Friday 18 November 2016

On DVD - Colour Box, 19 Films by Len Lye

Len Lye
The first film on the set of Len Lye films collected on Colour Box is titled Tusalava and was made in 1929. I had never seen it until a mere moment ago when it was over a couple of nights I ran through the entire selection. The final film included, Particles in Space was made in 1979, just a year or so before Lye's death. In my lifetime I've probably seen, until now, about a third of what's collected here. Most notable of course are/were in my memory, at least going all the way back to MUFS short film screenings in The Union Theatre,   of the GPO Film Unit films A Colour Box (1935), N or NW (1937), Trade Tattoo (1937) and Rainbow Dance (1936).  The great names of Grierson and Cavalcanti appear on some of the credits for this group.

It may be that the Len Lye films seen then were just about near the extent of it for decades to come. Which is, of course, not how they would have been seen by an enthusiast for the director's work who became aware of him back in the 30s. Nineteen films in near five decades, with a total running time of a couple of hours, is minuscule in the great scheme of things though the selection on the DVD makes clear that Lye also made documentaries and contributed to the March of Time series among other work. But, scattered over fifty years, it meant that a new film by Len Lye was something precious to behold and aficionados surely went out of their way to track them down.

A Colour Box
Without knowing anything about how Lye's work was screened, especially as each new film came out, it's hard to say just how much of a coterie taste he was. The GPO Film Unit presumably screened the films for employees but at this point, the mystery that opens up for me is just how it was that these small miracles of the film-maker's art, films frequently made not with cameras but with pen and colouring ink, became more widely known. Publicity and public reaction played some part. The booklet that accompanies the DVD makes mention of a piece by Alberto Cavalcanti in Sight & Sound, a quote from a piece in Film Quarterly back in 1958 and another quote from Stan Brakhage commenting posthumously on the film-maker's work.

Rainbow Dance
Which brings me back to the splendid DVD. The images dance for close to two hours. Some of his tricks are frequently repeated. The music that accompanies the ever-expanding images is brilliantly chosen for maximum exhilaration. In one sense, watching these films in evening is quite overwhelming, far different to watching them over fifty years or so!

The DVD seems to have been published only this year. Its availability may be limited but presumably the Len Lye Foundation and the Govett Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth will be able to keep it in print and slowly expand its points of sale.

You can see all of N or NW On Youtube.

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