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Tusalava (1929)

Courtesy of Len Lye Foundation

Main image of Tusalava (1929)
35mm, black and white, silent, 590 feet
DirectorLen Lye
Production CompanyFilm Society
ProducerRobert Graves

Abstract animation in which two apparently organic forms evolve in a symbiotic and/or parasitic relationship with one another.

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The first film that Len Lye made in England, Tusalava was constructed using around 4400 different drawings, each of which was photographed; a process known as cel animation. Lye rarely used this technique again, marking Tusalava out as unusual in his output.

Funded by the Film Society and writer Robert Graves, the film consists of a series of abstract processes that allude to concrete events in a rather hazy manner. Out of such processes, a loose evolutionary narrative can be traced, though this is by no means straightforward or conventional.

The film begins with the screen divided into three rectangles, with a series of dots and circles wriggling and twisting. Eventually collapsing into two rectangles, the wriggling shapes continue to mutate and create intricate patterns. Out of one of the rectangles a totem figure eventually appears and is invaded by a wriggling shape, creating a frenzied motion. Eventually the shape is blown out of the screen, replaced by a number of spirals, which are engulfed by a black dot.

Tusalava bears similarities to several abstract films made in the 1920s by figures such as Oskar Fischinger and Hans Richter. One main difference, though, is that Lye (who was born in New Zealand) was very much influenced by Australian Aboriginal art. This influence means that Tusalava alludes to more organic shapes than Fischinger's and Richter's films, which featured more angular, geometric forms. The shapes in Tusalava jitter and wriggle as though alive, which led one critic to read into the film a narrative concerning primitive life forms.

Lye was also much influenced by doodling, which he thought connected to a 'pre-conscious' sense of physicality bypassing rationality. Tusalava can be seen as a film about movement in and of itself, rather than symbolising other processes. Lye was attempting to create a magical sense of life on film that would physically absorb the viewer.

Unfortunately, because many British critics at the time were trying to find literal meanings in films, it tended to confuse the majority of viewers who saw it at a Film Society screening and it was not widely shown. Lye subsequently struggled to find financing for his films until the mid-1930s, when his experiments with painting directly onto film began to transform his status.

Jamie Sexton

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Video Clips
Extract (2:47)
Lye, Len (1901-1980)
20s-30s Avant-Garde