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Psychotronic NFB: A ONE/TWO/MANY/WORLD (1970)

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 weird gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue. “Psychotronic NFB,” attempts to filter through the earnest docs on social problems, overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.

Many filmmakers have the luxury of hiding away films they made as students while learning their craft, but what happens when the NFB funds the oblique, psychedelic musings of undergrads trying to come to grips with the pressures they will soon face as adults? Well, that rough, but well-meaning effort could end up streaming online just like A ONE/TWO/MANY/WORLD (1970), an undeniably odd student film that finally dares to ask: Why does society, like, have so many uptight hanggups when we could all just live in a desert where hippie girls in free-flowing dresses fly kites while we have totally mellow drum circles?

Most of this “surreal” short is pretty standard stuff–juxtaposing the kid’s toys with their real life counterparts, anxiety over authority figures and undisguised anti-Vietnam war sentiments. But what makes the film more interesting than your average too-earnest Canadian message movie is the way it keeps going back to erotic elements–the aforementioned kite-flying hippie, a nude girl covered in body paint, another posing on a fire escape and especially the scantily-clad dancer who gets run over by the car in Queen’s Park. This charges the otherwise straight-faced film with just a touch of underground movie sexploitation flair, even though these scenes doesn’t really seem to fit in with the images that surround them.

But rather than making any kind of definitive statement on “the bizarre world of imposed conditions and contradictions [a growing boy] evolves in”, the film seems more like some university students trying to figure out girls as well as the roles they will be expected to play in society on graduation. While these anxieties are universal, they crop up in Canadian dramatic films again and again throughout the 1960s and ’70s–in fact, it’s not hard to imagine the confused young protagonists of  Don Shebib’s RIP-OFF (1971) or Don Owen’s NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE (1964) heading off to the Scarborough Bluffs to make their own A ONE/TWO/MANY/WORLD.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the film’s backgrounds–there’s some fun classic toys on display in the kid’s room (love the Canadian Football board game!), plus some vintage  shots of King street in Toronto, including old school TTC streetcars.

Bizarrest moment: OK, the whole thing is pretty weird, but the kid dressed in army fatigues rolling down the hill while gunshots ring out tips the scale here. A nicely odd mix of earnest messaging, strange imagery and kid-as-adult pantomime.

Lesson learned: It’s not easy for men to pull of pink pants.

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Psychotronic NFB: TI-JEAN GOES LUMBERING (1953)

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 weird gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue. “Psychotronic NFB,” attempts to filter through the earnest docs on social problems, overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.

Who’s your favourite Canadian hero–the red-and-white clad Captain Canuck? Louis Riel? Maybe Terry Fox or Wayne Gretzky?  Well, they’re little more than pimples on the mighty backside of  Ti-Jean–a superstrong pre-pubescent workhorse who appeared in three NFB shorts in the 1950s. Supposedly based on folk tales about a mysteriously powerful 10-year-old French-Canadian hero, TI-JEAN GOES LUMBERING is a prime slice of Canadian kitsch where Ti-Jean breezes into town like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, embarrasses those lazy loggers with his super-skills then takes all their money before heading off into the sunset on his white horse. Gee, what a swell kid!

Based on this film, I can only assume that the NFB once employed scientists working around the clock measuring exactly how many Canadian stereotypes could fit into a single frame of film. Then, another team of technicians used dangerously experimental techniques to insert as many plaid jackets, pipe-smoking outdoorsmen, toques, rosy-faced lumberjacks, reindeer adorned sweaters, funny French-Canadian cooks, log cabins, deep woods moustaches and snowshoes as possible, resulting in films like this. It is also rumoured that the film stock for TI-JEAN GOES LUMBERING was actually developed in a big vat of poutine, but I was unable to confirm this.

Stories involving precocious children are staples of educational films, giving young viewers a point of view to identify with while they are subjected to detailed looks at farm machinery or the finer points of industrial jobs. Even though this is supposed to be a dramatzied folk tale, the narrative here seems to get lost in a blizzard of Canadiana, making me wonder if the point wasn’t just a loving look at logging camps. Regardless, the film was apparently one of the NFB’s more popular offerings at the time, and was quickly followed up by TI-JEAN IN THE LAND OF IRON and TI-JEAN GOES WEST, only with new, much less freckled children playing the lead role.

Bizarrest moment: Ti-Jean tries to get a job at the logging camp by headbutting a lumberjack in the chest.

Lesson learned: No matter what, don’t ask Grandpa to tell one of his stories–stick to beating your siblings in arm wrestling.

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Psychotronic NFB: BABY BLUES (1990)

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 weird gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue.

As the NFB makes its films available for online viewing, it has so far passed over some of its strangest and coolest  titles such as HOT WHEELS, BEYOND KICKS  and GENTLEMAN JEKYLL AND DRIVER HYDE,  but there are occasional entries available for instant viewing that are worth checking out. This new column, “Psychotronic NFB,” attempts to filter through the earnest docs on social problems,  overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.

For our first entry, we’re looking at the NFB’s 1990 teen sexuality “conversation starter,”  BABY BLUES. Nobody does teen melodrama better than Canadians, and director Annie O’Donoghue pretends DEGRASSI JUNIOR HIGH didn’t already tackle this subject ad nauseum with her 24-minute ode to Jason and Kristen, two teens that like to get their freak on before heading off to cool group dates at the bowling alley. This one’s got it all–a soundtrack of hot sax licks, sniggering 25-year-old “teens” inflating condoms, field hockey action, infomercial production values and  badly dated fashions. Underneath it all, though, this is the same old “mental hygiene” style of educational short as seen extensively in the early 1950s.

Bizarrest moment: There’s a few (where does the jean-jacket wearing “voice of reason” disappear to?) but intercutting Kristen mixing the chemicals to take a pregnancy test with Jason making tea almost made me spit my cup of chamomile all over the screen.

Lesson learned: Being a pregnant teen is challenging enough, but then you also might get the “blues”! Guess they all should of paid attention in health sciences class…

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