Buster Keaton Tours Canada, Twice

NFBNo celebrity or movie star appearance within the National Film Board of Canada’s library seems to generate more pride by the NFB than Buster Keaton’s appearances in The Railrodder (Gerald Potterton, 1965), a 24-minute comedy short, and Buster Keaton Rides Again (John Spotton, 1965), a 55-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. Buster’s films of the 1920s were undergoing something of a reappraisal at the time, and the NFB took up the opportunity to offer Keaton a chance to return to his roots as a figure of silent comedy riding the rails, this time across panoramic Canadian landscapes. Keaton turned 69 during the shoot and his age shows a bit on The Railrodder, whose more modest gags underwhelm at times. That said, we still love the short film’s ending, and most Keaton fans admire The Railrodder for producing Buster Keaton Rides Again, a fascinating companion piece that offers a portrait of the aging comedian, still insightful about his art and dogged in his work.

As per the NFB:

This short film from director Gerald Potterton (Heavy Metal) stars Buster Keaton in one of the last films of his long career. As “the railrodder”, Keaton crosses Canada from east to west on a railway track speeder. True to Keaton’s genre, the film is full of sight gags as our protagonist putt-putts his way to British Columbia. Not a word is spoken throughout, and Keaton is as spry and ingenious at fetching laughs as he was in the old days of the silent slapsticks.

As per the NFB:

In this film, Keaton rides across Canada on a railway scooter and, between times, rests in a specially appointed passenger coach where he and Mrs. Keaton lived during their Canadian film assignment. This film is about how Buster Keaton made a Canadian travel film, The Railrodder. In this informal study the comedian regales film crew with anecdotes of a lifetime in show business. Excerpts from his silent slapstick films are shown.

Varley (Allan Wargon, 1953)

NFBWhen Canadian ambitions toward high culture land on the third art rather than the fourth (sorry Glenn Gould!), attention is frequently given to the Group of Seven, a collection of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s and ’30s that established a Canadian Modernist style and provided a distinctly Canadian aesthetic by which artists could interpret and interact with their national subject.  Allan Wargon’s Varley (1953) provides something of an introduction to Frederick Varley, then 72 years old, two decades removed from the Group of Seven’s disbanding, living an impoverished life, and with his best years as an artist now well behind him. Wargon initially envisioned the film as a celebration of the painter “as a hero and a wise man,” but Varley rejected such a portrayal of himself in favour of a reworking by Wargon that approached the film as a psychological study. Without great interest from the National Film Board for a documentary on Frederick Varley, Wargon lacked the necessary budget for Ektachrome film stock until the Director of the National Gallery took pity on him and offered to make up the shortfall, thereby allowing the film to get made. Varley was the only member of the Group of Seven to specialize in portraiture and Wargon’s film seems to emphasize this work almost ahead of Varley’s more renowned landscapes.  Wargon’s camera ruminates on the thick “Hot Mush” of the painted canvas and the rough, etched face of Varley, revealing the artist and his art as distorted and weathered in appearance, yet entirely noble in spirit.

Those looking for more on Allan Wargon and Varley should head to the filmmaker’s highly informative blog.

As per the NFB:

This short documentary is a portrait of Frederick Varley, Canadian painter and member of the Group of Seven. In the film, Varley returns to his studio in Toronto after a sketching trip. The camera moves about the studio selecting examples of his canvases and watches him as he begins a new painting.

Ishu Patel!

NFBToday, MMC! offers a trio of diverse animated films by longtime NFB animator Ishu Patel. First up is Perspectrum (1975), an abstract work of colourful geometry that adapted techniques developed by Norman McLaren. Next is Bead Game (1977), which takes its inspiration from the elaborate bead-work of Inuit women and provides a cautionary tale on our aggressive tendencies and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Lastly, Patel’s beautifully luminescent Paradise (1984) examines the value and nature of beauty, hauntingly accompanied by James Last’s The Lonely Shepherd. Patel’s career with the NFB took him around the world conducting animation workshops in the Far North, Ghana, Yugoslavia, the USA, Japan, and back in his native India, and he was honoured with awards from major film and animation festivals including Ottawa, Annecy, Melbourne, and Berlin. His Bead Game received a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination, while Paradise won a Silver Bear at Berlin and gave Patel his second Academy Award nomination.

As per the NFB:

In this animated short, simple geometric forms as thin and flat as playing cards constantly form and re-form to the sound of the kyoto, a 13-string Japanese instrument.

As per the NFB:

In this animated short, thousands of beads are arranged and manipulated, assuming shapes of creatures both mythical and real. They continually devour, merge, and absorb one another in explosions of colour.

As per the NFB:

In this short animation film, a magnificent bird performs for the Emperor inside a glittering palace. Its plumage is a blaze of color. A blackbird, watching enviously, strives to acquire what he so desperately covets, only to discover that a golden cage can’t compete with the open skies.

His Worship, Mr. Montreal (Donald Brittain, Marrin Canell, and Robert Duncan, 1976)

NFBStylistically, His Worship, Mr. Montreal (Donald Brittain, Marrin Canell, and Robert A. Duncan, 1976) seems like an elaboration on Wolf Koenig and Colin Low’s innovative City of Gold (1957) given its extensive use and manipulation of archival footage to survey its mountainous subject – the career of political powerhouse Camillien Houde. Houde’s iconoclastic life makes His Worship an MMC! favourite, as it’s full of stunning and hilarious moments. Houde served at all three levels of Government, but was iconic as the Mayor of Montreal.  He was elected for 3 terms and then re-elected for a fourth after being interred for 4 years during World War II by the Federal Government for opposing Conscription, such was Houde’s stature. Who else but Camillien Houde could present the King of England to vast, elated crowds and playfully remark, “You know, Your Majesty, some of this is for you.” Houde was probably even right, and His Worship does him an honour, revealing a showman and a populist in an often conservative and reserved national history.

As per the NFB:

This feature documentary is a fascinating and spirited portrait of the life and times of the legendary Quebec politician and four-time mayor of Montreal Camillien Houde. Using rare archival footage and interviews with ex-colleagues, aides and friends, the film presents a comprehensive profile of this incredible, and, to some, infamous, man.

Oskee Wee Wee (William Pettigrew, 1968)

NFBIt’s Saturday and we’re now midway through week 5 of the Canadian Football League season. In tribute to bigger balls and fewer downs, let’s all enjoy William Pettigrew’s Oskee Wee Wee (1968), a fascinating examination of the CFL’s 1967 championship game and all its associated reveries. Oskee Wee Wee takes its name from the appropriated chant of Hamilton’s football fans, but their Grey Cup contest against the Saskatchewan Rough Riders takes a backseat to police bands, beauty contests, and parties – lots and lots of parties. Sharp-eyed CFL enthusiasts will even notice some Calgary Stampeders fans having managed to ride their horses in and out of a Woolworth’s, proving that some traditions, however ridiculous, never seem to die. And for the record, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats won 24-1 and I still miss a 9-team league that had one team was called the Roughriders and another called the Rough Riders!

As per the NFB:

This documentary is a zany portrait of the particular fever that hits the city of Ottawa, Ontario, during Grey Cup Finals. The film is as much about the football game, where the Hamilton Tiger Cats face the Saskatchewan Roughriders, as it is about Ti-Cats fans and their infamous “Oskee Wee Wee”, the magical chant with which they exhort their team to victory.

Two More by Don Owen!

NFBWe return once again to the work of seminal Anglo-Canadian filmmaker Don Owen, “a bellwether of the times” who began his career with the NFB in the 1960s producing short documentaries.  First up (for my wife), is Runner (1962), Owen’s gorgeously crafted observation of Canadian distance runner Bruce Kidd. More than 50 years later, Runner feels fresh and galvanizing, achieving a vitality in its crisp narration, its enervating score, and its smooth tracking that only gets vaguely approximated at now between shills for shoes and sports drinks. Owen’s High Steel (1966) considers the role of indigenous peoples in American high rise construction. The film’s lively narration by Don Francks is based on interviews with Harold McComber, a Mohawk iron worker whose daring occupation is made relatable by the sincerity of his professional pride and his practical faith in family tradition.

As per the NFB:

This captivating short documentary profiles the young Canadian long-distance runner Bruce Kidd at 19 years old. Kidd eventually went on to win a gold and bronze medal the 1962 Commonwealth Games, and was a competing member of the 1964 Canadian Olympic tem. Directed by Don Owen (Nobody Waved GoodbyeToronto Jazz), the film is luminously photographed by John Spotton and features poetic commentary composed and spoken by the great Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden. The camera follows Kidd’s sprightly movements as he runs on piers, practice tracks, and finally, in an international race. Oblivious to the clapping crowds and the flash of cameras, he knows full well that in the long run it is the cold stopwatch that tells the truth.

As per the NFB:

This short documentary offers a dizzying view of the Mohawk Indians of Kahnawake who work in Manhattan erecting the steel frames of skyscrapers. Famed for their skill in working with steel, the Mohawks demonstrate their nimble abilities in the sky. As a counterbalance, the viewer is allowed a peek at their quieter community life on the Kahnawake Reserve, in Quebec.