The Innovator:
Norman McLaren Shorts (1941-2004)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: part two of a retrospective on Canada’s pioneering experimental filmmaker.

Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren is one of Canada’s most influential and renowned artists, yet his reputation has barely survived since his death in 1987. While his films were unashamedly political, avant-garde, and uncommercial, his reputation and ability afforded him a prolific career under the financing of Canada’s National Film Board. This week’s Film Society screening was guested by Canterbury University lecturer Dr. Terence Dobson—author of a book on McLaren—and his anecdotal and informational presentation helped immensely in introducing the great artist’s work.

The first film in the programme, Mail Early (1941), was a direct film (i.e. in which animation is directly drawn onto film stock, as opposed to more common animation techniques) set to ‘Jingle Bells’. This was McLaren’s first short in Canada for the National Film Board (he had previously impressed the Film Board’s head John Grierson while in England), and demonstrates both a fascination with movement, and the way movement is constructed on film. McLaren’s relationship to music was kinaesthetic, and his visual representation of the aural effect of music is apparent in both this film, and his second, Fiddle-de-dee (1947).

Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead became the inspiration for a rare foray into McLaren’s darker visions. Usually a very playful filmmaker (even when he’s being explicitly political), A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century Painting is hallucinatory and death-like. La Poulette Grise (1947), his first masterpiece of the programme, draws attention to movement by paradoxically slowing it down and continually dissolving images. It also helped usher in his obsession with continuous movement, a kind of perpetual movement that film editing usually seeks to mask.

The programme’s centrepiece was Pas de deux Tests (1965-67), a series of virtuoso tests in which McLaren experiments with ghostly image duplications/multiplications. A series of delayed images of singular movements form a steady stream of movement, almost like a Slinky or a ribbon. The result is absolutely hypnotic, as McLaren creates stunning abstractions out of simple human movements. The rest of the programme struggled to create the same awe following such incredible imagery.

The Corridor (1950s), a continuous zoom which had the effect of a 3-D movie, must have surely influenced Canadian avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow and his masterwork Wavelength. Flicker Film (1961) was almost a physical test—a film in which black and white light alternated in a strobe effect. As Terence Dobson’s programme notes state, this is filmmaking reduced to its essence. The end result is almost akin to noise composers like Merzbow, a kind of gruelling experience which has its own beautiful ambience. Rythmetic (1956) was a playful animation of numbers taking over the screen; McLaren’s use of sound and motion making basic numeric addition look positively esoteric. Lines Vertical (1962) and Mosaic (1965) engaged with vertical and horizontal lines (or at least the former played with just vertical lines), and the way these lines interact. Ostensibly quite simple, the effect is a surprisingly complex interaction of movement. While McLaren’s career is extremely difficult to pin down, the Film Society’s small snapshot of his work captures the joyful diversity of McLaren at his best.

Part one of the Norman McLaren programme, ‘Movement, Music and Conflict’, screened at the Wellington Film Society on April 26.
Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.