Tuesday, February 3, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Universe

For those who are unaware, the National Film Board of Canada has just begun to offer free streaming video of its vast film library on its website. Considering that the NFB is a government organization and thus publicly financed, it only makes sense that these films should be made available to the public.

Now, some might scoff at this and ask, "Who cares? Canadian movies are just [boring/lame/about curling/etc]." Well, first of all, dammit, I care, and so should you. In the English-speaking part of Canada, people instinctively recoil at the merest mention of Canadian cinema. And while I understand that the NFB has peddled some mighty bland film in its time, it also possesses a treasure trove of invaluable documentaries, whimsical and/or innovative animated shorts, and even the occasional fiction film of merit. There is some fantastic stuff to be found in this archive, and more is being added each month.

Of course, an archive this large is naturally intimidating, so I've decided to offer up a weekly discovery from the website that I consider worthy of attention. And this week, I'll kick things off with a real strange gem of an educational film, which, according to the website, influenced 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps it did, but don't be expecting any explanations about giant floating space fetuses here.

Enough preamble! It's time for us to explore the vast (and decidedly fatal) Universe.

Older educational films rarely hold much interest for viewers beyond providing fodder for wisecracks about outdated ideas and cheap production values (just think of all those episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 padded out with hokey old short films about public speaking and poultry farming). Or, more importantly—who wants to watch a modern educational film for fun, never mind one that's 50 years old?

What a nice surprise then to find out that Universe, a 1957 short film about its eponymous subject, is in fact a beautiful piece of filmmaking. As directed by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low, the film is filled with striking shots—the careful, geometric compositions of the observatory machinery, evocative images of city streets where the sun looms so large that it seems the Earth is about to crash into it. The film opens with a vertiginous overhead shot of a bustling street while timpani drums pound out an ominous rhythm—it feels not like the beginning of an educational short, but rather the start of a paranoid sci-fi film of the "they walk among us" vein. Are these pod people we're watching? Why is the film making this all seem so sinister?

However, this is mere prologue to the staggering images of the cosmos that dominate the film. Propelled by a score that ranges from unnerving to downright threatening, the film casts the universe as a giant playground of death and wonder. Jupiter is announced by a swell in the score that makes it seem like Darth Vader has entered the scene. And note the language: the film does not say that the planet "has" 12 moons—no, instead, Jupiter "rules" its 12 moons, like some brooding, foul-tempered tyrant.

The film's most endearing trait, however, must be its tendency to define heavenly bodies in terms of how they will kill us. Mars, we are told, "has no oxygen, and no creatures like men could live here" (note that this leaves the door open for creatures unlike men—presumably a concession to the powerful Saucer People lobby of the 1950s). A man couldn't live for two minutes on the Moon, but as the narrator explains in full Shatnerian style, "his body would lie unchanged through thousands of years...for nothing grows...and nothing decays."

Of course, we know not to trust Jupiter—apparently the villain of our galaxy, to judge by the film's tone—but just for good measure, we are warned that its atmosphere is filled with poisonous gases and its gravity is so strong it can crush us beyond recognition. And finally, after a breathless description of the sun's awesome and terrible power, this blunt coda: "Too near or too far from this furnance—instant death for men." Yes, it's tough out there for poor, feeble, weak man, especially with everything in space designed to kill him.

But all of this is conveyed with the utmost imagination and skill. The images are unique and mesmerizing (watch for the silvery gossamer strands of the comet's vapour trail), and the score is quite dynamic, more fitting for an old Star Trek episode than an educational short. Providing information about the planets feels like a secondary concern to the filmmakers. Instead, the film seems designed to depict the universe as an exciting—and terrifying, death-mongering—place. Removed from any educational context, Universe feels like a brilliant, imaginative short film portraying nothing less than the existential howl of a lonely species surrounded by an infinity that possesses no purpose other than to swallow up our meagre, finite existences in an endless night that will never bear any trace of our passing oh my god I'm going to scream now oh god I don't want Jupiter to get me mommy I'm afraid—

(Phew. Sorry about that. Whenever I start writing about infinity I forget how to end sentences.)

My point is that this is a film well worth watching for its own merits as an example of skillful, beautiful filmmaking, regardless of how well the information contained within it has aged. Even as it casts the whole universe as this dreadful, giant mousetrap, the film still stirs the imagination with the beauty of space. If I had encountered this film at a more impressionable age, I might have grown up to be an astronomer—or maybe just some mad scientist who planned to blow up Jupiter.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

*lol* Joseph, you're great.