Saturday, June 1, 2013
Best Documentary Short Highlights - Neighbours (1952)
Canada has been the home of numerous great animators over the years, but none is more celebrated or more influential than the great Norman McLaren (with apologies to Frederic Back, Richard Condie, Cordell Barker, Ryan Larkin, and others.) We've seen McLaren in several posts since coming back from our hiatus, such as the 1964 review (that included his Christmas Cracker), and Saturday highlight posts on A Chairy Tale and Pas de Deux. These films are certainly great, but they aren't considered his masterpiece. Yes, Norman McLaren has one film that stands out as his defining work, one film in his lengthy career that combines art, innovation, and an important message.
I'm talking about none other than Neighbours.
Grant and Jean-Paul are neighbors. They lived next to each other in cardboard houses with their wife and kid. They got along fine. They were more than willing to share their matches when they needed to kill their lungs with tobacco smoke. However, one day something happened that will change the way their relations. A flower popped up in the land between the houses with some sort of special power that stimulated the release of endorphins. They spent many a happy time getting high off this plant, but then each wanted it for himself. They begin arguing that the flower was on their territory, going as far as to build a fence that separated their land with the flower on their own property. Things quickly escalated into an all-out melee. Can the two men learn to share the flower in peace, or would they destroy each other?
Norman McLaren came up with the idea for Neighbours after a visit to China shortly after the founding of the People's Republic. He was impressed by the morale of the Communist, but soon saw those same happy people become embroiled in the Korean War. The contrast of the happiness of the Chinese and the viciousness of war led him to come up with an anti-war film. The development of an international conflict was transported into a domestic conflict on a small scale level but the idea remained the same. The sight of seeing two peacefully coexisting neighbors getting into a deathmatch was meant to portray the absurdity of war. And of course the film is full of over-the-top scenes to drive the point home. The item that drives the men to war was nothing more than a flower with drug-like qualities. And the conflict went from a simple territorial battle to an all out war with the slaughtering of families (in the most controversial scene, one that was cut from the original.) At one point the men gain animal-like makeup to symbolize their descent into savagery. The entire film is both amusing and scary, amusing for the over-the-top satire and terrifying for the sad but true analogy. McLaren has come under some fire over the years for the heavy-handed use of satire in Neighbours, but the message, mentioned in 14 different languages at the end, is undeniable.
Of course what stands out more than the film's message is its design. The film is mostly shot with normal live action cameras at varied speeds, but there are many key scenes that use one of McLaren's oft-used techniques: pixilation. The use is most obvious when the men are on their flower-induced highs. One of the most famous scenes feature the men flying in the air, an effect created by having them jump and capturing them at the top of their jump. Of course there is much more than that. The men glide and float along the grass, dance around in circles without moving their feet. Later, when the men were having their territorial argument, one man can make the fence disappear and reappear with a wave of his hand thanks to the magic of pixilation. The combination of pixilation with normal live action shots create lead to a sort of a fantastic look, one that fits in well with the satirical nature of the film.
The sound design is also something quite innovative. The film is dialogue-free, with only a musical score with a very unique, tinkering sound quality that doesn't match any known instrument. That's because the music was not made with any instruments. Instead, McLaren reached back to some of his earlier works where he scratched images directly onto film. This time he scratched the sound bar of the film directly to produce the interesting sound that is heard throughout the film. It's both catchy and unique.
Neighbours was wildly successful upon release, so the National Film Board decided to submit it under both the Short Subjects and Documentary Short category, because the political message of the film made it enough of a documentary in their eyes. The Academy took the bait, in a way, and made it one of the first two film to be nominated in both categories*. On Oscar night Neighbours wasn't so lucky in the Short Subjects category, losing to the film Light in the Window**. However, it took home the Best Documentary Short Oscar for the National Film Board's first ever Oscar. Over the years, while the film continued to grow in stature, the Academy admitted that Neighbours shouldn't have competed in the Best Documentary Short category, but they weren't going to take away their Oscar win like they did with Young Americans for Best Documentary Feature in 1968 (although that was for release date issues that didn't come out after the ceremony.)
*The other film to be nominated in both categories that year was the traffic safety film Devil Take Us. This would happen four more times over the years, finally culminating in 1971 when Sentinels of Silence won both categories. After that the Academy realized the absurdity of having the same film compete in both categories and changed the rules to prevent it from happening again.
**The interesting thing is that the subtitle for Light in the Window is The Art of Vermeer, suggesting that it is a documentary. So we have a non-documentary winning the documentary Oscar while a documentary won the short subject Oscar. Things sure were strange back then.