Thoughts On: Select Films Of Norman McLaren - Logic Of The Singing, Dancing Line


Select Films Of Norman McLaren - Logic Of The Singing, Dancing Line

Thoughts On: Hell Unltd. (1936), Love On The Wing (1939), Dots (1940), Hen Hop (1942), Begone Dull Care (1949), Neighbours (1952), Pas De Deux (1968), Narcissus (1983)

For the Canadian spot in the series, we will be looking at a Scottish-Canadian filmmaker who spent much of his career working for the National Film Board of Canada.

Norman McLaren is a filmmaker whose play with light, colour and darkness often exudes a precious and uniquely captivating quality projected with impossible verve and vibrancy. This is thanks to his constant experimentation with film form that was motivated by a seemingly concise ideal to entertain, to touch the hearts and lives of people, through a consideration of film as an art of its own and an evolution from forms such as painting. As you could then guess, McLaren was, for the most part, an animator of sorts - though an animator that produced work that was incredibly distant to that which came out of Hollywood. Before we begin to look at any of McLaren's work it must be clarified that he did not work with narratives like Disney did, nor did he create spectacles and comedies like those that would come from early animators such as Winsor McKay or out of the Fleischer Studios around the 1930s. McLaren instead worked with abstract or, early on in his career, surreal forms of animation, as well as movement as a spectacle and nonsense visual poetry. These endeavours were all motivated by his fascination with music - most notably jazz - and the idea of plastic arts, such as sculpture and painting, coming to life through movement and a relatively new form, which all lead to the constant questioning of what could be produced from cinema. So, when we watch his films, it is best not to look for a story, nor should we only be looking for the novel spectacle of the new and different. I find the best--the most rewarding--way to consume McLaren's work is through intrigue and a will to play, ourselves, with the idea of what film could be. And with that said, let us begin...

Norman McLaren was born and raised in Scotland, spending much of his early life drawing and developing his interest in art. He would attend the Glasgow School of Art where he would not only study set-design, but would join an amateur film club through which he would eventually begin making films. It seems that McLaren was often perceived, and acted, as a rather idiosyncratic character - and at a more fundamental level, was simply different from most people around him. In such, McLaren was politically polar to his conservative family; he was interested in communism, sometimes - most famously - used film as a political tool to critique capitalism and war, and would be much affected by his travels to Spain during their Civil War and, later, communist Russia and China. Added to this, McLaren was gay. Though it doesn't seem that he was open about his sexuality, and, of course, people often wouldn't be around the mid-twentieth-century, nor does this really come through in much of his art or his various appearances on television and in documentaries, it is known that his life-long partner was Guy Glover, who he met in 1937 and would often work with. Despite McLaren, as suggested by John Grierson, the famous British documentarist who started McLaren's career, being a highly sheltered artist, he had a lot of inner demons that he would struggle with - and these demons are implied to stem from the capacities in which he was different from the people around him as well as the tragedies he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War. So, whilst McLaren's presence on screen through his art is very often highly jovial, and whilst he would seem to be a very conserved and quiet person when he appeared on screen himself, but would be said to have been very reckless - especially as a driver - around friends, there are unfinished or unpublished works of his that begin to provide an insight into his darker side. McLaren, like most people, then isn't very easy to pin down under one adjective; alongside all of these variants he appears to be a highly intellectual and conscious figure in later documentaries on himself, but, again under the rather harsh criticism of John Grierson, would also be said to not be very trustworthy as a political and historical commentator. Thus arose different opinions between the two on what is McLaren's most important film: whilst McLaren would claim it was his anti-war live action experiment, Grierson would assure that it was his brighter and lighter endeavours into animation. So, depending on the lights in, and the films through, which McLaren is perceived, he and his films tend to say different things to different people.

So, moving onto the start of McLaren's career, during his time at the amateur film club of the Glasgow School of Art, he would produce two notable shorts films, Seven Till Five in 1933 and then Camera Makes A Whoopee in 1935. Both Seven Till Five and Camera Makes A Whoopee are documentaries, the former portraying a day-in-the-life of a college art student and the latter an experimental documentation of a school ball. In these films McLaren makes clear how Russian directors such as Podovkin and Eisenstein inspired him. We see this in the manner in which he jumps through spaces with a focus on the cut itself; the juxtaposition, collision and movement of imagery. Embedded into Russian Formalist (Constructivist or Montage - different people use different labels) films is not only a deep focus on the concept of a cut, but also its rhythmic, musical and symphonic qualities. This is certainly what McLaren strove to capture in his second short, Camera Makes A Whoopee - which was more complex than his first as McLaren had access a camera that would record single-frame exposures, which allowed him to do a little stop-motion animation.

Both of these films would be submitted to the Scottish Amateur Film Festival and both would win prizes. John Grierson was a judge at this competition and, though he criticised McLaren's films for lacking discipline (something that, arguably and positively, McLaren never really developed), he would hire him as a cameraman. Learning about documentary, camera operation and editing, McLaren would be sent with Ivor Montagu to shoot footage of the Spanish Civil War in the mid-30s once he had graduated from school. This would have profoundly impacted him as he witnessed bombings and the amassing of dead bodies that few other filmmakers were putting to screen in the form of newsreels at the time. The film that may have got McLaren this job would have been Hell Unltd which he made in the Glasgow Art School in 1936. It was the developing fascism in Europe during the latter half of the 30s that would motivate McLaren to make the anti-war peace film. Here is an excerpt:

Working with Helen Biggar this was, quite starkly, a film--basically propaganda--that decried war as a capitalist construction only instigated for profit. This was a very rare kind of venture that McLaren would only make again with his 1952 film, Neighbours. In comparison to Neighbours, Hell Unltd is a somewhat crude and inexpressive film as it doesn't have a narrative, nor does it have many formal expressions, that are particularly striking. There is established, however, McLaren's use of 'pure cinematics'. This is very evident for the fact that this is a silent film; McLaren would only ever use sound in the form of music, never dialogue. The combination of Soviet Montage aesthetics and sensibilities and this pure, silent film-type storytelling is a crucial element of McLaren's cinema as, though it almost always implies a sense of humanism (either through its social commentary in films such as this, or through a need to uplift and entertain as in most of his animated efforts) his films are very rarely centred on and feature people. A good example of this would be a film from later in his career, A Chairy Tale, in which McLaren demonstrates more (or equal) compassion for inanimate objects than for himself - which is seemingly a complex motif existent throughout many of his films.

After working on the Spanish Civil War documentary, McLaren would continue to work under Grierson and the British General Post Office Film Unit. Here he would work on documentaries such as Book Bargain, which would show the production of the telephone directory, and News For The Navy, which shows how a letter would reach a sailor  in foreign waters. Around 1939, however, McLaren would briefly pursue independence when he moved to New York and received a grant from the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. For 2 years, he then developed his interest in percussion and music in film, making animated shorts such as Dots:

It's with a film such as Dots that we begin to see the backbone of McLaren's cinematic career established. Not only is he working with animation here, but he experiments with rhythm and film form. In such, McLaren draws directly onto his film stock (which is atypical as most animators will draw on paper and then photograph those cells), and, most inspiringly, would draw his sound track. As was explored in the documentary Pen Point Percussion, McLaren would simply paint or draw marks onto the ribbon, or track, that captures the audio on a piece of film. By drawing various shapes at different distances he could control the various attributes of his sound design and synchronise his images with 'music' whilst giving character to formless entities.

McLaren was then, loosely, part of a movement that started in the 1920s with one of the first avant-garde movements of cinema through which filmmakers would attempt to explore the relationship between image and sound. This was famously done by filmmakers such as Eistenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko in Soviet Russia, but also Germans such as Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann was not only involved in the City Symphony movement of the 20s, but made films such as Lichtspiel Opus I:

Like the Swedish filmmaker, Viking Eggling (who made Symphonie Diagonale), Ruttmann explores the content of film as a musical and rhythmic force. This is in slight opposition to the Soviet Montage filmmakers and Ruttmann's City Symphonies where the cut was the rhythmic focus. These were then essential experiments that have since been apart of the cinema in the form of animation - which is highly rhythmic because of the control animators are allowed to exhibit - but also the classical musical. All of these experiments project and play with the idea of imagery as a harmonic entity; not only would images resonate and harmonise with one another, but they would also harmonise with human emotions and the individual psyche. The fact that filmmakers have always been experimenting with the harmonising qualities of cinema is precisely why films - everything from Danse Serpentine to An American In Paris to The Raid - hold immersive attributes that urge us to sit in the dark and marvel at the play of light and sound.

However, whilst filmmakers of the 1920s explored the relationship between image and sound, those in the 1930s were arguably attempting to reconcile this bond. This is, of course, because of the popularisation and advent of sound-on-film pictures: talkies. Talkies, to anyone who took film seriously in the silent era, decimated the establishment of cinema as an art - and, in many respects, during the 30s, filmmakers had to learn how to make films all over again (though, never were they again like those from the silent era). Silent films were widely heralded, especially in the 1920s, as a universal language of picture and sound. Thus, ideas of a German film, an American film and an Italian film were very different to what they are now; because there were no vocalised languages embedded into these films, they were international entities that could be sold world-wide. Because cinema as a universal language was lost in the late 20s, filmmakers like McLaren, as inspired by others such as Oskar Fischinger, brought the world films without words, just abstract notions of character, story and spectacle. An example of a film made by Fischinger that McLaren likely saw, and would inspired him to make films such as Dots, would then be An Optical Poem:

An Optical Poem represents a very old notion that has existed in various art forms for centuries, one which implies that there is such a thing as visual music - or that music inspires imagery, or vice versa. For many, music is then not complete without images, and for most, imagery is not complete without music. Whilst various filmmakers had tested and played with this hypothesis, after seeing films by Fischinger, McLaren would strip this notion to its bare bones - an idea we will return to later.

What a film like Dots gives insight into is the individuality that McLaren symbolised for many filmmakers with his homemade movies. It was then far before the home movie revolution of the 1970s when the first video cameras that used cassettes where released that McLaren would be making movies that did not necessarily require more than one person or much money at all to be made. This is why McLaren could later captivate audiences through appearances on television shows and, in the 50s and 60s, go to China and India to teach people about animation; his approach was iconically simple, but highly expressive and so conceptually lucrative. It must be said, however, that McLaren was not a completely individual, isolated artist who made all of his films by himself. He in fact worked with Evelyn Lambart, who would co-direct many of his films, for much of his career - and also had various students work under him. So, whilst McLaren is a brilliant representative for individual home made movies, it must be said that he, much like almost all filmmakers, never worked completely alone.

Something else that must be touched on to understand McLaren's films is his inspiration from surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy.

The surrealists are amongst some of the most interesting artists as they often attempted to take the idea of the subconscious and the Freudian dream and bring it into material being. As a result, transformation and metamorphosis are deeply embedded into surrealist sensibilities as the dream and the subconscious flow freely and without true material constraints - all whilst, arguably, holding windows into the deepest pits of the human condition. With films such as the 1939 Love On The Wing, made under the GPO, McLaren demonstrates his capacities for surrealism as well as his inspirations from Tanguy:

Because this short was deemed too suggestive and "too Freudian" by the GPO, it was only given a limited release. Nonetheless, what we can see in this short is a different kind of surrealism that was quite unique to McLaren. Whilst he captivated ideas of metamorphosis and made his films without a conscious thought of where he was headed, McLaren also took the idea of form and the line - that which traditional painters usually attempt to conceal in their art - and embellished it.

Whilst the lines in the paintings of Raphael, Donatello, Da Vinci and Michelangelo where put in place to be concealed and to blend into real faces and real bodies, animators and cartoonists traditionally embrace the rudimentary chaos that the basic line could represent. By following what has been referred to as the 'logic' of this line with his surrealist inspirations, McLaren reduces cinema to its most basic and foundational elements before building it back up again. We see this in something such as Love On The Wing through the very crude animation that nonetheless expresses poetic ideas of communication through writing letters - and this would all develop as McLaren's career continues.

After leaving the GPO and working in New York for a two-year period in which he made the mentioned film, Dots, among others, McLaren would then be hired by Grierson again to work at the Canadian Nation Film Board. And it's here where he would make some of his finest films. At the NFB, McLaren would often be creating shorts that would fit into film programmes that included newsreels. This was in a period before television, and so the cinema played a significant role - as it had done for decades - in the spreading of news and the supply of entertainment. However, this was also the period of WWII, and so the newsreels that would proceed animated shorts were particularly grim. McLaren's job was then, in large part, to bring a bit of light into the cinema and the lives of people in the WWII era. So, it was at the Canadian NFB that McLaren made films such as Hen Hop:

It has been said that Picasso saw this film and not only liked it, but rose in his chair and exclaimed something to the effect of: "finally, something new!". This is because McLaren's attitude towards the idea that painting was a dead art and that cinema was the new art, was made pretty evident in this short. He then not only revised the idea of the 'artistic line' for his work in Hen Hop whilst implementing surrealism into the abstract narrative, but brought his paintings (for this was, in a way, what he considered many of his films) to life. The effect of this was abstract art of a very particular kind - one which, as mentioned, broke cinema down to its most basic state, before constructing layers around it. As an extension of this idea that McLaren reduced cinema to its most rudimentary forms before building it back up, it is probably best to consider the manner in which he brought character to the practice of abstract art.

In a famous psychological experiment conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel during 1944, participants were asked to watch a short film before assessing the characters put to screen. This is the short film:

After seeing this, participants were asked questions such as:

What kind of a person is the big triangle?
What kind of a person is the little triangle?
What kind of a person is the circle?
Why did the two triangles fight?
Why did the circle go into the house?
What did the circle do when it was in the house with the big triangle? Why?
Why did the big triangle break the house?

What Heider and Simmel were clearly testing here was the ability of people to attribute personality, consciousness and motive to the most abstract of beings. This must have been a question that, leading up to the 1940s, was asked by many people after decades of watching animated films of various degrees of abstraction dazzle and entertain audiences. McLaren's films made this question a very pressing one as he seems to test the limits of abstract characterisation; he, after all, didn't just animate mice, near-human beings and various other creatures. We see this expressively exemplified by later films of his such as Mosaic, Rhythmetic and Spheres. These shorts closely resemble the Heider and Simmel experiment and what they, alongside films such as Hen Hop, Dots and Love On The Wings, achieve is the grounding of abstract art.

Abstract art can range from anything to Malevich's Black Square...

... to Mondrian's Tableau I...

... to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase...

... to Kandinsky's Composition VII...

Whilst some of these pieces intrigue me, I have to admit a complete disconnection from works such as Black Square and Tableue I beyond basic concepts or aesthetic materials. That said, I feel a general distance from abstract art as it only implied life and abstract ideas. Conversely, what Norman McLaren does is give life to abstract art and so allows it to be far more expressive thanks to its projections of character and being - that which we attribute to his art like we do the Heider and Simmel experiment. As a result, what separates McLaren's films from most forms of abstract art as well as most forms of animation is its simplicity, yet also the power and life that exudes from the basic aesthetics. If you then took one frame of McLaren's work, it'd be about as interesting as the average piece of abstract art. However, let his films play and you have something that transcends the mediums of abstraction and animation due to the plane of abstract, yet apparent, reality that his work exists upon; there isn't an abstract drawing of a hen in his films, there is rather just a hen dancing.

When we turn to what is often considered Norman McLaren's masterpiece, which was co-directed by Evelyn Lambart, we can see absolutely everything we have thus far discussed put on sparkling display:

Begone Dull Care is, in my view, a play ground for everything that McLaren strove to do. Not only does he create a film with a universal language made up of music and picture - which is emphasised through his use of multiple languages in the titles - but there is also his fascination with rhythm, time and music. Synchronising the flurry of abstract forms with jazz captivated this whilst he put on a display of nonsense visual poetry (which he would return to definitively with La Merle, or, The Blackbird in 1957). By combining music with his abstract, metamorphosing and surreal interpretation of the artistic line, McLaren also makes a definitive statement on his animated films as paintings. He then ultimately embodies the logic of a line that sings and dances as if in a wondrous dream - and this is one of the most profound ideas that McLaren gave to cinema.

After this pretty immense achievement, McLaren would continue work, three years later making his most famous film: Neighbours.

This is a poetic anti-war film in a similar vein to McLaren's Hell Unltd. But, whilst the peaceful sentiment is the same, McLaren's control over narrative in this film is far more poignant and affecting. He was spurred to make this film from his time spent in communist China teaching people his craft. He left China just as the Korean Civil War broke out and a few years later made this film. We see a pattern repeating itself here as, before making Hell Unltd, McLaren was immersed in the anxiety of watching fascism develop in Europe during the mid-30s. This suggests, and has been confirmed by McLaren, that he only made these films as a reaction; he never really considered himself a political filmmaker (beyond the fact that he always worked for national associations like the British GOP and Canadian NFB) and didn't have much of an interest in making many films like Neighbours and Hell Unltd. Nonetheless, he has said that: (paraphrasing) if all his films where to be set on fire apart from one, he'd want that film to be Neighbours. And this is because of the human message of this narrative that affected many people. Whilst John Grierson starkly opposed this idea, suggesting that something such as Hen Hop is what "Norman is for", he was recognised with an Oscar for this short. McLaren's reaction to this when he was called up and told on the phone apparently was: "who's Oscar?".

Having, by this point in the 1950s, made many innovations in abstract and surreal animation, visual music, pixilation, painting on film, scratching animation onto film as well as painting sound tracks, McLaren had done so much, but still had much work ahead of him. He would then work with chalk and more abstract animation, making many films such as A Chairy Tale, The Blackbird, Rythmetic and Mosaic, which have already been mentioned. One of his final great works came with one of his most technically difficult and utterly beautiful endeavours, Pas De Deux:

At the later stages of his career, McLaren really focused on his interest with movement itself, making a few films centred on dancing - films such as Ballet Adagio, which is a mesmerising slow-motion depiction of a very difficult ballet dance, and Narcissus, a narrative dance film centred on the Greek myth. Pas De Deux, the first of these films, is probably the most impressive. Here, McLaren combines a stroboscopic, or chronophotographic, effect that was popular in photography since the days of Étienne-Jules Marey...

... with an aesthetic not too dissimilar from two films made by Maya Deren: Ensemble for Somnambulists from 1951, which was an unreleased test in preparation for The Very Eye of Night from 1958.

McLaren's contemplation on time in relation to movement in Pas De Deux says much about his previous work and the control he was used to exercising when he animated his films. And, if anything, McLaren seemed to form a film theory of his own by this point, one that was not focused on the cut itself, as with Soviet Montage, but the possibility that exists between frames. What lie dormant between frames, for McLaren, was a window through which abstract thoughts and consciousness flowed. This is far more true with his animated films, but it seems the sentiment exists in his highly manipulated narratives, like Pas De Deux, too. The implication of many of McLaren's films is then a kind of control that you very rarely see in cinema. He always worked on his films personally, often with someone by his side, but never did he work in the huge communities that those in Hollywood and Disney do. This meant that McLaren had more control over his work than even the most diligent of filmmakers, say for instance Bergman or Kubrick, could demonstrate. And so the legacy of McLaren rests heavily on the idea that he was one of the few painters and sculptors who got his hands on some film and did something more than just experiment or create avant-garde films. With McLaren then came a full package of art, experimentation, life, entertainment and colour; a package that very few filmmakers have ever provided.

Now in a period in his life (the 70s/80s) where he felt he could not make any more abstract films, despite loving that artistic form since he was a teenager, Narcissus was McLaren's last cinematic effort.

McLaren considered this film to partly be a reflection on himself as he thought, now near the end of his life, he had developed a narcissistic shade of his personality over time - and that narcissism was one of the major sins in his contemporary era. With more unapologetic assessment from John Grierson, he said, considering his general job security throughout his career, that McLaren was "the most sheltered artist in the history of the cinema" and "not a tragic person", despite his suffering. What's more, McLaren knew himself that he was shut away from the public, leading a private and quiet life. And so maybe this is what he saw to be the narcissism that revealed itself through this film. Nonetheless, McLaren suggested that the narcissist, the artist who loves his own work, has given great things to society - and so maybe he's not all bad. And such seems to be the final note that can be made on the individuality and the subconscious, abstract drive imbued into all of McLaren's films.

Norman McLaren died at aged 72 in 1987 having been with his partner, Guy Glover, until the very end. He received dozens of awards over his career and is celebrated, in particularly, by the Canadian National Film Board, who have preserved many of his films and put them online - some of which you would have just watched here through their YouTube page. On a penultimate note, if you are interested in learning more about McLaren, I would highly recommend the documentary, Creative Process: Norman McLaren, which is on the NFB website as well as a retrospective documentary in two parts (part one, part two). With that said, I'll leave things with you. What are your thoughts on the films of Norman McLaren?

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