Monday, February 20, 2012

The Birth of the Robot: 1936 Experimental Advertising Film by Len Lye for Shell Oil Company

In 1936, experimental filmmaker Len Lye made this short surreal animation to advertise the benefits of Shell oil for lubricating things. The film is a hyper-saturated stop-motion extravaganza that involves a mechanical world turning on some sort of hand crank. There's an adventurer driving around the sands of Egypt. His car winds down and konks out leaving the man dead in the desert. The angel of oil rains drops of lubricating crude down on the Egyptian landscape bringing the parched skeleton to life as the Shell Oil robot. Fascinating. It's got that awkward, shiny, naive beauty that could only be achieved in the 30s. Parts of this thing look like they might be influenced by Salvador Dali's work. Something about that dead skeleton and the desert looks like it could fit right into the Surrealist master's paintings.

Lye was from New Zealand and worked not only as an experimental filmmaker but also in newsreels and advertising. He was a kinetic sculptor, poet, painter and a writer of essays on artistic theory and philosphy. He made a 1935 short film called 'A Colour Box' which was the first generally exhibited film made by painting directly on the film emulsion. It's a brilliant experimental animation posing as an advertisement for cheaper parcel post. I'm sure the great direct paint filmmaker Stan Brakhage must have been familiar with Lye's work.

Here's a gallery site with information and examples of his artwork.

Trauma: A Video Poem Triptych by Swoon

Swoon is a Belgian poet filmmaker who makes films that try to blur the boundary between written poem and moving image. He mixes his own footage with found footage and sometimes mixes his own words with others. I like the quiet easy tone of his work. I like his manipulation of imagery. His work is a very difficult kind of work because it tries to make something new from two different things. Poetry is a perfect form all by itself. But film is never satisfied. It's always looking for something to include within it. So it's natural for film to go looking for poetry and try to bring it in. But poetry resists all alliances. Poetry seems content and willing to wait for centuries. It requires nothing. It doesn't care what film wants. It will sit on a dry page in some crowded shelf somewhere waiting six hundred years for just a single pair of eyes to come along in boredom, open to the page, glance in, read half-way down and then slap the book shut for another six hundred years until someone decides to finish reading the goddamn thing. That's patience. Film doesn't have that. Film must be seen now or it withers. It begins to rot. Even if it's digital. Digital films become confused and get lost in the forest of other digits. They may never find their way out again. So working with the two things and trying to get them together is very difficult but may actually make perfect sense.

This is a film poem triptych that is Swoon's first work to include his own words. There's a site for the film with more information.