In 1936, experimental filmmaker Len Lye made this short surreal animation to advertise the benefits of Shell oil for lubricating things. The film is a hyper-saturated stop-motion extravaganza that involves a mechanical world turning on some sort of hand crank. There’s an adventurer driving around the sands of Egypt. His car winds down and konks out leaving the man dead in the desert. The angel of oil rains drops of lubricating crude down on the Egyptian landscape bringing the parched skeleton to life as the Shell Oil robot. Fascinating. It’s got that awkward, shiny, naive beauty that could only be achieved in the 30s. Parts of this thing look like they might be influenced by Salvador Dali’s work. Something about that dead skeleton and the desert looks like it could fit right into the Surrealist master’s paintings.
Lye was from New Zealand and worked not only as an experimental filmmaker but also in newsreels and advertising. He was a kinetic sculptor, poet, painter and a writer of essays on artistic theory and philosphy. He made a 1935 short film called ‘A Colour Box’ which was the first generally exhibited film made by painting directly on the film emulsion. It’s a brilliant experimental animation posing as an advertisement for cheaper parcel post. I’m sure the great direct paint filmmaker Stan Brakhage must have been familiar with Lye’s work.