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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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Psychotronic NFB: YOU’RE NO GOOD (1965)

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.

Juvenile delinquency—scourge of our modern era! The sight of teens in black leather jackets may not exactly send us clutching for our pearls anymore but, during the 1950s and 60s, even a hint of such non-conformity or rebellion was enough to cause parental consternation. Educational filmstrip producers like McGraw Hill, Coronet and Sid Davis Productions got much mileage out of depicting the society-threatening vandalism of moody teens and, more importantly, just what could be done about it. Even Ottawa’s Crawley Films got in on the act, producing notable works like AGE OF TURMOIL and EMOTIONAL MATURITY. Not to be left behind, the NFB also managed a handful of similar shorts, including George Kaczender’s 1965 film YOU’RE NO GOOD, where an impulsive motorcycle joyride ends in anger and pain.

YOU’RE NO GOOD—a lurid title sounds more like a exploitation film than a educational work—still manages an unorthodox approach, eschewing the McGraw-Hill school of overbearing narrators directly comparing reenactments of bad behaviour with good. Instead, the film turns on some notable dramatic moments—Eddie confronted by a youth worker in the pool hall, his juvenile fantasies of admiration and destruction, the iconic shot of him running down the middle of Yonge street before unleashing his pent-up anger in an abandoned office building. It’s far more similar to another NFB production from the previous year, Don Owen’s NOBODY WAVED GOOD-BYE, in its portrayal of disaffected youth unable to find an acceptable social outlet.

Still, YOU’RE NO GOOD remains a juvenile delinquency film at heart, even though Eddie is often seen in a sympathetic light. Of course by today’s standards,  Eddie’s ride on the stolen bike isn’t unconscionable behaviour, it’s just confused–he seems unable to separate his fantasies from his real responsibilities. Though it’s hard to believe that the Toronto police would expend this much time and energy tracking down the perpetrator of a largely victimless crime, it’s also no surprise that Eddie’s impulsive act finally catches up with him and he pays the price for his actions. The focus may be different, but the ultimate message here is not that far removed from AGE OF TURMOIL and countless other instructional film shorts—behave!

Like many Canadian directors of the era, Kaczender’s early work for the NFB taught him the tools he needed to become a successful director of feature films. The promise he shows in this film bears out in his later theatrical works, including 1973’s “angry young man” movie U-TURN and the right-wing conspiracy thriller AGENCY (1981).

Finally, we must give a special mention to the film’s theme song—an awesome garage-flavoured track by Ontario band The Mercey Brothers before they turned to full-on country crooning in the 1970s. It’s a wild and even aggressive rock track that really drives home the mixed-up emotions that Eddie goes through over the course of the film—a far cry, for example, from the limp folk hootenany of NOBODY WAVED GOOD-BYE.

Bizarrest moment: Eddie’s random rock star daydream, complete with bikini-clad go-go dancer.

Lesson learned: Don’t wait until the cops are on your trail to ditch your stolen motorcycle. They may not be the Mounties, but it appears they always get their man.