Friday, 12 September 2008

Len Lye

I bumped into Mr Squares of Wheat the other night at the NFT .... errrr .... BFI South Bank, and he quite rightly berated me for not blogging often enough. So here's another blurt of multiple posts.

Anyway, we were both looking forward to the Len Lye event.

It's fantastic to think that seventy years ago there was an organisation that supported artists who wanted to make avant-garde films, often giving them pretty much carte blanche to do what they wanted, with the proviso that the last few seconds should include a 'message'. This astonishingly enlightened organisation was none other than the GPO (aka The Royal Mail, aka Consignia, aka The Royal Mail).

One of my more pleasant jobs was at the BUFVC, helping put the GPO collection online for educational use. The encodings are lovely and the metadata great, but, sadly, you'll need an Athens account to see them. Alternatively they are available on DVD from Panamint Cinema and the BFI are about to launch a series of restorations.

What would British film be without the GPO Film Unit? Not to list everyone is invidious, but it's hard to ignore the poetry of Humphrey Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti, the very English surrealism of Richard Massingham and the explosive energy of Lye and Norman McLaren. Apologies for reducing these geniuses to single, only partially representative adjectives, and for omitting any of your favourites. Sit tight: I'll be returning to them.

But, back to NFT2. New Zealander Lye gave his work to the Len Lye Foundation and much of it is held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. It ranged over painting, kinetic sculpture, poetry, and of course film, and Tyler Cann, curator of the collection ran through Lye's life and work, neatly showing its common well-springs in modernism, aboriginal art and Freud.

Then there was a screening of Lye's first film Tusalava (1929). Amusingly, the BBFC were agitated by the suspicion that it might be about sex. And if you insist on films being 'about' something, it's hard to deny, but you'd have to worry about anyone who found it arousing! The title is Samoan for 'just the same' or 'everything comes full circle' and if it's more than a film about movement per se, it's a modernist take on Maori art and photomicrography, a meditation on creation, struggle and destruction, all carried out at cellular level. Maybe it's just me, but there was also a weird Frankensteinian aspect to it!

At its Film Society premiere it was accompanied live by Jack Ellit's two-piano score, though this is now lost. Ellit scored and 'synchronised' seven of Lye's eight films up to Trade Tattoo in 1937, which may - or may not - give us a clue as to what Tusalava sounded like: his contributions included using Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra, and chunks of Holst's The Planets. For the NFT screening Alcyona semi-improvised appropriately organic and swirling music on one piano. Given the film's slow and smooth development, it was an achievement to insert some points of noticeable change, that were not merely tacked on.

Various people have put it on Youtube with their own soundtracks. Two of them are a bit Eraserhead-ish and there's a jazz score that doesn't really have much to do with the film but as far as I can tell (sadly, despite being in two parts, it doesn't play very well) it gets a bit better as it progresses. There's also a self-declared "avant-garde sound design" that's not bad, though it sometimes follows the action a bit too closely for my taste.

They all have different running times (I haven't done an exhaustive comparison of the whys and wherefores) and, weirdly, the first three have somehow found a copy of the film that is left-right inverted. A couple of them have the Film Society leader.

For my money, the best score is this.

Some of Lye's best-known films are Trade Tattoo, Rainbow Dance and A Colour Box. For these astonishing films Lye used heavily treated found footage, drew and painted directly onto the film, stenciled texts onto it and scratched the surface to create an electrifying result. Seeing these films, you can't help but whoop with joy.

The Royal Mail should simply show the genius Trade Tattoo every November. It would cheer up the entire country and they could use the saved advertising budget to keep a few post offices open.

Of course, Lye's films should be seen in their full glory (the web can't do them justice) and I'm looking forward to the BFI DVDs but in the meantime, enjoy Trade Tattoo. Frequently.


Michael Brooke said...

Apologies for the shameless pluggery, but BFI Screenonline has launched quite a bit of GPO-related stuff in the last few months, including an overview and comprehensive entries on nearly twenty individual films.

Sadly, the video (which includes complete films) is off-limits outside British educational establishments, but you can get a taster via this Derek Jacobi-presented interactive video guide to the GPO Film Unit.

And Len Lye's Trade Tattoo is included as part of the touring GPO compilation Love Letters and Live Wires, opening this Friday and visiting at least 35 venues around the country. It's a rare chance to see eight of the best GPO titles (or, in the case of the camp-as-Christmas The Fairy of the Phone, the weirdest) on the big screen.

John Riley said...

Pluggery (or information dissemination, as you may wish to call it) is always welcome!

It's great that the whole of the GPO stuff (rather than just the 'highlights') is finally out there. When I was at the BFI, a regular frustration was fielding enquiries as to how to get to see Night Mail (now on BFI DVD). I think at the time there was a scruffy old 16mm knocking around.

I'm still trying to figure out: is The Fairy of the Phone one of the world's great cinematic masterpieces or ... errrrr ..... not?

My personal favourite is Christmas Under Fire, one of the most moving films I know.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back in the saddle... On a factual quibble, I think Tyler established that the two-piano score wasn't Ellit's but a slightly later one. Though Alcyona's accompaniment was pretty fantastic, it was rthe sheer relief of hearing music at all that struck me. I've watched Tusalava so many times in a typically dutiful BFI silence, the creaking of chairs and stifling of coughs, the obeisance paid to 'silent' cinema that was never meant to be silent. Long live film + music together.

John Riley said...

I must confess the debate about the music was a bit befuddling (one or two pianos? When was it done? Does some of it still exist?)

Such facts as I have I took from the Govett-Brewster filmography:

More generally, I agree about the music: intentionally silent films are one thing (for which we can gird our loins) but, when it's clear that there was an intention for music, something should be done. Whether or not it's a stab at authenticity is another debate. On this occasion we were lucky that it was so good.