Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Film #116: Begone Dull Care and Film #117: Neighbours

"I was inspired to make Neighbours by a stay of almost a year in the People's Republic of China. Although I only saw the beginnings of Mao's revolution, my faith in human nature was reinvigorated by it. Then I came back to Quebec and the Korean War began. (...) I decided to make a really strong film about anti-militarism and against war." --Norman McLaren

The Scottish-born McLaren had been making films for almost twenty years when he hit upon Neighbours, the groundbreaking animated war parable which he produced for the estimable National Film Board of Canada in 1952. He began his film career in the 1930s, sans camera, by painting directly on film stock (making him a precursor to the now-more famous expreimental-filmmaker extraordinaire Stan Brakhage). Begone Dull Care, made with Evylyn Lampart, utilizes a snappy jazz soundtrack from the Oscar Peterson Trio and, with it, is a vibrant masterpiece. No words can adequately describe it.

McLaren made deeper inroads into internationally-renowned territory with Neighbours, which won him, incredibly, the Oscar in 1952 for Best Documentary Short Subject. This, to me, is a amazingly wonderful outrage that COULD NOT HAPPEN TODAY. Neighbours is for sure an animated piece (via pixillation) and very much NOT a documentary--at least, in a traditional sense (it's, also, the only non-Disney short-subject ever to get TWO nominations--it was also cited for Best One-Reel Short Subject that same year, but lost to the now-forgotten Light in the Window: The Art of Vermeer).

Along with David Cronenberg, McLaren is Canada's most influential filmmaker; as proof, there's a whole wing of the NFBC named for him. McLaren served as artist and public servant for the National Film Board of Canada from 1941 to 1983. He is, thus, the one filmmaker most notable for bringing the National Film Board of Canada into full flower. And if you've ever taken a look at any NFBC animated or live-action shorts (like the one you're about to see, or like The Cat Came Back, Special Delivery, or scads of other well-loved Canadian shorts), you begin to realize how much McLaren did to steer the entire idea of what constitutes a good short towards new directions. Pre-McLaren, we had Disney and Warner Brothers, MGM and maybe UPA providing us with animated pieces; after the Canadians came in, the revolution was won, the genre was opened up for the world, and the indies have controlled the shorts market ever since (and I think the market for shorts is going way up, what with the Internet and everything). After Neighbours, McLaren garnered acclaim for 1957's A Chairy Tale (once spoofed brilliantly on SCTV's Canadian episode) and for Pas De Deux for which he won a BAFTA Award and the Palmes D'Or at Cannes in 1968. Also, 1984's Narcissus made a big splash at the festivals that year. But it was Neighbours that I and probably millions of others saw all throughout the early 80s as "filler" in between movies on HBO (HBO really showcased a lot of cool shorts in between movies in the late 70s/early 80s--things like Frank Film, Timepiece, Quasi at the Quackadero, Solly's Diner, and tons of neat early music videos).

Anyway, take a look at Neighbours. Even though I marveled at how the film won an Oscar as a documentary, I DO have to say this: this is a perfect representation of how wars begin and escalate, so as to it winning the documentary award--hell, why not? By the way, this is a surprisingly violent film; the scenes where the (SPOILER) two men, fighting over this dancing flower on this tiny plot of land, eventually kill each others wives and children were initially excised from US prints of the movie; here they've been restored (although via a print of lesser quality). Note: the soundtrack was created by McLaren's scratchings on the edge of the celluloid, read by the projector as sound; thus, even the SOUNDTRACK becomes animation. An unparalleled film from a real visionary.

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