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N or NW (1937)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of N or NW (1937)
35mm, black and white, 10 mins
DirectionLen Lye
Produced by theGPO Film Unit
SupervisionAlberto Cavalcanti
CameraJonah Jones

Cast: Evelyn Corbett (Evelyn Meredith); Dwight Godwin (Jack)

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Evelyn's relationship nearly falls apart because her fiancé incorrectly addresses a vitally important letter.

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Commissioned by the GPO as a warning to the public to address letters carefully, N or NW begins as a disconcerting sequence of extreme close-ups, strange camera angles, odd shifts in space, unexpected changes of focus, superimpositions, and sudden jump cuts.

What was Len Lye trying to achieve? He had made his reputation through 'direct' films such as A Colour Box (1935), which avoided the use of the camera. Now, in returning to the filming of live action, he was determined to rethink filmic language. He believed it was high time to explore alternatives to 'D.W. Griffith' (by which he meant the basic camera and editing conventions epitomised by that filmmaker). In N or NW, his first strategy for escaping from 'Griffith' was to focus on the stream of consciousness. Lye was currently a member of the British surrealist movement. His film presented the interior monologues of his two central characters as a jumpy succession of thoughts, perceptions, and memories.

N or NW also includes experiments of other kinds. The posting of a letter begins with a striking, subjective shot, after which the letter's travels are represented by a dancing postbox superimposed over a map. Lye's sense of humour relieves the seriousness of his experiments. He makes witty use of three jazz songs ('I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter' by Fats Waller, 'Gimme a Break Baby' by Bob Howard and 'T'ain't no use' by Benny Goodman). The sequence depicting the journey of the letter becomes a kind of 'music video' version of the Goodman song.

For actors Lye chose to use nonprofessionals, not merely to keep the budget down but because he felt that film acting also needed rethinking. Unfortunately the amateur performances in N or NW are hardly a selling point, but the film survives because its real stars are the editing and camera work. The film met with a mixed reaction in cinemas, and some viewers assumed it must be the work of a trainee director, but avant-garde audiences in many parts of Europe were fascinated by it. Unfortunately the sequence that Lye regarded as his most radical experiment - condensing the process by which the young woman gets dressed and goes for a walk - was removed and subsequently lost. He was able to document the sequence in an essay he wrote for the summer 1939 issue of Sight and Sound.

Roger Horrocks

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (7:24)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Lye, Len (1901-1980)
The GPO Film Unit: 1937