at other times the mingling of photographically captured images fought with this dense and textured play of colors to define a rich, multiple. and contrary number of fields of depth and space.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

A Colour Box (1935)

Though Len Lye was only to complete one more film after 1950’s, due to a lack of financial support, his contribution to the form of the experimental film is still of significant importance, and immensely fun.

Note: the first larger scale Len Lye show to take place in England is currently at the Ikon gallery, Birmingham ( Len Lye; the Body Electric)- The Exhibition will continue through February 13, 2011.

Particles in Space (1979), Lye’s only completed film after the later 1950’s

Filmography and Assorted Links:

Tusalava (1929), The Peanut Vendor (1933), Kaleidoscope (1935) , A Colour Box (1935), Rainbow Dance (1936), The Birth of The Robot (1936), Trade Tattoo (1937), Full Fathom Five (1937), Colour Flight (1937), North or Northwest? (N or NW?) (1938), Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), Musical Poster Number One (1940), When the Pie Was Opened (1941),  Kill or Be Killed (1942), Color Cry (1952), Rhythm (1957), Free Radicals (1958, revised 1979), Particles in Space (1979), Tal Farlow (completed posthumously, 1980)

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