Exciting Movie Discoveries: Norman McLaren


Several years ago, I went to a private outdoor movie screening. It was in the backyard of a friend of a friend. Apparently the guy worked at an independent theater, and he'd collected a lot of his own films which he liked to share with friends from time-to-time. He projected them onto the back of his duplex with an old reel-to-reel projector. So there we all were with our blankets and pillows watching movies in a backyard. Very cool.

The main feature was Skidoo (1968), which wasn't available anywhere at the time. I was looking forward to hearing the soundtrack by Nilsson, my current music crush.

I was almost more charmed by the short films the projectionist showed first. They were mostly experimental, things like Frank Film (1973).

Another short he showed was a A Chairy Tale (1957), a clever silent by Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norm McLaren. It stars a guy (Claude Jutra) and an amusingly animated chair. The soundtrack is by Ravi Shankar, and you'll see that it is a character as well. This got a lot of laughs from the crowd:



I thought about A Chairy Tale the other day, and decided I really wanted to show it to my daughter. I quickly found it on YouTube. She loved it so much that she asked me to play it again. Anytime my little girl wants to see a classic again, the answer is yes. I know she takes advantage of that, but I'm always happy to let her geek out. And that particular film had such a great message of cooperation, something five-year-olds can never overlearn. Check out this post for production shots and more about the film.

Anyway, I wanted to see what else McLaren had done. I found Dots (1940), which is completely different from A Chairy Tale. He didn't even film this, but rather made marks directly on the film, apparently because when McLaren started out, he didn't have a camera:



Boogie-Doodle (1940) is also drawn directly on the film. It's a bit more conventional:



I have to admit I got tired of that one after about a minute, but it's still cute.

By this point, I thought I understood the McLaren style, fascinating animation, a little innovation and a goofy sense of humor. I think that's somewhat right, but this next film is definitely not goofy. Pas de Deux (1968) is beautiful, moody and astonishing. I got so wrapped up in this the first time I saw it that I felt intoxicated. You can't be in a rush with this one. It is worth a bit of patience:



Can you believe the diversity of this guy? And yet it all these films have his signature. It was so much fun discovering Norman McLaren's films. I've got a lot more to see.

Are there any great filmmakers you've come upon like that just dinking around online? Discoveries like that are one of my favorite things about the Internet.

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