18 Nov 2016
The experimental and dazzling films of New Zealand artist Len Lye are showcased on a new DVD. Charlie Gates explores the work of an artist who invented a new art form, was too extreme for Alfred Hitchcock and was hailed as the new Walt Disney.
In 1936, Kiwi artist Len Lye was struggling to get funding for his film ideas.
So he took home a bunch of old film offcuts from a local studio and invented a new art form.
He stencilled, painted and scratched images directly onto the 35mm film – creating vibrant, dazzling and abstract visual carnivals.
The first work Lye released using the new technique, which came to be known as direct film, was called A Colour Box. It was a full colour, swirling extravaganza released three years before The Wizard of Oz popularised colour in mainstream cinema. It took Lye just five days to complete the groundbreaking film.
And it blew people's minds.
Audiences would cheer and jeer the short film in equal measure. When it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1936, it was booed off the screen.
Lye called it "happy go lucky alive stuff".
The films Lye created over the next 44 years are showcased in a new DVD – the largest collection of his films ever released.
The DVD showcases 50 years of film work that saw Lye hailed by Time magazine as England's alternative to Walt Disney and one of his works preserved for all time by the US Library of Congress as a "classic film".
Lye was born in Christchurch in 1901, moved to London in 1926, where he made his direct film breakthrough ten years later, and then moved to the West Village in New York City in 1944, hanging out in an art scene that would give birth to the abstract impressionist movement and titans like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
It was during his time in London that he was asked to add hand-painted fire effects to a shot in Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film Secret Agent.
Lye added the flames and then added an extra effect that made it seem as if the film itself had caught fire.
The effect horrified the projectionist at a preview screening, who thought his highly flammable nitrate film had caught fire, according to Roger Horrocks' 2001 Lye biography.
The film's producers feared it would alarm audiences and projectionists across the country, where cinema fires in the 1920s and '30s had killed dozens, and so cut the shot.
This spirit of striking and fearless innovation is clear in the 19 short films on the new Len Lye DVD.
The films span his career from a black and white stop-frame animation in 1929 to his final film, Particles in Space, completed just a year before his death in 1980.
His first direct film works from the 1930s are vibrant, sharp and clean.
They have a visual dexterity that we now take for granted after decades of media saturation, MTV and omnipresent commercial art. But in the 1930s, they must have seemed utterly groundbreaking.
The films are adventurous and forward-looking. Lye's films from the 1930s feel like pop art from the 1960s, while his work from the 1950s has a 1970s look.
His film, All Souls Carnival, from 1957, is a textured and beautiful animated painting. It feels like 12 abstract expressionist paintings per second. Each frame like an animated Rothko or Pollock.
In later life, Lye boiled his style down to minimalist black-and-white masterpieces like Free Radicals, which was inducted into the US Library of Congress.
Film historian and Lye biographer, Roger Horrocks, says the new DVD "makes a great case for [Lye] to be seen as one of the most entertaining and most original filmmakers that New Zealand has produced".
The new art form that Lye invented may have been born out of necessity, but he never ceased to experiment with his handmade, ingenious and dazzling short films.
- by Charlie Gates
Lye called it "happy go lucky alive stuff"