Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Len Lye's N or NW (1938) is free to watch below.
New Zealander Len Lye is known, above all, for his experimental short films—such as A Colour Box (1935), Colour Cry (1953), or Free Radicals (1958)—where he would work directly by drawing and painting on or manipulating the film strip in a variety of ways. But, throughout his prolific career, he also worked with classical animation, live-action film (including a series of war documentaries), as well as pieces that combined a number of these techniques. Lye’s incessant curiosity drove him to develop his interests in many different artistic fields: beyond drawing and painting, he took photographs and built kinetic sculptures, and he produced a large body of writing that covers different styles, forms, and genres.
N or NW (1937) is one of the four films Lye did for the British General Post Office (GPO), whose film unit was headed by the famous John Grierson. This short is built upon an epistolary exchange between Evelyn (Evelyn Corbett) and Jack (Dwight Godwin), following their heated argument. A delay in the arrival of Jack’s letter, due to his mistake when adding Evelyn’s postal code, triggers a punch line that is both a warning to postal users, and a celebration of the British service’s competence. The film ends with a happy epilogue: the couple reunited, enjoying a weekend at the lake.
Lye was someone who could easily turn commissions with an evident promotional goal into artistic adventures that inspired him. In N or NW, the advertising aim of a seemingly conventional, live-action drama becomes an exciting exploration of some of Lye’s life-long obsessions. Through his depiction of letter-writing processes, amorous quarrels, and postal service efficiency, Lye taps into his theory of the relations between the conscious and the unconscious. Or, as he would conceptualize it: the Old Brain (the deepest level of the unconscious, connected to body movement, intuitive knowledge, automatism, and primitive art) and the New Brain (the conscious level, associated with intellectualism, rational thinking, logic and language).
The intro of N or NW already announces the significance that both the postal service and the act of writing will have. Using a fragment of Bob Howard’s “Gimme a Break, Baby” in which the leader presents his band members, Lye materializes the film title—inscribed in chalk on a glass surface, behind which a pattern with musical notes rolls vertically—plus the rest of the credits, written on a post-marked envelope and a sheet with an official letterhead.
The first two sequences, devoted to the drafting of Evelyn’s initial letter and Jack’s subsequent reply, are prodigious exercises in moment-to-moment inventiveness. Lye begins by combining shots of Evelyn at her writing desk, with others that refer to the argument she had with Jack the previous day. Their fight is, at first, staged in a stylized manner—both characters standing in profile, facing each other. But Lye’s taste for constant variation, for a rapid-fire succession of shots taken from multiple set-ups and angles, makes it difficult to sometimes distinguish whether the shots of Evelyn are located in the past or the present. The two times are confused and, as the sequence progresses, different fragments of written texts appear on screen. Writing is poised exactly at this intersection where everything merges. The composition of the letter is both stirred and bombarded by a chaotic set of repetitive thoughts, feelings, and impressions.
Jack’s desire for Evelyn (“She’s got marvelous dark eyes,” says the voice, prompting the insertion of an ardent close-up of the woman) structures the first steps of the second sequence—with the camera forcefully whipping, back and forth, from Jack’s standing figure to the writing notebook lying on his desk. Since Evelyn’s posted ultimatum threatens their plans for the weekend, Jack’s response is time-sensitive: his writing process is faster, and so this sequence is more condensed than its predecessor. And yet, Lye also manages to capture here Jack’s uncontrolled hesitations. His thoughts move rapidly from longing to fear, from interest to contempt. This frantic alternation is depicted both aurally (with lines of speech overlapping each other) and visually (a surreal shot of Jack sitting in profile with gigantic, floating envelopes in the background is followed by an image where his face becomes the screen onto which his harsh words against Evelyn are imprinted like shadows).
But, of course, the major giveaway of Jack’s mixed feelings is his inability to remember the postal code of his fiancée. “N or NW 1?”, he ponders, and the sound is blacked out, leaving us only with his silent vocalizing and doubtful expression. He decides for NW 1, seals the envelope, and reads out the address to himself. But, as if half-admitting the mistake, he keeps inquiring: “N or NW 1?”.
These two sequences demonstrate that, if Lye is interested in the finished letters, it is only for the message they convey. And if he is interested in these messages, that is only in relation to the writing processes they entail. That’s why he inverts the functions and representations usually assigned to written text and inner thought: the definitive letters are never shown to us (we will only hear them recited by the characters at the end of each sequence), while the thought processes that inform their writing are graphically imprinted in various ways.
In the initial shot, the camera is situated at a low angle, filming Evelyn, who ponders with pen in hand, through a glass table; the movement of her eyes cues a tracking shot that reveals a page on her desk—the image is blurry, but a sudden focus-pull reveals, from its reverse side, a mess of illegible words spreading in all directions. Later on, the shot of a confused Evelyn, turning her head from left to right, is followed by the superimposition of a piece of white paper covered with scribbles of fragmentary sentences and doodles. When Jack is drafting a reply to Evelyn in his Orient Blue notebook, another collection of doodles can be seen on the back of the previous page.
Lye was utterly fascinated by these graphic inscriptions that push us to read the unconscious affects between the lines of conscious intent. The written fragments we see in these two sequences are full of calligraphic and doodling details of this kind: capitalized words, some letters more boldly engraved than others, mysterious signs and stains, words that draw the shape of a movement…
Written extracts—especially those that appear printed on a glass surface during the first sequence—are also filled with mechanical repetitions, where the same sentences are copied, once and again. In one of his texts, Lye relates how he came across Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) during his own explorations of movement in primitive dance:
I couldn’t quite understand what Freud was getting at, but this guy knew what was going on beneath the iceberg so I decided to copy out the book in longhand, hoping this humdrum chore would give me time to digest its meaning. I left the back of each written page blank and on it I’d draw careful copies of some primitive art object – an Aboriginal colored shield or pattern, an African mask, whatever gave me a feeling for Old Brain art and offered a lead to what I was after.
One of the drawings that most insistently appears in the first sequence is an ink blot that resembles a spider. “He’s poison for a girl like you”—that is among the sentences uttered by a jealous Jack during their argument. Evelyn will write a poisonous letter—with a demand and an ultimatum that requires a fast antidote on Jack’s part—but she’ll need to move laboriously through the cobweb before finding the right thread.
We often talk about a train of thought, but we should speak instead about its stuttering. Because the wagons of thought rarely move forward, flowing smoothly, at a stable speed; rather they go back and forth in intermittent spasms, turning in obsessive circles; they teeter, or go completely off the rails. Thought is often caught in mad repetition: it recommences and is interrupted many times before a freewheeling variation clears out a path.
In his book Regarding the Real: Cinema, Documentary, and the Visual Arts (2016), Des O’Rawe discusses N or NW. He suggests that the film may be indebted to Freud (especially his 1925 essay, “A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad”), but also more directly to the essayist and poet Laura Riding, who was Lye’s close friend. And, indeed, the way in which N or NW presents its letter-writing game resonates strongly with what Riding wrote in the postscript of Everybody’s Letters (1933):
A letter … must be composed in leisure. Its wrongness must have the authoritative formality of an unpremeditated crime. A letter written under stress because its astonished author could not help writing it is an act of insanity. The mails are full of helpless insanity, yes. But the “something about” letters comes from a calculated perversity, not from naïve passion. The truest letters are obviously those written in a sophisticated awareness of the nature of a letter and with a sophisticated will to exploit it.
The third sequence of N or NW is built as an imaginative depiction of the postal delivery process and, in particular, of Jack’s recalcitrant letter. It starts with a map divided into postal zones. After that, we see Jack’s hand holding the letter, in close-up. In a subsequent shot, the mailbox’s black slit seems to suck up the letter like a devouring mouth. The mailbox is then seen superimposed onto a low-angle shot of treetops. There’s movement in all directions: the camera shifts horizontally along the trees; the mailbox falls vertically, lurching from left to right, like a bomb dropped from a plane, or a ripened fruit detached from a branch. Which is it to be? It’s for us to decide. Another brief flash of the map is followed by several shots where we see dozens of envelopes falling from a cloudy sky.
Since Jack’s reply doesn’t arrive, Evelyn starts writing her final letter, cancelling not only their weekend, but also their engagement. Suddenly, the postman arrives and delivers Jack’s apology. After reading it, Evelyn tears her letter to pieces and, in the last sequence, we see the happy couple enjoying their weekend, sunbathing and swimming. As they lean on the boat, Jack expresses his happiness over being friends again, and Evelyn remarks that it is all thanks to the post office. A close-up shows us the envelope, where the wrong postal code has been crossed out and replaced by the right one. Then, a charming postman appears on screen, giving a brief speech about the importance of entering the correct code in order to ensure prompt delivery. In the last shot of the film, Evelyn and Jack kiss and feed the swans with what seems to be not a piece of bread, but the scrunched-up letter. The final credit reads: “Yours, The End”.
If N or NW stands at the antipodes to the rules of classical cinema, it’s because Lye’s whole career was grounded in an exploration of movement: “It’s all I aim for myself, just a few moments of real kinesthesia – there’s no other kick like it.” Instead of an invisible style, seamless continuity, and non-ambiguity, N or NW foregrounds the psychological and physiological effects of the perception of movement, searching for a filmic experience able to provide that glorious kick.
The discontinuity of the text fragments seen in N or NW is enhanced by Lye through the expressive use of an array of different techniques: non-synchronous voice-over, verbal repetition, extreme use of jump cuts, combinations of eccentric angles, and sudden racks of focus. The linearity of the story is thus drilled by all these aesthetic choices, functioning as the impulses of our perceptual apparatus.
Early on, when Evelyn scratches out what she has written and scrunches the sheet up, Lye cuts to a different angle of her completely out of focus, creating a strong link between the act of erasure and the blurriness of the image. Some of the focus-pulls are prompted by the effacing of unpleasant moments (Evelyn’s “I don’t wanna talk about it”) or by the violence of disturbing memories (Jack’s “Goodbye, then. Goodbye”). When Jack posts his letter, Lye matches the movement of the envelope as it’s tipped in with a rack-focus that reveals, in the background, a previously unseen (blocked) mailbox. The sound is edited in a deliberately sketchy way that doesn’t try to mask the jarring effect of its cuts. Dialogues are assembled by giving prominence to their rhythmical qualities, emphasizing the emotional impact of certain phrases (which sound different, depending on the particular perception of each character), and denoting the ambiguity of specific words (which are subjected to repetition, or varying dramatic intonations).
The camera often executes brief, horizontal movements of reframing (the couple’s argument, for instance, resembles a tennis match); vertical wipes that give a transitional effect (especially in the final sequence); or short bursts of immersion and detachment. These displacements are in a complex relation with everything that moves inside the shot—from objects falling to texts crawling, from full bodies changing position to the minimal movements of an eye or pen.
There are also poetic rhymes of movement occurring across shots and sequences: the letter torn to pieces falling from Evelyn’s hands, the letters falling from the sky, and the leaves that Jack places in the woman’s body to protect her from the sun; the scrunched-up letter that Emily tosses at the start of the film and the letter that is thrown into the lake in the final shot; the ring that Evelyn removes from her hand at the same moment that the postman pushes Jack’s reply into her mail slit. Through the editing that creates a choreography of jump-cuts and flashing superimpositions, Lye finds his order inside the chaos of exposure to the diverse speeds and shocks of multiple stimuli.
N or NW seems to offer an unmistakably happy ending, but there’s always the shadow of a doubt. What if Jack’s letter was a smokescreen, never meant to arrive? What if writing the wrong code was his way of protesting against Evelyn’s demands, her blackmail? If, in the first two sequences, we find many scattered clues about the hidden impulses, contradictory desires, and unresolved feelings that animate the couple’s letter writing, Lye’s musical choices add an extra layer of witty complexity. The three jazzy tunes picked by him provide a strong rhythmical template and an upbeat tone that contrasts with the seriousness of the situation (after all, it’s the couple’s future that is at stake here)—but they also thread a productive interplay with secondary meanings that is not without irony.
Fats Waller’s performance of “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (“and make believe it came from you,” as the lyrics say) accompanies most of the first two sequences. With its messing-up of the functions of sender and addressee, this song points to the disguises and masks that inform the letter-writing game. The lyrics allude to a scenario that matches Evelyn’s impatient need for Jack’s reply. But they also reveal a truth behind Jack’s acts: he’ll write to himself (that’s what the wrong postal code should ensure) a letter that seems dictated by Evelyn.
Benny Goodman’s “Tain’t No Use” is heard mainly during the postal delivery sequence. Initially, this song seems to announce the uselessness of Jack’s gesture, the dead end of his apology, and the termination of his relationship with Evelyn. But, of course, in retrospect, it seems to refer to something entirely different: ain’t no use in writing the wrong code when the postman always rings twice! For the conclusion, Lye brings back the tune used during the title credits, “Gimme a Break, Baby”: the polysemy of this expression (enacted in the song itself, where the man passes from asking the woman for a break, to asking the woman to take a break herself) makes us wonder again about the contradictory desires embedded in this couple’s letters.
Taking all this into account, the scene that seems to be the major concession to the propaganda aims of the GPO may well turn out to be the most ironic moment of the whole film. Because, while it is reasonable to expect that a letter will be delivered to the appointed address (even if, alas, this doesn’t always happen), what’s totally unreasonable is that a wrong address inscribed in a letter won’t guarantee its return to sender or its adherence to the pile of dead mail. What does the zealous over-efficiency of the postal service mean? From North to Northwest, they re-direct the letter (as if re-directing an unconscious impulse) and, by doing so, they endanger the phantom route (North by Northwest) par excellence. What an outrageous overstep!
If N or NW shows that, as Laura Riding put it, “letters are the most anarchic activity tolerated as ungovernable in civilized experience,” it also portrays the postal service as the most suspicious and supremely perverse super-ego entity.
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