Friday, January 1, 2016

Classic Movie Reviews: Norman McLaren Shorts

The Short Films of Norman McLaren Begone Dull Care (1949)
Neighbours (1952)
Blinkity Blank (1955)
A Chairy Tale (1957)
Pas De Deux (1968)
Synchromy (1971)
Directed By: Norman McLaren (with Evelyn Lambart on Begone Dull Care and Claude Jutra on A Chairy Tale).

Norman McLaren was born, raised and educated in Scotland, but did most of his famous work in Canada – for the National Film Board. He was a pioneer in animation and enjoyed tremendous freedom at the National Film Board – probably because over the course of his career he won pretty much every award he could – an Oscar for Neighbours (and three other nominations), a BAFTA for Pas De Deux, a Short Film Palme D Or for Blinkity Blank and many, many others. He directed over 70 shorts in his career, and I choose to look at six of them – I enjoyed them (or was at least fascinated by them) so much, I think I`ll watch some more.

In Begone Dull Care (1949) McLaren and co-directed Evelyn Lambart paint – as well as scratch – directly onto the film itself. The result is a strange, flowing, colorful 8 minutes film. You could write the whole thing off as being random – but that would be ignoring the way McLaren and Lambart use music – provided by the Oscar Peterson Trio. The visual flow along with the music – starting off simple, and gradually getting more complex. McLaren and Lambart add colors, each corresponding to different instruments, on the soundtrack – the colors play off of each other just as the instruments do, and everything is in perfect sync. Then McLaren and Lambart change – as the music slows down, and gives each note its own line, that gradually fades into the background as the note fades. The music speeds up again and the visuals match – becoming more chaotic, and the visuals rush to keep up with the music. None of this really describes what the film is like to watch – which is somewhat hypnotic and visually stunning – the colors are beautiful, and while they appear to be random at first glance, you gradually realize how perfectly in sync they are with the music.

Neighbours (1952) is McLaren’s most famous and celebrated work – the one that won him an Oscar in 1952 for Best Documentary Short (although how the hell it qualifies as a documentary, I do not know). The film is unlike anything else of McLaren’s – it’s not abstract art, but actually has a plot and characters, and a very simple, easily digestible anti-war message. To some, this actually makes it McLaren’s worst film – the argument goes that McLaren was good at the abstract, not at something this pointed. The story is relatively simple – two men, with nearly identical houses, are sitting side by side on their lawns reading their papers. A flower sprouts up on the ground in between them – and the two argue, bicker, fight and eventually murder to try and gain the right from their neighbour to possess the flower – and, of course, in the process kill the thing they wanted most. The film is done is wonderful stop motion animation – the flower dances, fences get built and destroyed with the flick of a hand, women and children are murder and tossed aside (not in a bloody way). The message is exceedingly simple – love thy neighbour. The film worked for me not because it’s a complex movie, but precisely because it isn’t. The look is simple, the message is simple and direct – and as such, the film is quietly effective. I can see why McLaren didn’t go further down this road though.

Blinkity Blank (1955) won McLaren the short film Palme D’Or, and is certainly more like Begone Dull Care then Neighbours, in that it is an abstract work, but done in a completely different way. The film has abstract objects, plants and chickens flash on the screen momentarily, sometimes merging into each other, sometimes wiping each other. McLaren also uses blank frames in the film, showing us that even in empty frames there is some sort of movement – something there.

A Chairy Tale (1957), which he co-directed with and stars Claude Jutra, is a simpler film. Jutra plays a man with a book who simply wants to sit down. The chair however will not co-operate, and keeps dodging him. Undeterred, Jutra continues to try and sit on the chair – and eventually the chair will retaliate and try and sit on him as well. It’s all very amusing – the stop motion animation of the chair is done quite well (by Evelyn Lambart), and Jutra is amusing. Like Neighbours, the film has an actual message – co-operation is better than confrontation, a lesson Jutra learns at the end of the film. It’s only 9 minutes long – but unlike most of his films, it felt padded even at that length. There`s only so long one can watch a man and chair dual.

Pas De Deux (1968) may be McLaren’s most beautiful film. Shot on high contrast film stock, the screen in entirely black except for a lone ballerina, dancing by herself – and later with images of herself, as she splits apart and merges back together again. Later, she is joined by a male dancer, and the pair speak to each other through movement. The film is 13 minutes of beautiful movement, choreography and music, at turns touching and hypnotic.

 The last film I watched was Synchromy (1971) which was one of McLaren’s most experimental films – but in some ways brings us right back to Begone Dull Care, as the animation and music in the film are in perfect sync. That is because of the way the film was made. McLaren utilized graphical sound (a process I don’t really understand) to “compose” the music of the film visually, through drawings lines and boxes. He then took these drawings, and added color to them, for the visuals – creating a strange visual and aural film that feels like something a computer would invent.

These films, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg for McLaren – and I worry that I haven’t done them justice. They are abstract works of art, and though sometimes they overstay their welcome by a minute or two (really, the longest film here is 13 minutes, so you have the time) they are all unique and interesting works of art. I have a feeling you already know if you’ll enjoy these or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment