1

Psychotronic NFB: GENTLEMAN JEKYLL AND DRIVER HYDE (1950)

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.

What was Canada’s first monster movie–the 1967 British co-production THE VULTURE? 1971′s DR. FRANKENSTEIN ON CAMPUS? True, those may have been the first feature-length creature features to debut in the Great White North, but Canada’s history with horror goes back even a little further–in fact, it’s tangled up in our roots in documentary filmmaking. Even before movie monster mania swept North America in the 1950s, spurned on by the repackaging of classic horror films for TV broadcast and the introduction of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine, the NFB produced this bizarre eight-minute short that plays off one of the biggest horror hits of the previous decade, even directly referring to Spencer Tracy’s 1941 turn as the mad scientist and his uncouth alter ego.

GENTLEMAN JEKYLL AND DRIVER HYDE, released in 1950, has long been one of my favourite NFB films, adding horror touches to an otherwise fairly typical mental hygiene film about common courtesy on the road, all narrated by some wisecracking truck drivers.

Have you ever had road rage? Like, really, really bad? Even by today’s standards this is unconscionably terrible and inconsiderate driving–cutting people off, not stopping for kids playing in the street, insulting pedestrians, screaming at other drivers, racing through lights and weaving into the oncoming traffic. The portrayal of bad driving habits is so deliriously over-the-top that this film almost becomes a comedy of extreme road safety errors.

Once the trucker finishes condemning poor Jekyll, he then reveals the source of his bitterness–he and his fellow professional drivers are blamed by the public for accidents, even though it’s the everyday amateurs that often cause them. Apparently, all those terrible fatal crashes are just business as usual–just leave him out of it, brother! At this point even the other driver gets tired of his employer’s holier-than-thou attitude, but gets slapped Three Stooges-style for talking back. Perhaps a follow-up film on bad boss behaviour is needed–SAFETY-MINDED JEKYLL AND ABUSIVE SUPERVISOR HYDE?

Conceptually, this NFB short is still a lot of fun, even if the monster itself is an obvious low-budget creation–whereas nine years earlier Tracy boldly played Hyde without make-up, simply contorting his face into new shapes, some rudimentary effects work was clearly required here. The quality make-up job? Well, as you can see it’s not exactly up to the Jack Pierce standard. Hyde looks more like a Neanderthal devil than anything–horns protruding from his head, a little spirit gum-stuck hair and plastic fangs. The transition from mild mannered family man to sociopathic wheelman isn’t terribly convincing either, done with a simple edit and screen wipe. But  it’s probably too much to ask for a little NFB short to put some effort and care into its monster making, especially since no Canadian craftsmen were dedicated to that particular niche art at the time. It’s not too surprising that their Hyde is not quite up to par. But at least he’s here, captured on celluloid forever–the earliest example of the horror genre’s influence on Canadian filmmaking.

Bizarrest moment: Apparently, the opposite of Driver Hyde is some sort of drag queen-like courtesy angel.

Lesson learned: Don’t turn into a dime store monster and drive.

0

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.

2

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.

0

Psychotronic NFB: THE SNIFFING BEAR (1992)

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.

Drugs, drugs, drugs–which are good, which are bad? The NFB has been exploring that very subject since World War II. The Board first tackled the illegal narcotics trade in the 1948 film DRUG ADDICT (and a condensed, re-edited version, PAY OFF IN PAIN), a cautionary tale about a heroin addict. As LSD and marijuana gained prominence in the 1960s and 70s, the NFB continued to plumb this social issue with films including ALMOST EVERYONE DOES, BEYOND KICKS and DARKNESS DARKNESS. But no doubt their oddest contribution to the anti-drug film canon is THE SNIFFING BEAR, a seven-minute animated short from 1992 about the dangers of gasoline huffing.

Sniffing toxic chemicals to get high is a serious problem in many northern communities in Canada, but it is rarely addressed by the media. Not only do users face danger from the damaging effects of the chemicals, but also from the flammability of certain substances where proper precautions are not taken. As most gas huffers get started as young teenagers, it’s important to reach young children with a message about why this particular illicit activity can be deadly. That makes THE SNIFFING BEAR fairly unique among the NFB’s work–meant for pre-teens, it’s the only animated anti-drug film in the NFB’s collection.

Even young children might find the way the story unfolds a little odd, though. In trying to create a kid-friendly anti-drug short, there’s quite a bit of oversimplification happening in this aimless narrative. Basically, the bear finds a plastic gasoline can just sitting there in a smashed igloo, and almost immediately gets his snout right in there. The other animals in the Arctic setting try to knock the can free, apparently trying to warn the bear. It’s an allegory, of course, but not a particularly strong one, as it doesn’t really illustrate why the sniffing bear should sniff out a different kind of recreation.

And then there’s the problem of the way the bear’s fume-addled nightmare is depicted. These kinds of films always run the risk of making a hallucinogenic drug reaction look more fun than fearful, and I’m not sure this one is terribly convincing–the possibilities of freaky mask dreams and frequent naps really isn’t so bad. It’s the other animals that come off like the real downers, at least at first, trying to keep away his precious gas can. Still, as the bear walks away at the end, the anti-drug message is clear. Or at least as clear as an allegorical tale about gas huffing starring a polar bear can be.

Not all similar NFB films contain an anti-drug message. More recently, the NFB has explored the societal effects on the war on drugs itself in films like DAMAGE DONE: THE DRUG WAR ODYSSEY, FIX: THE STORY OF AN ADDICTED CITY and SOCIETIES UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Stoned bears aside, it’s this progressive attitude, having evolved over more than 60 years, that makes the NFB such a unique Canadian entity–could you imagine the U.S. government stamping it’s name on a film that advocated legalizing narcotics? Me  neither.

Bizarrest moment: The bear rips up the heavy plastic gasoline canister in a fit of rage. Is that even possible? Those things are built to last!

Lesson learned: Don’t do drugs. Especially if you are a two-dimensional polar bear.

1

Psychotronic NFB: WILLIAM SHATNER SINGS O CANADA (2011)

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.

In honour of our recent CanFilm Five exploring the lesser known works of Canadian thespian, singer and incorrigible space captain Mr. William Shatner, this edition of Psychotronic NFB breaks with recent tradition and looks at a more modern treat from the National Film Board archives. When William Shatner was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from Canada’s Governor General this past March, he also participated in this strange and patriotic short video, playing off his iconic image.

While probably the first to admit he is not much of a singer, Shatner released his debut album, “The Transformed Man” in 1968. Even by the forgiving  standards of celebrity-sung albums of the time, his renditions of  ”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” were odd–Shat’s talk/singing may not be very “musical”  in the strictest sense of that word, but at least his interpretations were unique. As a result, the album became something of a cult item in the 1980s, spurned by champions like Dr. Demento and Rhino Record’s groundbreaking “Golden Throats” compilations.

Since then, Shatner has embraced the modest, outsider art approach of his music,  releasing the 2004 album “Has Been” in which he played up the camp value of his talk/singing style in performing modern pop songs. He even has a new space-themed singing album called “Seeking Major Tom” due out in just a few weeks.

It’s this offbeat legacy that Shatner taps into for this short film, having fun with both his popularity and the notoriety of “The Transformed Man.” It’s obviously quite staged and scripted, but Shatner gives a likable and good off-the-cuff performance as he offers a politically correct rendition of our national anthem. Oddly enough, this intimate little piece is one of the NFB’s few flirtations with popular culture of any kind, and to make something so tied to Shatner’s, uh, unorthodox singing talents definitely qualifies this more recent addition to the NFB’s catalogue as “Psychotronic.”

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time that Shatner worked for the NFB–as Marty McKee pointed out in his guest blog post, he often did voice work throughout his career,  and had previously narrated “City Out of Time“, a  Venice travelogue directed by Colin Low in 1959.    

Bizarrest moment: “O Canada” becomes “Hey, C-Rock!”

Lesson learned: In an age where any non-musical celebrity can make an album that still sounds vaguely musical thanks to an army of  producers and software, it’s admirable that Shatner sticks to his phasers and continues to play off his public persona by “singing” in the same way he always has. That’s how you become a legend in this business.