The films of Len Lye at the Dryden

Ali and I headed to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) but we arrived early, and we got to join the tail-end of Jim Healy's coffee chat in the cafe. I'd like to have attended, as I only got to really listen in on other people's comments.  I'm still stuck on trying to think of a romantic comedy in the past 10 years or so that Jim would like, as he was at a loss to think of one off hand.

Anyway, the films that night were those of Len Lye, an experimental filmmaker in the 1930's through 1960's. His technique was to "compose motion" by drawing directly onto film stock. A Colour Box was one of his earliest and I immediately recognized the tiny nuances of hand-painted and stamped images magnified hundreds of times. He also incorporated innovative music — typically Cuban music in his early films and jazz in his later ones.

It was amusing that some films were created as advertisements — such as The Birth of the Robot and Colour Flight, but they were so abstract that it was difficult to tell what the point was. Well, The Birth of the Robot was rather direct. In it, a guy dies in the desert and is resurrected by Shell oil into a robot that operates the mechanisms of the cosmos. Rhythm had interesting story: it was a commercial for Chrysler that got rejected by the company because it used African drumming and included a "knowing wink" from a black worker (although IMDb's trivia says it was because the film was "too abstract" rather than that Chrysler opposed racial equality in 1957). This also meant that an advertising reward for it was revoked because it was never actually shown.

Two of his last films: Free Radicals and Particles in Space were both excellent. Completely abstract in their artistry — and created from scratching white lines in black film — they conveyed the magic of motion and dimensions. I thought the hand-scratched titling that was animated to move in some warped spacial way was really innovative. The films also incorporated that technique, as if it were the film of objects dancing in a way unnatural to our orthogonal 3-D world.

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