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Psychotronic NFB: THE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1958)

The National Film Board of Canada may be the nation’s venerable award-winning public film producer and distributor, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t odd gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue. “Psychotronic NFB,” filters through the earnest docs on social problems, overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.

Let’s take a slight break from the stranger nooks and crannies of the NFB vault for a more seasonably appropriate treat. Released as part of the NFB’s renowned “Candid Eye” series, 1958’s THE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a fun, nostalgic piece by veteran NFB collaborators Wolf Koenig, Terence Macartney-Filgate and Stanley Jackson that gives Christmastime in Canada the direct cinema treatment.

Like most of the “Candid Eye” films, THE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS has no real storyline, but just takes to the streets of Montreal to soak up some holiday cheer. From one end of Montreal to the next, the gently paced, 30-minute short explores a wide range of pre-holiday activities–choir practice, a mall Santa’s interactions with kids, butchers preparing Christmas turkeys for sale, snowy street corners and twirling mechanical store window displays (in a scene that strongly recalls Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY!).

As with other “direct cinema”–a movement largely pioneered at the NFB that attempted to achieve a cinematic realism thanks to newly developed lightweight cameras and equipment–THE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS’ most important value is that it remains a real snapshot of its era. We get an authentic peek at department stores and markets of the 1950s–no less busy than today, only really differentiated by the fashions and degree of hands-on interaction allowed with the toys. The scene in the rock club is also notable, as a hardworking (and sweaty!) soul band turns it out on stage while the young Christmas revelers nervously stir their drinks.

Also interesting is the obvious influence of Catholicism in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec depicted in the film. The church choir practice looms large over the film, the religious overtones of the school play (that certainly wouldn’t fly today) and the sounds of the midnight mass that conclude the film as parties across the city wind down for the evening. There’s no escaping the religious overtones here! But even those that may bristle at such allusions will still be able to sit back and enjoy this vintage panorama of winter in Canada!

Bizarrest moment: Nice to see Santa’s brusque manner with some kids hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.

Lesson learned: Always ask your Montreal cabbie where the best bootleggers are.

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