I continue to be preoccupied with the tension between early filmmakers attempting to “purify” cinema of the influence of the other arts and those who embrace the influence of visual, theatrical, and musical arts. This tension seems to play itself out once again in the films of Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute, and Norman McLaren.
Much of Lye’s early work seems to aspire to the condition of pure cinema. The “direct cinema” technique featured in “A Color Box” attempts to foreground the surface materiality of the celluloid medium. By circumventing the camera altogether, Lye reduces cinema to its barest form. The hand-drawn images in “Tusalava” and the overlays in “Trade Tattoo” seem to follow the same approach: reducing the possibility of interpretation from the perspective of any exterior artistic paradigm.
In contrast with these 3 films, “Free Radicals” seems an outlier. Though the earlier films feature music, “Free Radicals” is most clearly understood as a representation of music in visual form in the way the white lines on the black background correspond to the rhythm of the drum music.
Bute and McLaren’s work, like “Free Radicals” (and Fischinger and Ruttman before) seems to embrace what Kittler calls the “media link” between recorded sound and film. Indeed, the term “Synchromy,” employed by both Bute and McLaren, gestures to this fact. Synchromy is the cousin of Symphony: the chrom (color) supplants the phon (sound). What is left, the “Syn,” implies that the chrom with adhere to forms akin to musical symphonies. Such is the case for “Escape,” “Boogie Doogle,” and “Synchromy(ie).” Interestingly, the main titles of McLaren’s “Boogie Doodle,” written in 8 languages, correspond to a descending musical scale (do ti la sol fa mi re do).
I’m not sure what to make of the “Spook Sport” film. This one is much more representational than the others (even if the referent is fictitious), and seems more akin to Looney Tunes and Casper the Ghost than the abstract films we’ve seen before.