Len Lye

While I’m not currently a member of a film society, I don’t regret the 10 years that I spent with film societies and the BFFS. For one, I’ve ended up married to as a direct result, but more importantly, I’ve been introduced to a wide range of cinema and filmmakers that I just wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to (and I’m fairly certain that would probably have put those in the same order).

One such filmmaker is Len Lye, a New Zealander who worked in the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit in the years before WWII. During this time, he produced a number of experimental films using a technique he called direct animation, in which the images were painted or scratched directly onto the celluloid. In order to justify this work to his paymasters, the films usually had some postal-related advertising message tacked on at the end.

The GPO Film Unit was a incredible hotbed of talent; headed by John Grierson, it employed a number of the leading experimental filmmakers of the time, including Lotte Reiniger and Norman McLaren (best known for his later work for the National Film Board of Canada).

But back to Lye. Last week, and I took a day off to see the Modernism exhibition at the V&A (more in another post). Tucked into one of the later rooms was a video loop showing Lye’s Rainbow Dance; the music from this film was on a constant loop, so we’d had an inkling of what was to come. I was so distracted that I quite failed to drool over the Tatra T87 in the same room…

So, gleaned from YouTube (thank heavens for Web2.0), here are three of Len Lye’s finest, three joyful, jazz-infused paeans to parcel rates, post office savings accounts and the importance of posting early:

A Colour Box (1935)


Rainbow Dance (1936)


Trade Tattoo (1937)


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