Binging on the National Film Board of Canada

Yesterday I learned how to tie a clove knot. The purpose of the clove knot was to string a white bedsheet between two trees outside the Pilot House cabin. The purpose of the bedsheet was as a screen for projecting National Film Board of Canada shorts. I was planning a big night’s entertainment with my ranger pals.

Yesterday I learned how to tie a clove knot. The purpose of the clove knot was to string a white bedsheet between two trees outside the Pilot House cabin. The purpose of the bedsheet was as a screen for projecting National Film Board of Canada shorts. I was planning a big night’s entertainment with my ranger pals.

The bedsheet hung in front of the newly-chopped September woodpile, and made the cabin look even more like a jaunty wooden boat. I swept the porch while Ranger Tim balanced the projector and the DVD player on a home-hewn chair. We flipped through the borrowed films: Leonard Maltin’s Animation Favorites from the National Film Board of Canada, Best of the Best: Romantic Tales (and who could fail to be stirred by _The Romance of Transportation in Canada?_ ). I was all set for a campfire singalong to _The Log Driver’s Waltz_. I was ready and willing to get excited about shadow puppetry, if it came to that.

Dear God, what has happened to me? I am a page of the Utne Reader made flesh. I am Laura Fecking Ingalls Wilder. Is the next step knitting jumpers out of yoghurt? Starting a national wood-chopping fitness boom? Whittling?

I used to get my eyebrows waxed. I used to wear a little spandex unitard to spinning(TM) classes at the gym. I could live for a year in the woods on what I once spent on Prada shoes. I used to go to openings. (I don’t remember what was ever opened, but I distinctly remember openings.) I saw two movies a week: proper, at-the-cinema movies, not DVDs. I chewed through braised lamb shank after braised lamb shank at posh Manhattan restaurants. There were book parties, and also real parties. I spent a lot of money in Sephora on creams and powders to give me pink cheeks. You don’t get much change from fifty bucks when you’re shopping for pink cheeks in New York City.

But signs of my troublesome wholesomeness were already evident. I once went to a live taping of public radio’s This American Life show. I refused to buy “coffee drinks”. I canoed on the East River, an unlikely Brooklyn Pocahontas. I would have read The Gawker every morning if it had existed then, but I know it would have left me feeling as icky as an it-drink hangover. I refused to spend any time in art galleries unless there was a free bar. Sometimes I cooked to eat, not as performance art. Twice I baked.

So my golly-gosh transformation in the Canadian north woods is not a shock. I’ve spent the last two years chipping away at the polish I’d carefully lacquered on since the age of sixteen. Still, though. National Film Board of Canada marathons. This is the X-treme sport of wholesome dorkiness.

My Toronto buddy Rosalinda sent an email spanking the last time I slagged off these films.

Growl. Of the black bear variety, no less. Canadians are sens-i-tive, Dervala, be care-ful.

I know now that these are beloved cultural artefacts in these parts. Mark, a Canadian curmudgeon from my Brooklyn days, once surprised me by launching into an NFB cartoon song in Sparky’s:

“Oh the cat came back
The very next day
The cat came back
He never went away…”

Rosalinda again:

Those NFB films to a kid growing up in suburban Toronto were actually wild curiosities: I live in a country where people, beavers, and bears do what? where? how? How astonishing. I was only half convinced that any of these images depicted Canada, especially if it was interesting stuff, as in ‘nah, that must be about the U.S’. As the child of Italian immigrants, those images of _i canadesi_ were laughably alien to me.

Well, I watched three DVDs straight through last night, and if I were eight years old, I would still feel crushed whenever RTE showed these instead of Bugs Bunny. But as a dorky adult, I like them. They are sweet, often entertaining, too often worthy, usually strange. They’re not for kids.

My favourites are the straight narrations, like the 1974 film _The Family That Dwelt Apart_, where EB White reads his own story, a funny-sad parable of the disasters that follow well-meaning American intervention. There’s a cartoon of a Stephen Leacock story, “My Financial Career“, that I’d first seen quoted in full on Ftrain. A Mordechai Richler story, “The Street” of a young boy waiting for his grandmother to die so he would get his own room. There’s a cartoon song about the tormenting blackfly of “north Ontar-eye-air-eye-o”; we groaned and scratched along to it. And a wonderful deadpan version of Cinderella starring medieval penguins in wimples, and a glass flipper.

_The House That Jack Built_ was one of several late-Sixties indictments of the evils of capitalism, smoking, and cars. “Tax-funded pinko commie Canuck propaganda,” I taunted, but the placid rangers just smiled and drank their beer. We watched _George and Rosemary_, a story of midlife love where the protagonists lived “reasonably happily” ever after: only in Canada. And then there was weird stuff: in early CGI(computer-generated imagery) an operatic nerd built machines to fire cows at his kitchen wall. We learned to flick straight past the CGI shorts; too much form, not enough function.

What I admire most about these films is the breadth of styles and voices, and that they are not afraid to be dark. In a for-profit studio system, like Hanna-Barbera, there’s an instantly-recognisable house style, but the NFB paid artists and filmmakers to experiment. Broadcasting may be the one area where government funding of the arts doesn’t create comfortable, dull work.

3 thoughts on “Binging on the National Film Board of Canada”

  1. re:Laura ‘Fecking’ Ingalls Wilder
    If only you could come and visit South Dakota and drive with me, south on I-29. We’d pass barn after barn, field upon field littered with bales of hay for the winter – we’d encounter people to match the physical geography: flat, boring and silent prairie.
    We’d turn off on highway 14 and drive west, past the mosquito infested slews she would call lakes and stop by highway gas stations where they sell more beer than soda.
    Welcome to my agony, it is exquisite.
    [L.A. native truly becoming a dark version of Laura…]
    Ironically, one of my best friends out here is Canadian. Sort of… Swiss by birth, son of immigrant farmers to Canada who were convinced to resettle in South Dakota by the state government; too many little Dakotans abandoning their family farms. He is a strange creature: a farmer who drives a VW Jetta rather than a truck and who presses his jeans.


  2. Yikes, David, you poor thing. The farmhouse does look cool, though.

    Have you written more about your childhood in Uganda and Kenya on your site? I was born in Zambia (my parents were teaching in Mansa) and would love to visit Southern Africa. I don’t remember anything of it, though my parents talk fondly of Kenya.

    Bought _Lucky Wander Boy_ as a gift; thanks for the recommendation.


  3. I’ve written intermittently about Africa. Besides the Idi Amin entries, here are a few (with varying levels of seriousness):

    Concoct Your Revelations

    George Empathy

    Old Wolves, New Tricks

    Incidentally, as I was travelling back in time with my blog, I found the entry I made when I discovered you:

    Finding Dervala

    South Africa is beautiful though I’ve never been there. Do you remember Zambia at all?


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