Tusalava (1928)

Tusalava (The Samoan word Tusalava means 'In the end, everything is just the same'), is a 9 minute black and white animation on the origin of life, based on Polinesian art. Len Lye had recently arrived in London from the South Pacific when he began this film in which he merges elements of European modern art with the primitive art which he had experienced in the South Sea Islands.
It was particulary influenced by the witchetty grub (Baldwin Spencer's and F.J. Gillen's The Native Tribes of Central Australia has been the main source for Lye's ideas on witchetty grubs), a source of food for the Aboriginal people. The shapes inherent to much of Lye’s direct animation and paintings are derived from dots and indigenous tapa patterns. His enduring fascination for and extensive studies of Pacific imagery, rhythms, myths and legends was translated into many of his paintings, films and theories of art.
This short film was funded in part by the London Film Society and Lye laboured over it for two years. The Society couldn't afford an optical sound print so it showed the film in 1929 with live piano music written by the Australian Jack Ellitt.

Tusalava is now a silent film as its score has been lost, maybe forever, since Ellitt recently died in N.S.W. Tusalava had an almost minimal slowness, quite different from the pace of Lye's following films. There is a slow development and interaction of forms. Len Lye thought not of forms in themselves but of them as movements in time. He needed a new kind of imagination to seize this idea fully but the public regrets that the film was not amusing.
With the screen split asymmetrically, one part in positives, the other negatives, the film evolves primaeval single-celled nuclear forms into living, rhythmic chains of existence and then, beyond, into creatures of tribal consciousness, both ancient and utterly contemporary. The images react, interpenetrate, perhaps attack, absorb and separate, until a final symbiosis is achieved. This film captures the mutability of existence, the ambiguity between fertile penetration and aggression, absorption and synthesis.
It represents a self-shape annihilating an agonistic element. lt should be the first part of a trilogy, with the beginnings of organic life. The second part would have shown geology and the sea and the third would have dealt with humanised forms. For financial reasons, he was unable to process the second and third parts and it was not until six years later that he had the opportunity to launch another film. In the meantime, he pursued activities as a designer and painter.
You can buy the books Len Lye and Len Lye and the problem of popular films.

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