Thursday, March 5, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: The Street

Based upon the Mordecai Richler story “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die,” Caroline Leaf’s animated short The Street tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Montreal forced to share a bedroom with his older sister while his grandmother lies slowly dying in the room that he believes should be his. The film has the feeling of a memory revisited, grounded in concrete details of everyday life but filtered through the shadings of perception—an effect aided by Leaf's distinctive animation style of using water paint on glass (she mixes glycerine in the paint to prevent it from drying). The images flow from one to another, and the heavy, wet paint gives the visual style a distinctive sense of texture and a remarkable sensitivity to nuances of light and movement. Consider this Impressionist animation.

This style of animation, which avoids hard cuts between scenes and instead allows the images to constantly transform, is hardly unique in itself. In fact, there is a long history of it at the NFB. Leaf was likely influenced by the NFB’s resident innovative animator, Norman McLaren, who could build a short film simply out of the transmutations of a single doodle (see Hen Hop for just one example). Or, for a more recent example from outside the confines of the NFB, you can look at Josh Raskin’s I Met the Walrus, which uses the continuous transformations of its images to illustrate an old conversation with John Lennon. The mutating visuals in these films carry some of the charge you would find in a particularly long, unbroken shot in a live-action film, even if the effect is ultimately dampened by the lack of narrative (it’s hard to have a sense of lived time in an abstract film). Regardless, this style creates a sense of unbroken time, as opposed to the elliptical time created by editing.

But The Street feels like a fortuitous meeting of style and story. The fluid transformations are an approximation of memory, condensing a span of years into a series of vividly recalled moments that carry the emotional weight of a larger story. These small moments—the boy’s confused cry of “Who’s getting married?” after being told his grandmother left a ring behind for his wife, for example—are the sort of incidents that seem to grow upon recollection, gaining significance over the years as you try to impose order and meaning upon the past.

In one of this short film’s most beautiful sequences, two men at the funeral stand on the balcony ruminating upon how cruel it is that there should be such sorrow on so beautiful a summer’s day. The view shifts to the whole of the street, complete with children riding on bicycles and sheets on clotheslines flapping in the breeze, before returning to the two men on the balcony. The sun sets almost instantly; the sky rapidly shifts colours before fading to black. The vividness of the summer day is made poignant by the overwhelming sense of transience that hangs over it.

The film ends with a similar juxtaposition of vitality and decay. After his grandmother passes away, the boy’s sister declares that he will at last have a room to his own, but that long-held desire no longer appeals to him. Now the boy dreads sleeping in the bed where his grandmother died. As he tries to sleep, his sister dances around the room wearing a sheet and moaning in the voice of their dead grandmother, “Who’s that sleeping in my bed?” The boy has gained his first glimmer of his own mortality, with old age hanging over his own youth like a wraith. In this film, as in memory, time is simultaneous.

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