Friday, September 18, 2015

The National Film Board of Canada: L'Homme Qui Voit

I've waxed positively rhapsodic in these pages in the past about my love for the Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada and their spare, haunted-by-childhood tunes. I've also noted the love these two Scottish brothers have for the films of the National Film Board of Canada/Office national du film du Canada (NFB/ONF).

Now, Boards of Canada have integrated references to these educational and art films throughout their musical corpus, and I will admit, I don't have childhood memories of these films (although as I've previously mentioned in these pages, I do have VERY fond memories of TVOntario educational programming). But as I happened to fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole the other day that led from Wikipedia picture of the day Buffalo Bull's Back Fat to the Kainai Nation, I started to have the vaguest I was treading on familiar ground. When I scrolled down the Kainai Nation page and saw a link to Pete Standing Alone, and to the NFB documentary Circle of the Sun, I realized these were all inspirations for some Boards of Canada songs ("Kaini Industries" and "Pete Standing Alone" specifically).

Circle of the Sun tells the story of Pete Standing Alone, a young member of the Kainai (Blood) Nation who is ambivalent about the traditions of his people, all while acknowledging that the old ways were dying out. In fact, the Kainai Nation gave permission for the NFB to record the Sun Dance of the Kainai for the first time in an effort to preserve it.

It's all treated with a remarkable amount of sensitivity for 1960, especially with having Pete Standing Alone narrate and describe his own conflicted feelings. Sure, there's a touch of the Western white anthropologist in director Colin Low's handling of the tribal gathering, but overall it's a striking visual document of a people being subsumed by the modern world.

So then you go and explore the rest of the NFB site and see thousands of films of all types: documentaries, features, art and experimental films. It's really a treasure trove; it's one of those things that makes an American like me wonder what America could be like with a strong, government-supported cultural program, but never mind that line of thinking. Let's talk about the NFB's logo for a minute.

I know, right?

I'd call it vaguely Cronenbergian (it's got that Spectacular Optical-from-Videodrome sort of look to it) but that might be putting the cart before the horse a bit. After all, David Cronenberg's first feature, Stereo, which took place in a fictional "Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry" and shot at the modernist concrete campus of Scarborough College (later part of the University of Toronto), was shot in 1969, the same year that the NFB's "Man Seeing/L'Homme Qui Voit" logo debuted. They both speak of a strange future full of watching, wandering eyes, a McLuhan-gone-sour, government-funded voyeuristic ambulatory panopticon, all legs and eyes. While I can acknowledge the great amount of social good that the NFB did and does, I can't help but try to find the sinister in it. Which might be why the NFB uses a slightly less uncanny version of the eye logo now. But maybe I'm just naturally inclined to seek out sinister late-1960s alternate Canadas.

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