AFW + NFSA #52: Three Films by Marie Menken + Three Films by Len Lye
Thursday 31 October, AFW / Arena Project Space, 2 Kerr St, Fitzroy, 7:30pm. $7.
“There is no why for my making films. I just liked the twitters of the machine, and since it was an extension of painting for me, I tried it and loved it. In painting I never liked the staid and static, always looked for what would change the source of light and stance, using glitters, glass beads, luminous paint, so the camera was a natural for me to try but how expensive!” – Marie Menken
Arabesque for Kenneth Anger, 1961, colour, sound, 5 min
Filmed at the Alhambra in Spain in just one day, according to Marie Menken. Arabesque for Kenneth Anger concentrates on visual details found in Moorish architecture and in ancient Spanish tile. The date 1961 refers to the addition of Teiji Ito's soundtrack and its subsequent completion, but the film was likely shot in 1960 or earlier. - David Lewis
Mood Mondrian, 1961, colour, silent, 5 min
"A film of a painting of a sound. Piet Mondrian's 'Broadway Boogie-Woogie' is translated into visual boogie rhythm."–M.M. "MOOD MONDRIAN can already be described as an extraordinary and perhaps revolutionary cinematic achievement."–Joseph LeSueur.
Notebook, 1962, colour and b/w, silent, 11 min
These are too tiny or too obvious for comment, but one or two are my dearest children. "It is a very personal film which she keeps adding to ... a masterpiece of filmic fragments, only shown once, but wow!" – P. Adams Sitney
Marie Menken program notes from The Film-Makers' Cooperative
“All of a sudden it hit me-if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?” – Len Lye
Tusalava, 1929, b/w, silent, 7 min
This remarkable animation film was first screened by the London Film Society in 1929. Jack Ellitt’s original piano music for Tusalava has unfortunately been lost. The film imagines the beginnings of life on earth. Single-cell creatures evolve into more complex forms of life. Evolution leads to conflict, and two species fight for supremacy. The title is a Samoan word which suggests that things go full circle. In this film Lye based his style of animation partly on the ancient Aboriginal art of Australia. Tusalava is unique as a film example of what art critics describe as “modernist primitivism”. In contrast to the Cubist painters (who were influenced by African art), Lye drew upon traditions of indigenous art from his own region of the world (New Zealand, Australia and Samoa).
A Colour Box, 1935, colour, sound, 4 min
Lye’s first “direct” (camera-less) animation combined popular Cuban dance music with hand-painted abstract designs. Screened in many cinemas in Britain, the film had a huge impact because of its novelty and because it divided audiences – some viewers loved it, others hated it. Colour was still a novelty and Lye’s direct painting on celluloid created brilliant colours. The film won festival awards, though some festivals had to invent a special category for this new style of animation. In Venice, the Fascists disrupted screenings because they saw it as “degenerate” modern art. The film was funded and distributed by John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit on the condition that Lye included a postal advertisement at the end.
Free Radicals, 1958 (revised 1979), b/w and monochrome, sound, 4 min
Some critics regard this as Lye’s greatest film. He reduced the film medium to its most basic elements – light in darkness – by scratching designs on black film. On screen his scratches were as dramatic as lightning in the night sky. He used a variety of tools ranging from dental tools to an ancient Native American arrow-head, and synchronized the images to traditional African music (“a field tape of the Bagirmi tribe”). The film won second prize out of 400 entries in an International Experimental Film Competition judged by Man Ray, Norman McLaren, Alexander Alexeiff and others, at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. In 1979 Lye decided to shorten this already very concentrated film from 5 to 4 minutes. Stan Brakhage described the final version as “an almost unbelievably immense masterpiece (a brief epic).” In 2008 Free Radicals was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress as a “classic film” that it would “preserve for all time.”
Len Lye program notes from The Len Lye Foundation