David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'National cinemas: New Zealand' Category

What does a Water Horse sound like?


Kristin here—

Sentimental Journey

Regular readers of this blog will recall that David and I spent this past May in New Zealand, as Hood Fellows at the University of Auckland.

I did not have much of an excuse to go back to Wellington during our sojourn, but I decided to go for a few days anyway. It’s my favorite city in New Zealand, partly because I have so many memories of exciting events there and partly because it’s an attractive place in itself. Once my lecturing duties in Auckland were done, I took a train, the Overlander, that runs much of the length of the North Island. It’s a 12-hour ride through some very spectacular scenery (including Mount Doom, aka Mount Ngaurhoe; check it out on Google Earth at 39˚ 9’ 25.58” S 175˚ 37’ 57.89” E) and dizzying viaducts over deep gorges.

I was in Wellington for three days, staying where I had stayed on my previous three visits—the Victoria Court Motor Lodge. I originally chose it on the recommendation of Melissa Booth, a publicist on The Lord of the Rings, who had kindly acted as my point person for the first trip. During this year’s stay I had meals with a couple of people I had interviewed who also became friends. Judy Alley was the merchandising coordinator for Rings and King Kong and now works in publicity at Weta Digital. Given my interest in the franchise aspects of Rings, interviews with Judy had explained a lot about the nuts and bolts of coordinating with licensees. Erica Challis, co-founder of TheOneRing.net, had moved to Wellington since I interviewed her in Auckland. We snatched a quick dinner before she went to play French horn in a rehearsal for Swan Lake.

I also finally got to visit Te Papa, the national museum. It’s one of the main destinations for visitors, yet I had never gone through it. I felt it was rude to do that with my cell phone turned on. Sort of like keeping it on in a movie theater. But when I was trying to juggle appointments to interview people, I didn’t dare turn it off. It was worth missing some tourist opportunities, though, since every now and then that phone did ring, sometimes with good news.

For instance, on my first visit in 2003, a week after I had requested permission to watch Peter Jackson supervising the sound mixing on The Return of the King, I got a call at 7:45 pm on a Friday night telling me I could do so the next day. (If you hope to be a director’s or producer’s assistant, be prepared for long hours.) When I showed up, it turned out he and the sound editors were working on the Shelob sequence. Sometimes it pays to sit by the phone.

Park Road Post

During my Wellington visit, I learned from Barrie Osborne that coincidentally a film he is producing was in the sound-mixing phase, and I was invited to come and sit in for a day. Barrie is an American, but he produced The Matrix in Sydney and spent a long time in New Zealand producing all three parts of Rings. Like so many people who came from abroad to work on the trilogy, Barrie fell in love with the place. Now he lives there part-time and works on a range of Australasian projects, including executive producing The World’s Fastest Indian, a Kiwi film, and Little Fish, an Australian drama. (I saw these back-to-back at the American Film Market in 2005, going from the upbeat crowd-pleaser Indian to Fish, a drama about heroin addicts with great performances from Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving—both worth a look if you missed them on their brief American releases.) He also championed The Frodo Franchise from the start, and the book probably wouldn’t exist now without his help.

The film he was finishing up was The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, an adaptation of a popular children’s fantasy novel by Dick King-Smith. It will be released on Christmas Day and has a PG rating.

The mixing was taking place in Studio 2 of Park Road Post, the same place where I had watched Peter supervising the Shelob scene.

Park Road Post (formerly The Film Unit) is a state-of-the-art post-production facility that started moving into its new building gradually, starting in the summer of 2003. At that point only the sound studios and the offices along the corridor outside them were finished. A segment about 19 minutes into the “Soundscapes of Middle-earth” supplement on the extended-version DVD of Return shows the facility as it was then.

My first interview with Barrie was in one of those offices, with considerable construction noise right outside the window. Fortunately my microphone was directional enough that it didn’t overwhelm our conversation. (That office is seen in the “End of All Things” supplement on the same disk.)

By my third visit to Park Road Post, in late 2004, the editing rooms and the huge, beautiful front lobby had been finished, the garden in the center courtyard was being installed, and the processing laboratories were being built. Now the whole thing is finished, with a strange juxtaposition of beautiful modern design in the front and big windowless concrete buildings at the rear.

Park Road itself is a street in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, lined in one section by small houses and then by rows of undistinguished warehouses and small industrial buildings. Next door is the large California Garden Centre, a round, orange building. Gazebos and garden swings are displayed right up against the walls of the sound studios.

Walking from this mundane environment into Park Road Post is a disorienting experience. Suddenly one is in a modern building with a design heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Natural wood, fireplaces, stained glass windows, cushy leather sofas. It’s a building that one doesn’t want to leave. It has almost an other-worldly quality, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was designed by Dan Hennah, the art director of Rings and Kong.

Making the place as attractive as possible was part of the brief that Peter and partner Fran Walsh handed Dan. As he told me, “It was partly about getting it technically correct and partly about creating an environment that, while being technically correct, was still human and homely and all those things—the comfort zone. So that you actually felt like getting up and going in there in the morning—rather than thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to go into that bloody hole again!’”

By now the ironic story has become famous. A 17-year-old Peter Jackson, aspiring to be a filmmaker, left school and applied for a job at the Film Unit back in the late 1980s. He was turned down, so he worked as a photo-engraver at a newspaper instead. Eventually he got enough backing to quit and finish Bad Taste (1987), his long-gestating first feature. A little over ten years later he bought the Film Unit, then housed in what he described to me as “a sort of ‘Soviet bloc’ feeling place.” During my first visit in 2003, the editing and lab facilities were still there, in a dreary-looking industrial complex out in the distant suburb of Lower Hutt.

Tracking The Water Horse

At the Water Horse sound mixing director Jay Russell was present, though he slipped out at intervals for meetings. As I was about to leave, he remarked that watching sound mixing is like watching paint dry. That’s what everyone says about mixing, but I find it fascinating.

Back in the late 1970s when David and I had the opportunity to spend about half an hour watching the great Walter Murch working on a scene for Apocalypse Now, it was a slow process. Mixing was done on film, so every repetition involved a pause for rewinding, threading the projector, and so on. Now, with high quality digital images being projected on the studio screen, mixers can almost instantly go back to the beginning of a segment by sliding a control handle or move to a different scene by typing in a file number. As a result, there may be many repetitions of the same series of shots, but there’s not that much down time.

The repetition isn’t boring, either, since you can listen for the tiny changes that the mixers make between projections of the scene. (See David’s account of his experiences watching James Mangold’s team mixing sound for 3:10 to Yuma.) There may also be pauses, but usually they’re for discussions among the sound team members. Some of this was just too technical for me to grasp, but what I could follow was fascinating.

That particular day came fairly late in the overall process. Jay was there because the work on the sound was close to finished. The team was concentrating on the final mix of reel 1. It was quite a contrast to the footage I had seen being mixed for Return. In that case a lot of unrendered effects shots were still in the edit, and many scenes hadn’t been locked down yet. Shots of Gollum often just showed him as a figure made up of silvery bands against a black background, and in some cases there was only a title describing the nature of the scene—a close-up of Treebeard looking left, for example. (Again, the DVD bonus chapter “The Soundscapes of Middle-earth” shows some vivid examples of the process.) In the case of The Water Horse, all the footage was finished, and the editing had been completed.

A lot of what goes on at this late stage is tweaking individual tracks. Even though there’s a full mix by this point, the team frequently take out all the tracks except one, so that a bustling city street scene may have densely layered traffic sounds and a musical track during one run-through and only a couple of characters’ footsteps in the next.

As with many films, some musical instruments were on separate tracks. Jay could ask for a drum beat to be turned up to provide a more distinct rhythm to a scene or for certain instruments to be favored so as to enhance the atmosphere of the Scottish setting.

Some of the people present had worked on Rings as well, so I knew a few of them already. It was great to see Rose Dority, post-production supervisor, again. Since my book isn’t really a making-of study, I hadn’t interviewed her, but she had been very hospitable. I also recognized Dave Whitehead, the supervising sound editor, who seems to have worked on half the films made in New Zealand over the past 13 years.

At lunch I got talking with Dave, and he told an anecdote about how some of the war chants of the Easterling attackers during the Battle of the Pelennor in The Return of the King were done. The sound department couldn’t use English, of course, and no texts had been provided. One tactic the recorders and mixers resorted to was spelling the names of their children, friends, and colleagues backwards. In fact I had been present the day those chants were being synchronized and remembered vividly how at the time Dave had explained that “Revilo!”—which sounded very aggressive when shouted in unison by male voices—was based on his son’s name, Oliver. Rose got into the mix as well, as “Ésor!” In the final mix, those chants are not really distinguishable as individual words, being parts of a dense mix of battlefield noises. Still, it was fun knowing that they were there.

The Water Horse mixing went on until mid-afternoon, when a group of people came into the studio for a run-through of the first reel. By that point I was pretty familiar with all the footage and could concentrate on the soundtrack rather than figuring out the plot from the scenes shown out of order up to that point.

Once the screening ended, Barrie asked various people if they had noticed anything that might need changing. Rather to my surprise he included me. Fortunately, rather than sitting there saying, “Ummmm … no,” I did have a suggestion about one sound that was slightly too loud and distracting during a suspenseful moment. That got duly noted down with the other comments and fixed during the final changes. That was an unexpected treat!

The Water Horse is a story of a Scottish boy who finds a strange egg that hatches into a little creature that will grow into the Loch Ness Monster. In the reel I saw, the landscapes were beautiful, a smooth mixture of footage shot in Scotland and in New Zealand. With both Weta Workshop and Weta Digital providing special effects, it naturally has high production values–including a carefully mixed soundtrack. It’s a children’s film, but from what I saw of it, parents will enjoy it as well. (The favorable Variety review is here.)

It’s a production by Walden, which specializes in family-friendly projects. The company seems to like New Zealand, given that much of the first Chronicles of Narnia film and part of the second were shot there.

Gandalf speaks! More thoughts-and news-on the Hobbit project


Local hero: Peter Jackson portrayed in toast, Wellington Airport, July 2004

Kristin here—

While the new “Frodo Franchise” website is under construction, I offer here a new set of speculations on the Hobbit project.

In my July 20 entry, I cited a statement by Ian McKellen concerning possible progress in the ongoing legal dispute between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema. The dispute is the reason given by the studio’s president, Bob Shaye, for Jackson’s not being asked to direct the film adaptation of The Hobbit. There Sir Ian said, “I detect that there is movement and it’s movement in the right direction.” That interview went online July 19.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s tour then moved on to Australia, and on July 26 an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television interview with McKellen brought up the question again. Here the response is somewhat more specific:

KERRY O’BRIEN: What’s happening with The Hobbit?

SIR IAN MCKELLEN: I talked to one of the Hollywood producers who is in a position to know, who said there seemed to be a little bit of movement and he is a circumspect man so I took that to mean something quite positive and I’ll be seeing Peter Jackson in a couple of weeks when we’re taking The Seagull to Wellington and Auckland.

KERRY O’BRIEN: It would be tragic if it happened without Peter Jackson?

SIR IAN MCKELLEN: It couldn’t happen really, could it? In the way that it ought.

McKellen is currently playing King Lear and, in repertoire, Sorin in The Seagull. The schedule began at Stratford on 24 March and by November will have visited Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Singapore, Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and London. Currently he is in Wellington, where the engagement that he mentions, including both King Lear and The Seagull, runs August 11 to 13.

This new interview seems to add a little to the one in Singapore that I quoted previously. I don’t want to read too much into McKellen’s statement. Still, I can infer (as usual with the proviso that I have no inside information) a couple of things.

In Singapore, McKellen referred to “detecting” movement in the Hobbit front, but he doesn’t hint as to his source. Here he says he heard this from a producer. Perhaps such a communication would involve said producer sounding him out about the circumstances under which he would be willing to reprise his role as Gandalf. McKellen has made it clear on his website and in interviews, including this new one, that he feels Jackson should direct and has strongly implied that he would not play the wizard under a different director. He has not, however, made a firm public statement to that effect. The fact that in this context he mentions meeting with Jackson, however, suggests that he may have some reason to believe that they could work together on the film.

(Subsequent interviews with McKellen have been published in Australia and New Zealand, but none adds any new information.)

I had the pleasure of interviewing McKellen in early 2005 as part of my research on The Frodo Franchise. He made it perfectly clear that he, like virtually all the cast and crew members that worked on The Lord of the Rings, is intensely loyal to Jackson. I would be very surprised to hear that he had agreed to play Gandalf if someone other than Jackson were at the helm.

Second, these two interviews, one done in Singapore and one in Melbourne, were posted on the internet a week apart. There is no hint that anyone asked McKellen not to say anything more about the Hobbit negotiations. Given the intense interest in this subject, even brief, very general statements like the ones I have quoted can give rise to considerable speculation and discussion—in which I am obviously participating.

As anyone who has read interviews with McKellen knows, he is a very outspoken man. Still, I can’t believe that he would go on making statements about the situation with the Hobbit film if asked not to by the parties involved.

Now I’d like to turn to an issue unrelated to the McKellen interview. One subject that comes up in fan discussions of the Hobbit project on the internet is that of design. Fans point out that if Weta Ltd. does not create the props, costumes, sets, special effects (both digital and physical) and make-up, as they did for The Lord of the Rings, the look of Middle-earth might be noticeably different. Other fans seem to believe that Jackson’s companies own the props, costumes, and sets.

Technically I believe that New Line owns virtually all of the objects made for Rings. Some were given as gifts to the filmmakers, including the full-size Bag End interior which Jackson now has at his country home as a guest house. Some of the actors received their swords, McKellen asked for and got the lizard-shaped door-handles from the Orthanc set, and so on. That’s not a major factor, and the existing objects, which are presumably still in storage in New Zealand, could be re-used for a film of The Hobbit.

Nevertheless, design and execution would remain a big concern. If Weta’s two halves, Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, refused to work on The Hobbit without Jackson directing, New Line and co-producer MGM would have to look elsewhere. (Jackson owns one third of Weta, and the other two-thirds are owned by his long-time friends and colleagues Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk.) There are a few CGI facilities in the world that could deliver digital effects on the level of those in Rings—though it’s hard to imagine a Gollum without Andy Serkis’ acting, particularly his voice. But I doubt that there is any company or cluster of companies that could render the physical components of Middle-earth as well as Weta Workshop did for Rings. Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe helped give the film’s mise en scene its unified look, and they, too, might not wish to work for a different director.

This is all speculation, and time might prove me to have been completely wrong. Perhaps New Line could successfully assemble a fully new team—director, cast, crew and group of support companies—and start virtually from scratch. Perhaps there is not the solidarity behind Jackson that I have posited here, and some people who worked on Rings might be willing to return for The Hobbit under such circumstances. Perhaps fan opposition would gradually erode once the film went into production.

Unlikely as it may seem now, there was a storm of outrage when Jackson was first announced as directing Rings. Most people had never heard of him. People who knew his comic splatter films were convinced that he would trash Tolkien’s novel. Perhaps a new director could win fans over, as Jackson did so effectively, and make them change their opinions. I have to believe, though, that any new director would face a much harder uphill battle to capture the fans’ hearts and minds.

A recent poll on TheOneRing.net asked whether fans would be likely to go to a film directed by anyone but Jackson. The group saying that they were “very likely” and “likely” not to go was 76.6 %. Those who were “very likely” and “likely” to go totaled 12.9%. Those who said they would wait until they found out who the director would be comprised 10.3%. Many among that 76.6% group would probably grit their teeth and go to the film.

Perhaps the result would be a hit and we shall look back upon the current period as a tempest in a teapot. If so, perhaps the lawsuit will eventually come to court and we’ll get some indications as to the real cost of this dispute.

By the way, Keith Stern, McKellen’s webmaster, has kindly put The Frodo Franchise on the news page of McKellen.com, right next to the announcement of Sir Ian’s nomination for an Emmy for his hilarious guest turn on the British series Extras. I seldom get a chance to think of myself as cool, but that is definitely cool!

IMPORTANT NEWS: Just after posting this entry, I discovered (via the excellent site The Hobbit Movie) a Los Angeles Times story on New Line Cinema. There studio officials finally announce that they are indeed negotiating with Peter Jackson concerning the Hobbit film project:

“Eager to move ahead with ‘The Hobbit,’ New Line has quietly been trying to mend fences with ‘Rings’ filmmaker Peter Jackson, who has sued the company over his share of profits from the first ‘Rings’ films. When asked if it was true that company insiders had been in talks with Jackson’s reps, Shaye replied, “Yes, that’s a fair statement. Notwishstanding our personal quarrels, I really respect and admire Peter and would love for him to be creatively involved in some way in ‘The Hobbit.'”

“Moving ahead with ‘The Hobbit’ would tie in to another pivotal New Line issue: In an era when Hollywood is deluged with equity money, will Shaye and Lynne make a run at buying back New Line from Time Warner? Shaye’s reponse was worthy of a U. N. diplomat: ‘We have not expressed that point of view publicly. And if we ever do, [Time Warner chiefs Dick Parsons and Jeff would be the first to know about it.'”

I don’t know why the Hobbit film is tied to that issue, but it presumably has something to do with the fact that investors would be falling over themselves to help finance such a project. The Lord of the Rings may have strengthened New Line enough that it would be better off being once again a fully independent firm–as it was before being acquired by Turner Broadcasting System in 1993. (TBS was in turn acquired by Time Warner in 1996.)

This announcement confirms that my most general speculation in past entries is correct: New Line has been negotiating with Jackson. Whether the proposition is for Jackson to produce and direct or simply to produce (“creatively involved in some way”) remains to be seen.

[Added on August 10:

In response to the LA Times story, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have issued a statement: “Peter and Fran have always wanted to do The Hobbit but whether that happens is yet to be decided.”]

Updates: Len Lye, Frodo Franchise, blockbusters, and news from/about Hong Kong


Kristin here—

More on Len Lye

After my recent post on Len Lye, I heard from both Roger Horrocks, Lye’s biographer, and Tyler Cann, Curator of the Len Lye Collecton of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Neither with corrections, I am happy to say!) They have filled me in on some activities that should make Lye’s film work more accessible.

First, a DVD of Lye’s films is being prepared. Unfortunately factors like the process of assembling the best surviving prints means that the finished product will not be available in the near future.

Second, the near future will bring a touring program of Lye’s films to North America. Called “Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye,” it has been organized by The New Zealand Film Archive, the Len Lye Foundation, and Anthology Film Archives. (The name was inspired by Lye’s scratched-on-film animated short, Free Radicals, 1958.) Here are the venues and dates:

rainbow-dance-2-300.jpgOct 12 Anthology Film Archives, New York

Oct 18 NASCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) Halifax, Nova Scotia

Oct 23 Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley

Oct. 28 Film Forum, Los Angeles

Oct 30th CALARTS, Los Angeles

Nov 2nd University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Nov. 7th George Eastman House, Rochester

Nov. 26th Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge

Dec 8th Chicago Filmmakers, Chicago

Dec. 15th International House, Philadelphia

Roger tells me that he intends to write a book on Lye’s theory and practice of what he called “the art of motion.” This reminds me that I forgot to mention that there is a collection of Lye’s writings, Figures of Motion: Len Lye Selected Writings, co-published in 1984 by Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press. It was co-edited by Roger and Wystan Curnow and is, alas, long out of print. Another thing to look for in your local library.

The Frodo Franchise

I am happy to report that The Frodo Franchise is now in the process of being rolled out. The University of California Press has been shipping copies for weeks, and it should soon appear on bookstore shelves—and may have already in some places. The copy we pre-ordered from Amazon back in April arrived on July 30.

I have bowed to the inevitable and am in the process of constructing a separate website, “Frodo Franchise,” to deal with matters relating to the book and the films. (That is, Meg, our web czarina, is constructing it.) I don’t want information about the book, comments on the Hobbit film situation, and similar items to overbalance our blog, which they threaten to do. I’ll post a notice when the site is up and running.

In the meantime, Pieter Collins of the Tolkien Library, an excellent reference and news site dedicated to the novels, has interviewed me about my book. You can read the result here. Henry Jenkins has done the same, through his site, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, is more oriented toward popular media and fandom. The interview is in three parts here, here, and here.

Hollywood Blockbusters Doing Pretty Well

On February 28 I posted an entry, “World rejects Hollywood blockbusters?” There I argued against claims in an article by Nathan Gardels, editor of NPQ and Global Viewpoint, and Michael Medavoy, CEO of Phoenix Pictures and producer of, among many others, Miss Potter. They claimed that there were many signs that Hollywood’s big-budget films are being rejected at the box office: “Audience trends for American blockbusters are beginning to show a decline as well, both at home and abroad.”

Since then, of course, Hollywood blockbusters have been cleaning up at home and abroad. We’re all familiar by now with the series of huge international openings, with many blockbusters being released day and date in most major markets. As one example, take Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which so far has grossed $774,070,000 worldwide. The US and Canada claimed only about one-third ($264 million) of that total (Box Office Mojo, August 4). Overseas, Phoenix has scored $510 million, for 65.9% of its global haul. The Three Threes, Shrek, Pirates, and Spider-man, all cleaned up internationally, as did Transformers. (The fourth Three film, The Bourne Ultimatum, looks set to do the same.) The Simpsons Movie has recently begun its climb to box-office glory.

Leonard Klady, an excellent writer on the international film industry, summed up the situation for 2007 in the 22 June print edition of Screen International: “Worldwide predictions that 2007 would break recent box-office records look to be well founded. The international box office generated $4.5bn in the first four months of 2007. Combined with revenues from the domestic North American marketplace, the global gross for the period was $7.2bn. International theatrical [i.e., markets outside the U.S. and Canada] accounted for 61.6% of the worldwide box office on gross figures that exceeded domestic ticket sales by 60.6%. Based on current viewing trends, global box office could finish the year at a record-breaking $24.6bn.”

Klady points out that much of the rise comes from the factor I discussed in my earlier entry: the expansion of the international market. According to him, “The international market has become increasingly significant in the past decade.” A decade ago, foreign income averaged 45% of Hollywood films’ takings. By 2006 it was around two-thirds.

These facts also bear on Neil Gabler’s February article, “The movie magic is gone,” where he lamented the purported decline in theatrical films’ importance. That there was such a decline, he claimed, was evidenced by the fact that box-office revenues are down, both domestically and abroad. I refuted Gabler’s claims at some length in this March 11 post, and the successful summer that Hollywood is now enjoying adds further evidence to show that his argument was based on false assumptions.

DB here–

The Udine Far East Film Festival had a tremendous program this year, and just the YouTube promo made you want to book a ticket. But I couldn’t go! Still, the organizers kindly sent me their excellent catalogue Nickelodeon and the real topper, the festival’s thick volume dedicated to Patrick Tam Kar-ming. Editor Alberto Pezzotta, indefatigable researcher into Hong Kong film, organized a vast retrospective of Tam’s key New Wave films, such as Nomad and The Sword, as well as his less-known television work. The book includes critical essays, a detailed filmography, and a long, informative interview. Tam brought a cosmopolitan sensibility to Hong Kong film, thanks to his sensitivity to European directors like Godard and Antonioni. His latest film, the widely acclaimed After This, Our Exile, signals a new phase in his career.

johnnie-to-teo-cover.jpgWhen I was writing Planet Hong Kong between 1997 and 1999, I was often frustrated by a lack of solid information and in-depth critical writing. Tony Rayns’ superb essays and the annual catalogues published by the Hong Kong International Film Festival were about all I could rely on. That situation has improved in recent years, with many well-researched books on Hong Kong film appearing. Outstanding here is Stephen Teo, who has given us two books this year alone: King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and the just-out Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film. This efflorescence of writing comes just when local cinema is in its deepest slump. You won’t find me quoting Hegel often, but in this instance it does seem that the owl of Minerva is flying at dusk.

Len Lye, Renaissance Kiwi


Kristin here–

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.

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The Filmmaker

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.

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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.

The Legacy

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.)


The Sculptor

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.

David Bordwell
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