Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

A God in Volda

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

A God in Volda

Article excerpt

In May 2004, I was having a drink with an animation graduate at the University College in Volda, Norway, where I teach part of the year. He surprised me when he began to ask probing questions about Norman McLaren. At one point, he said it was amazing to be able to talk to someone who had known and worked with Norman McLaren.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, McLaren is a god in Volda."

I knew that the teachers of animation history and theory at the school lectured on both the National Film Board of Canada and McLaren. But I had not known the degree of emphasis they gave to McLaren. This exchange reminded me of a presentation I had made at a film school in London, England, in 1991. McLaren was clearly old hat; as one student put it,"you can do all that on a computer."

I was disappointed by that reaction. But I also knew that artistic reputations frequently enter a trough of disinterest following their owners' deaths (although clearly in Volda interest in McLaren has not faltered). You don't hear McLaren's name much now in Canada; it is hard to believe that John Grierson once commented that wheat and Norman McLaren were Canada's leading exports. Or read these words, with a certain grain of salt, of Jonas Mekas, after attending the Montréal film festival in 1961 (note, 1961):

The bad thing about film festivals is that one has to suffer through so many bad films. I had to sit through all those horrid Italian shorts ... and all those documentaries made at the National Film Boardom of Canada. Met many young Canadians who want to make their own independent films, à la New York, but cannot escape the curse of the NFB film factory. It's Canada's own Hollywood. It has a big chimney and it looks like a crematorium of all young ambitions. The only man alive in the whole factory is Norman McLaren, the King of Canada. (1)

In a hundred years...

I once asked McLaren how he would be remembered in 100 years:

Well, if it's the history of cinema - that's a huge field. The big part of it is the feature film, then documentary films, and then you come down to the smaller films, maybe the animated films. I might be classed as an animated filmmaker, or maybe there is a little subclass called the experimental filmmaker, in which I would prefer to be classed and would like to see myself mentioned.

Let's see...100 years from now? As an innovator of new techniques, some of which led to a few distinguished or interesting films. Let's say, on the ground, as an innovator of new techniques, that's certain, I'm sure of that, but as to the assessment of my films 100 years from now...Tastes change so much. I know it's avoiding your question altogether, but probably 100 years from now, not many of my films will exist. (2)

McLaren was not only suggesting that many of his films would not exist because they had not withstood the judgement of film history, but also because they would not physically exist. He was saying that film, the medium, simply does not last indefinitely. And in this, he is correct. The NFB is issuing all of McLaren's completed and uncompleted films and tests on seven DVDs in 2005. I have been supervising the preparation of the digital Betacam masters, and have found that the original negatives of several of his films are showing signs of irretrievable deterioration.

It is, as one might expect, the older films which are in the poorest condition. But this is not always the rule. Begone Dull Care (1949) is in very good condition, but Lines Vertical (1960) is not. In some instances, such as Hen Hop (1942), the red backgrounds added in the printing process are now neither red nor even in density across the frame. In the case of Hen Hop, we were able to find one good red frame, and have applied that throughout the film. In four instances, we found good printing materials outside the NFB. This is not a criticism of the NFB. This is a story that is repeated in many filmmaking and television institutions. …

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