I’ve never thought of Norman McLaren as cool. To me, he was always one of those cultural institutions Canadians reflexively venerate without really addressing. To those who didn’t grow up while McLaren was exploring radical animation techniques, his was simply a name to throw around to sound smart. (Especially if you can’t name a single other animator of note.)
Suddenly though, there’s a bit of a sea change going on. Led by the NFB (for whom McLaren is both godfather and patron saint), we are witnessing a re-evaluation and appreciation of his work. Not only is TIFF holding a Special Presentation which will screen ten of his films on the 8th of September, but the NFB, in conjunction with a month of activities devoted to the man, is also launching a seven-disc DVD box set, featuring 58 of his shorts, as well as 14 short documentaries that thematically navigate McLaren’s work.
When I sat down to go through the preview DVD this past weekend, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had of course seen his Oscar-winning anti-war allegory Neighbours and, while it had impressed me, it never struck me on an emotional level. I assumed that this would be my reaction to most of his stuff. I would admire it on a technical level, but it would still leave me cold.
The second I started watching Begone Dull Care, however, that fear went right out the window. I was transfixed. This Rorschach test of a film, made way back in 1949, and consisting of little more than paint and scratching on pieces of film, is one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen. It bumbles up and unfolds and contracts, all to the swinging stylings of the Oscar Peterson trio, and all in perfect rhythm.
That’s what McLaren is all about: rhythm and sound. And he’s a genius—upon seeing Hen Hop in 1942, Pablo Picasso exclaimed, “At last, something new in the art of drawing”). Watch his ballet short Pas De Deux and the same thing holds true. Here he explores the effects of multiple exposure, subordinating dancers’ bodies to their movements. As McLaren himself said of his own work, it was “like being a dancer second hand.”
Watching McLaren’s work makes you think about what film is capable of doing and where it is capable of going. His work may be decades old, but in it, you can see the working imagination of a man whose ideas about the medium knew no bounds.
The Best of Norman McLaren screens at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles St. W.) on Friday, Sept. 8, at 4:45 p.m.
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Along with the McLaren retrospective, the NFB has one other animated film in TIFF, Theodore Ushev’s stark line-drawn The Man Who Waited. Ushev has immense visual talent, ushering forth shadowy images that continually metamorphose and open new, intriguing doors of meaning. But the story here, based on a Franz Kafka parable, is so lacking in dramatic tension or development that those talents seem wasted. I love Kafka to death, but this one’s a bore. Exploring the sense in which humans’ quests for truth and fulfillment is ultimately doomed to failure—I’ve heard this before—the story focuses on the dialogue between a man and the gatekeeper guarding his truth. You’d think that Tony Robinson (Blackadder’s maladorous Baldrick)’s narration would add a little spice to the tale. If only. Robinson sounds half asleep. The effect is that Ushev’s gorgeous animation has no complement, leaving this short feeling, well, a bit too long to sit through.