David and I have many pleasant memories from our May visit to New Zealand, where as Hood Fellows we were resident at Auckland University for a month. Among these memories is meeting Roger and Shirley Horrocks. Roger has been a major figure in the development of film studies and culture in New Zealand. He founded the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies at Auckland University and was its head until his retirement in 2004. He co-founded the Auckland International Film Festival and has written on television and film in New Zealand.
Shirley is a producer and director of documentary films, many of them about Kiwi art and culture, made primarily for TVNZ and NZ On Air. In 1984 she founded her own production company, Point of View Films .
Retrieving Len Lye
Among the Horrocks’ accomplishments has been to aid in the preservation of the work of filmmaker/ sculptor/ painter/ poet/ theorist Len Lye (1901-1980) and to disseminate information about this undeservedly overlooked figure. Roger generously gave us a copy of his impressive book, Len Lye: A Biography, and Shirley presented us with a DVD of her documentary on Lye, Flip & Two Twisters, named for one of the artist’s sculptures.
I remember seeing a few Len Lye films long ago and thinking they were delightful and innovative. In working on our textbooks, I had the privilege of sitting in one of the British Film Institute’s refrigerated viewing rooms and seeing a gorgeous nitrate copy of his 1936 film Rainbow Dance. Color frames from it appear in Film Art (8th edition, p. 164) and Film History (2nd edition, p. 321). I had also seen Lye’s strange and evocative first film, Tusalava (1929), an animated film with abstract shapes much influenced by Maori and Australian Aboriginal art (illustrated on p. 176 of Film History).
Lye was born and grew up in New Zealand, lived for stretches in Samoa and Sydney, moved to London as a young man, and moved permanently to New York in 1944. He was extraordinarily attuned to sensory perception and rhythm and was drawn to the indigenous art of the southwest Pacific area. From an early age he studied modern art and especially abstraction.
Lye belonged to a generation of innovative animators who began working in the 1920s and 1930s: Oskar Fischinger in Germany and later the U.S., and Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker in France and later Canada. Although their styles differed considerably, all sought to find alternatives to Hollywood cel animation and to explore the relationship between music and cinema.
Roger and Shirley’s gifts inspired me to renew my acquaintance with Lye’s work and take a closer look at his career. “I’ll just order a DVD of Lye’s films,” I thought to myself. Back in the late 1980s Pioneer had issued a marvelous though brief series called “Visual Pioneers.” David and I had bought “The World of Oskar Fischinger” and “The World of Alexandre Alexeïeff.” I figured that these had probably been re-issued on DVD, along with the rest of this short-lived series. It turns out, no. Lucky we held onto those laserdiscs!
Unfortunately, there was never a “Visual Pioneers” disc devoted to Lye.
The age of DVDs has not served these filmmakers well, either. One has to be doggedly determined in finding and acquiring their work. The bountiful “Unseen Cinema ” set from Image contains Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1938), an abstract short film made for MGM (!) after the filmmaker moved from Germany to the U.S. It’s on the disc titled “Viva la Dance: The Beginnings of Ciné-Dance.” Although the set claims to deal with the American avant-garde up to 1941, Alexeïeff and Parker’s 1934 masterpiece Une nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on Bald Mountain) is included. I suppose the logic there is that Parker was an American, though she and Alexeïeff (born in Russia) made the film in Paris and worked thereafter in Europe and Canada. (A few other émigré directors’ European works are in the set, though I can’t see why Anémic cinéma by Marcel Duchamp [aka Rrose Sélavy] should be there.)
There is a French region 2 DVD of the pair’s work available. I found it for sale online at fnac  and Cinedoc . A DVD of ten Fischinger films is available from the Center for Visual Music’s shop; it actually sells the disc through Amazon , which might make it relatively easy for some to acquire.
The Center’s shop  carries a variety of experimental cinema, and there I found a collection of Lye’s films—on VHS. “Rhythms” contains twelve of Lye’s major works, including A Colour Box (1935) and Rainbow Dance. It was brought out by Re: Voir , a major distributor of avant-garde cinema. One can buy it from that company, though in the U.S. the Center is a convenient source. My copy from the latter came quite quickly.
The cassette does not include Tusalava. The only place that seems to be available is on YouTube , and I hesitate to recommend it, given the fuzziness of the image. (Poor copies of some other Lye films are there as well, but since the tape contains far better versions there is no good reason to link to them.) Tusalava survives in beautiful condition, and I hope it eventually could be added to an expanded Lye collection on DVD.
Don’t be misled by the collection “The Experimental Avant-garde Series Number 19–The Serious, the Silly, and the Absurd.”  There the short Lambeth Walk Nazi Style is wrongly attributed to Lye–a fairly common mistake. Lye’s short, Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), is an abstract film using the same pop song as a soundtrack; it’s on the “Rhythms” tape.
Perhaps one reason why Lye’s films command less attention today than they should is simply because they are so short. All twelve films on the “Rhythms” tape add up to a mere 47 minutes, and even the seven-minute Tusalava would fail to bring the total to one hour.
This paucity of footage results in part from the painstaking labor involved in making them. Some of Lye’s films depended on elaborate painting and scratching directly on 35mm film stock. This kind of animation was Lye’s innovation and not, as is widely assumed, that of Norman McLaren. A Colour Box looks remarkably like a McLaren film. The resemblance is not coincidental. One of the few periods during which Lye had institutional support was when he worked for the GPO Film Unit in London. McLaren was freshly out of art school and working at the same unit. He freely acknowledges his amazement at seeing and hearing A Colour Box and its influence on him: “Apart from the sheer exhilaration of the film, which intrigued me was that it was a kinetic abstraction of the spirit of the music, and that it was painted directly onto the film. On both these counts it was for me like a dream come true.” (pages 144-45 of Len Lye: A Biography.)
An equally revolutionary technique Lye used was no less time-consuming. The new color film stocks of the 1930s fascinated him, especially the three-strip processes. These recorded each of the three primary colors on a separate strip of black-and-white film, with the color of the final film being achieved by adding color dyes to the matrices and combining them. Technicolor is the most famous of these systems, though Lye drew upon European processes, including Gasparcolor. Lye seems to have been alone in his realization that one could use the three-strip technique on film shot originally in black-and-white.
Rainbow Dance was made by shooting, in black-and-white, a human figure leaping, playing tennis, and executing other actions against a white screen and then using the result as a silhouette filled with vivid, saturated colors. Abstract and semi-abstract shapes surrounding the figure, constantly moving and changing, create a dazzling effect. The film ends abruptly with the message, “The Post Office Savings Bank puts a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” As advertisements, some of Lye’s films of the 1930s played in theaters, though viewers often perceived them as experimental shorts.
Another reason for the lack of attention paid to Lye is that he was always very much an eccentric loner, working on the periphery of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and kinetic art. Works by him were included in exhibitions devoted to these trends, but Lye always refused the prominence that allegiance with fashionable movements might have given him. He was also highly impractical about money and not adept at explaining his projects to potential grant-bestowing foundations.
Roger Horrocks met Lye late in the artist’s life and worked as his assistant in his final months. Roger and Shirley were involved in setting up the Len Lye Foudation, housed at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery  in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Its website is the best online source of information on Lye.) The foundation’s collection include extensive unpublished writings by Lye, to which Roger had complete access. He also interviewed a wide range of people who had known Lye in various capacities. The result is not only thorough, but it also gives a lively sense of a profoundly eccentric artist.
As part of Lye’s fascination with the senses, he deliberately cultivated a sort of stream-of-consciousness language, both for speech and writing. The result often suggests someone communicating in poetry rather than prose, and the quotations are not always easy to understand. One note scribbled after Lye had seen a film reads, “The knobbly cast of the star Elliott Gould, bemused, his mouth full of marbles, finally flapping his foot-flippers enrout insouciantly to some horizon or other” (p. 294). Roger, however, has waded through a large, difficult set of notes and journals. As he puts it, “It took my years to find my way round this chaotic collection of fragments and drafts, but ultimately it proved a goldmine.” One early reader of the biography remarked that “the book felt at times more like an autobiography than a biography” (p. 3). This is an astute observation, for Roger has woven many quotations into his own prose and thus given a structure to the chaos. By the end one feels that one understands not just the facts of Lye’s life but also his personality.
(Unfortunately the biography, published by Auckland University Press in 2001, is already out of print. With luck there’s a copy in your local library.)
For film fans and scholars with at least a passing knowledge of Lye’s shorts, the real news here will be his versatility as an artist. Before he started making films, he was already an accomplished painter. Because painting was a relatively inexpensive activity, Lye often did not promote his own work and simply gave the paintings to friends. He sought buyers and patrons for his kinetic sculpture, though, because he needed funding to build these ambitious projects.
A few museums, like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, own Lye pieces, but on the whole his kinetic sculptures, many of which are large and difficult to maintain in working order, are not widely or continuously displayed. Indeed, much of Lye’s later life was devoted to designing huge pieces, only some of which have been realized even now. The Len Lye Foundation is committed to realizing posthumously the plans he left behind, though no doubt some of his more grandiose schemes will remain too impractical to render.
Shirley’s documentary Flip and Two Twisters (1995) helps fill in that side of the artist’s career for those who cannot travel to New Plymouth. Although she sketches Lye’s career and shows clips from some of the films, the real revelation is footage of Lye at work on some of the main pieces, like “Blade” (1954) and “Flip and Two Twisters” (1965). The dates, by the way, are a little misleading, as Lye continued to modify his sculptures after their initial versions were finished—usually making them larger.
“Flip and Two Twisters” is a casual name for a formidable piece, though Lye eventually took to calling it “Trilogy.” The sculpture consists of a large looped ribbon of flexible steel suspended from the ceiling, flanked by two vertical strips of similar steel. Once set in motion, the thrashing and twisting movements of these three elements gradually become quite loud and violent. Onlookers declare that it is frightening to be in the same room with the sculpture, as even just watching it on video makes plausible.
This documentary would be a terrific teaching supplement for a course on avant-garde cinema. Copies are available direct from Point of View Films.
Shirley gave us three of her other documentaries. Kiwiana (1996), as its name suggests, explores some of the icons of New Zealand’s popular culture. Kiwis were beginning to appreciate these neglected everyday objects, which were becoming collectibles in the 1990s: the buzzy-bee, the gumboot, and, yes, the kiwi fruit. Peter Jackson even makes a brief appearance as a talking head. Marti: The passionate eye (2004) chronicles the extraordinary life of Marti Friedlander, who was raised in a Jewish orphanage during the 1930s and 1940s in London. She was trained as a photography laboratory technician but also became a photographer. Emigrating to New Zealand, she worked on a series of Maori portraits and documented such moments of political ferment as the Women’s Movement. Finally, The New Oceania (2005) is a portrait of the Samoan-born writer Albert Wendt and his fostering of a new Pacific culture based on local traditions but embracing modernism. All of these films are available from Point of View.
We are grateful to Roger and Shirley for being among the many who made us feel so welcome in Auckland. I’m particularly grateful for being led to revisit and explore a director who deserves to be far better known.