My Street Japan. Day 13.

My Street Japan. DAY 13. Tammy T. Stone

My Street Japan. DAY 13. Tammy T. Stone

Japan is an umbrella-loving country. Umbrellas for rain, umbrellas for sun, colourful umbrellas, custom-made umbrellas, you name it! One of my favorite films in the world is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (if you have not seen it, check it out!) so I always delight at seeing brightly coloured and designed umbrellas and knowing how much people delight in them.

For my part, I’m happy to report that a year ago, it was inconceivable for me to hold an umbrella while riding a bike, and now it’s far less of a problem (though I”m no means issue-free on this front, especially when it’s raining in torrents). You can also see women with devices fastened to their bikes that hold the umbrellas for them, though I’ve heard they’re now illegal and that police will be enforcing the ban more (I haven’t seen anything stopping the ladies with the bike holders yet, though!)

Today was a gloriously sunny day. The woman in the photo is protecting herself from the sun, and I didn’t notice until I downloaded the image into the computer that she’s reading a book! Of course, I’m very curious as to what she’s reading. More than anything, though, this photo makes me want to watch old Japanese movies from the sixties, and invites me into an exotic world I’ll never truly understand, but that I can easily romanticize.

We can all do with a little romanticizing every now and then – and by the way, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will give you this pleasure ten times over!

Here’s a peek at this brilliant film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZo5DGZwRmg

Advertisements

Oliver Sacks: Changing the Way we Think about Our Brain can Change the World.

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

 

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” ~ Oliver Sacks

 

Recently, I was thinking about what the world would be like—or rather, how our perception of it would change—if we were suddenly told that Earth was now called Jupiter, and Jupiter was now called Earth.

How would we think about this other Earth, which we have never seen with our own eyes? How would we re-conceive the new Jupiter, a place now simultaneously “ours,” and yet filled with our imaginings of a place far, far away?

It was reported recently that acclaimed physician, author and professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as I heard the news, I realized how “Sacksian” my line of questioning above is—how much his ideas, gleaned through readings of his books, have influenced my way of being in the world.

Oliver Sacks has accomplished what very few others have: in addition to his tireless work in the field of neurology, he has managed, through his gifts as a writer and storyteller, to make the brain a fascinating and accessible subject for the layperson (or the “ordinary curious,” as I like to think of us!) I can never put his books down once I start reading them; they are like being led into a vast, incredibly deep and riveting ocean by a gentle, inquisitive and assured guide.

It would be impossible to underestimate how far-reaching the study of the brain is for anybody with a natural curiosity about the world, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and virtually every area under the sun. The brain is our incredibly nuanced and mysterious gateway, so we need to know: how does the “normal” brain function?

And, as Sacks has been investigating for decades, what do some of the “abnormal brain conditions” illuminate about the nature of human perception and experience?

What might life look and be like for someone who’s been blind from birth, and has suddenly gained access to sight? (Spoiler: not easy). Sack’s explorations of a rare case of this were turned into the film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer.

Among some other well-known research topics by Sacks are: encephalitis lethargica, which has people unable to move, sometimes for decades, explored in his book “Awakenings” and the film of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams; colorblindness; aphasia (the inability to form speech), Tourette’s syndrome; hallucinations; synesthesia, in which the “wires cross” and a person might “see sounds” or “hear colours,” and Korsakov’s syndrome, in which people suffer from memory loss (so that, for example, a 60-year-old might still believe she/he were a 30 year-old).

Many of us will never directly experience any or most of these conditions, but we may well approximate subtle variations of some of them. For example, maybe we haven’t lost our memories of the last twenty years of our lives, but we’ve certainly lost many memories, struggle to remember things, and wonder how much of what we remember is fiction.

We may have “normal” brains, but how is it that we live in a colour world, but can “understand” or process black-and-white films with such ease? It’s really amazing, how much of a “whole” world we can create with some of the “pieces” missing.

This question, as a film student, brought me to one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t have synesthesia, but longed to create a synesthetic world on film, where the magical experiences of sight and sound would become all intertwined into a harmonic whole in the viewer’s mind—a sensory world that would cut straight to the emotions.

Most of Eisenstein’s films, because of the era, were made in black-and-white, but he was obsessed by the possibilities colour cinema would open up; reading his dreams about making colour films, you’d think he was talking about voyaging into the entire universe and all its galaxies—such were the horizons one “small switch” in perception could open up. He was an artist and visionary, working with his tool of cinema to grasp at the very limits of what humans, as thinking, perceiving and emoting beings, can do.

For him, film was the grand stage mediating between subject and object, observer and observed, experiencing and experienced. For Oliver Sacks, this grand stage, affording so many possibilities for knowledge and growth, is the human brain.

Using actual case studies, Sacks has fashioned anecdotal scenarios out of the most seemingly bizarre outreaches of brain function, and also out of his impassioned beliefs in the power of music to dig right into our souls, and has allowed us entry into a spellbinding kaleidoscope of human existence. People like the man engaged with in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” who does just that, are an invitation to consider the very broad arenas of human subjectivity, identity, and how we relate to the world through thing like our senses, cognitive abilities, and memory.

It’s a dizzying, tantalizing world Sacks has brought to life for us. Here are just a few of his words and observations. Much more can be found in his collection of books!

On Music, Art and Healing

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

“There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”

On Perception

“Perception is never purely in the present—it has to draw on experience of the past; (…). We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”

On Hallucinations

“With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing—in perception—have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.

“This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and…I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops…transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.”

On Nature

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

On Speaking

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”

On Language

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

On the Brain and Imagination

“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations.”

On the Survival Instinct

“But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be: and to study or influence these means, no less than the primary insult to the nervous system, is an essential part of our role as physicians.”

On Bliss

“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…”

10 Movies to Remind us that Life is Good this Thanksgiving.

 

 

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

It’s Thanksgiving. It’s cold, and only getting colder, at least where I am.

I can’t think of a situation where I’ve ever had to be forced to watch a movie, but this is a particularly fun time of year to take to the couch (ideally in good-ish posture), wrap myself up in a blanket, sip ginger tea and watch movie (after movie) to my heart’s content.

Sometimes there’s nothing like a great film to give you a window into the stories of others, and the visionary minds that bring them to life. For that I am thankful!

Here are just a very few movies that directly or indirectly take us on a gratitude journey, that you might enjoy watching this Thanksgiving season. Enjoy!

(P.S. This list is far from comprehensive. There are so, so many films from all over the world that are not represented here—I’d need dozens more Thanksgivings to scratch the surface—and I’d love to hear your ideas!)

 

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

This movie hardly needs an introduction. A girl with a heart of voice of gold venture to new and wondrous lands, experiences a whole lot, and realizes that “There’s No Place Like Home.” I’m not making light of this storyline. This is far and away my favourite film, and I feel that Dorothy’s enormous gratitude for her life and ragtag family back home is only amplified by her gratitude over having met with such incredible adventures on the other side of the rainbow. We can be grateful for here, there and everywhere!

2. Pay it Forward (2000, Mimi Leder)

As the “pay it forward” movement and gift economy culture gain momentum, it’s worth taking a look at this beautiful little film about a boy (The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment) who, for a school assignment given by a somewhat taciturn teacher, (Kevin Spacey), does what he can to make a better world. It’s hard not to be very moved by this film.

3. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Gabriele Mucchino)

Based on the real-life story of Chris Gardner’s one-year struggle with homelessness, this film stars Will Smith and his son Jaden, as they navigate their way through hardship in this incredibly uplifting and inspiring film. Gratitude as an M.O. for good living is firing on all cylinders here.

4. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005, Jean-Marc Vallee)
It’s kooky, it’s set in 1970’s French Canada and it’s stunning and perfect in every way. A teenager is coming of age in a climate not entirely suited to his extravagant imagination and sensibilities, but his aspirations for happiness, acceptance and for the flourishing of all that is grand in life will leave you breathless. And…great tunes here!

 5. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)

This might sound like a strange choice for a Thanksgiving films, since tragedy oozes out of every pore of this collaboration between the very unique-minded Lars von Trier and none other than Bjork. Rarely, however, have I experienced such exquisite grace in a female lead performance, or felt as acutely as I do here that the human spirit has an edge over any obstacles that dare to stand in the way of magic and positivity.

6. My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

I’d have to recommend any film by this genius filmmaker, who officially announced his retirement from feature filmmaking this year (cue tears over here). My Neighbor Totoro delights in its sheer simplicity: two girls move to the countryside, and encounter some of the forest’s delightful spirits. This movie leads by example, telling us to slow down, enjoy the moment, and let the magic and awe in.

7. Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Koreeda)

Koreeda has such a gift for lyrical storytelling. Two couples’ babies were switched at birth in hospital, and six years later, they are informed of the accident. What to do? The director uses this very painful situation as an opportunity to explore the infinite nuances of love, what it means to be a parent, to be connected to someone through blood or shared experiences…and it will wrench at your heart as it moves to its redemptive conclusion. Pure heart.

8. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)

One of the best films of the year. Linklater paints a cinematic portrait of a childhood, using the same actors over a 12 year period to stunning and powerful effect. We can be very grateful here for the sheer ingenuity of a director who had the vision to present a movie of this kind, where we can glimpse into the growth, change, transition and the ephemeral nature of life through the medium of the moving image.

9. Love Story (1970, Arthur Hiller)

Classic tear jerker teaching us that love knows no bounds. Enough said.

10. Edward Scissorhands (1990, Tim Burton)

Another classic, where the lucky viewer gets to watch Johnny Deep do his glorious thing, and spend a couple of hours rejoicing in all that is special and different in this world, through the eyes of Tim Burton’s mad genius. The celebration of diversity has never been this poignant or mesmerizing.

 

For elephant journal published version, and video clips, see here! And I’d love to hear more suggestions!

No More Teachers … 5 Quotes and Movies to Get the Learning Going

 

 

 

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

 

“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Kids all over are going back to school this week.

For moms and dads, this might mean combined feelings of swelling pride, the excitement and anxiety over how it will all go (and maybe some panic over scheduling), and then some wistfulness for those years when your baby was still too young for school and you could witness the moment-to-moment joys of their development.

For those without kids, there can still be a twang that erupts come Labour Day. It’s partly nostalgia for those awkward and anticipation-filled first days back in the land of lockers and cafs:

What should I wear?

Will my crush be as cute in September as he was last June?

There’s also some dread mixed in, because blissful, vastly expansive summer days are giving way to too-early mornings and endless classes on arcane subjects.

Remember the hypotenuse theorem, anyone? (Okay, I do, but there’s lots of stuff lost in the folds of time.)

As someone who spent long, long years both enduring and revelling in those first days back (I went to school continuously from nursery school to Masters, and then went back to start a Phd after a break), the overriding feeling I get in early September is a renewal of desire to learn and a sense of wonder over what forms learning will take this time around.

It goes without saying that learning happens everywhere, all the time,  in the most fascinating of guises.

Since every moment is an opportunity to learn—about ourselves, others, the world, and these are all one thing, really—I wanted to share “five and five”—five education-themed quotes and five movies to watch.

Let’s get learning, everyone!

5 Quotes:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” – T. S. Eliot ~ T. S. Eliot

~

“Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?” – Walt Whitman

~

“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

~

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination.

We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system.

Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself —educating your own judgement. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’” – Doris Lessing

~

“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down.

She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”

~ Pema Chodron

5 Movies:

There are so many brilliant films from all over the world dealing directly or indirectly with learning and education. Films have actually been a huge part of my formal and informal education, no matter what the subject, so this list is just a tiny drop in the amazing bucket of cinematic delights, as they came to my heart!

 

1. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir): A teacher (Robin Williams) teaches students about freedom of belief. Simply a must.

See trailer here.

 

 2. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz): A quiet, uncannily compelling documentary centred around the beloved (and feared) spelling bee.

See trailer here.

 

3. Project Happiness (John Sorensen): A very inspiring documentary traversing the globe with students, and winding up in India in search of the meaning of lasting happiness.

See trailer here.

 

4. Into the Wild (Sean Penn): A chronicle of a young man eager to live life to the fullest and learn about life from the source: nature’s wild.

See trailer here.

 

5. The Class (Lauren Cantet): A brilliant, quasi-documentary in which a teacher plays himself in his racially diverse Parisian classroom.

See trailer here.

 

Bonus: H. H. The Dalai Lama  on learning and never forgetting the importance of compassion.

View here!

 

94

 

Remembering Wolf Koenig: Dialogue

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

Wolf Koenig (1927 – 2014) was a giant the way more than a few Canadian artists are: in a quiet, humble and very modest way.

I had the huge privilege of witnessing these traits firsthand when I interviewed him back in 2001, while I was in the throes of a Masters degree in film, exploring notions of documentary, observation, reality and truth.

I was living in Bangkok at the time, and he was living in small-town Ontario, not far from where I’m from, though we never met face-to-face.

Kind in a from-the-bottom-of-the-heart way, gentle and at turns humorous and contemplative, Koenig showed his adventurous spirit from the get-go.

I had a million questions for this maverick of the Canadian documentary, and he very graciously agreed to a long-form e-mail interview—his first conducted in cyberspace, as he told me. It ended up being part interview and part dialogue, as I tried to soak up what this brilliant mind was teaching me. We “spoke” for a few weeks, almost daily and by the end, he referred to this exploration as an “archeological dig.”

An explorer—and philosopher, miner of the psyche, and self-professed “tinkerer”—he was.

In the 1950s, Koenig, along with his young, rogue colleagues at the National Film Board of Canada (including IMAX founder and inventor Roman Kroitor), formed a documentary unit called Unit B, and ended up changing the way documentaries were made—which is also to say, how we perceived the world.

Decades before reality TV would permeate the globe, the Unit B filmmakers had the idea that they wanted to record reality “as it was,” without any overt decisions to package or frame what they saw, or offer audiences a predetermined view of the subject matter. This flew in the face of the kind of propagandistic documentaries that were being made at the time, and the team, while given rudimentary support, was more or less left to forge their own path.

This even included the necessity of designing and building their own equipment to record synchronous sound (to record images and sounds at the scene, simultaneously): they were wholly determined to go onto the streets with equipment that was as light as possible, and try to unobtrusively capture the world.

My personal favorites are a two-part series on Glenn Gould and the Unit B’s most famous, a film called “Lonely Boy”, (1961), which follows then-19-year-old Ottawa-boy crooner Paul Anka as he sets out to make it big in Atlantic City. The poignancy and raw excitement this film generates cannot be overstated – check it out below!

It’s also considered by many to be the very first rockumentary, or at least its progenitor, and is startling when you watch the girls scream over Anka, crazed, and realize it was made about three years before the Beatles landed in America.

A lot of the Unit B’s work is not widely available, but serve as a lasting visual and auric archive of an era when the likes of Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, and this ragtag group of brilliant filmmakers set out to test the very limits of artistic and philosophical imagination.

What do splotches of paint on canvas, free-form poetic ramblings, existentialist philosophy and the observational film have in common? To me, they epitomize the ultimate spirit of modernity and represent, in very different ways, what happens when classical forms of representation no longer suffice to express a personal or societal ethos, when something has to give.

These artists truly turned the world on its head during a creatively fertile time, each representing an edge, a limit, a willingness to explore the frontier of mind and spirit. I think of this as meditation-in-action, a motivated intention to discover what lies beyond what the senses can know directly, using the senses as the way in.

Koenig and his fellow filmmakers may have wanted to “directly capture reality,” but they were in no way naive or obtuse about the possibility of doing this, unfiltered – art can only be an attempt, and people can only do their best, using the tools they have.

These were some of the brilliant, inspiring words Wolf Koenig shared with me, about the potential of art as it relates to Truth:

“I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about – music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This ‘something’ is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark. But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree – even though the tree itself still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure”. And the Structure is what permeates the universe from the sub-atomic particle to the whole cosmos – in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing: “Structure” or “Truth.”

I didn’t realize until just now how deeply his wise words remained within me as I set out to find my own way of being in the world, of observing my mind in hopes of peering into Truth.

RIP, Wolf Koenig, light that you were. You will be missed, and thank you for your work, the worlds you gave us, for your being.

 

* This article was published in elephant journal, here.

I also wrote an article about “Lonely Boy” (a true masterpiece, and Cannes award winner) in Dairy River magazine, which you can check out here. You can watch the full version of the film here.

 And now, for the dialogue!

Some of my interview with Wolf was published in a Take One Magazine article, so please enjoy! If anyone is interested in having access to the full interview, please feel free to contact me by email.

 

Candid Eye, & Lonely Boy Unit B: take one’s interview with Wolf Koenig.

 

If the word documentary is synonymous with Canada, and the NFB is synonymous with Canadian documentary, it is impossible to consider the NFB, and particularly its fabled Unit B team, without one of its core members, Wolf Koenig. An integral part of the “dream team,” he worked with, among others, Colin Low, Roman Kroitor, Terence Macartney–Filgate and unit head Tom Daly, as part of the NFB’s most prolific and innovative ensemble. Koenig-began his career as a splicer before moving on to animator, cameraman, director and producer, responsible for much of the output of the renowned Candid Eye series produced for CBC–TV between 1958 and 1961. Among Unit B’s greatest achievements is Lonely Boy (1962), which brilliantly captured the phenomenon of megastar mania before anyone else, and continues to be screened worldwide. I had the opportunity to “speak” to Wolf Koenig in his first Internet interview, a fitting format for a self–professed tinkerer who made a career out of embracing the latest technologies. He refl ects on his days as part of Unit B, what the term documentary means to him and the process of making Lonely Boy.

What was your background before joining the NFB?

In 1937, my family fled Nazi Germany and came to Canada, just in the nick of time. After a couple of years of wondering what he should do, my father decided that we should settle down on a farm. He found the perfect place, 145 acres of beautiful hills and bush bordering the Grand River, just outside of Galt, Ontario. The hills and valleys were beautiful, allright, but hell to plow and harvest. So we got a tractor, one of the first in the area, a Ford–Ferguson — small but strong.

One day, in early May 1948, my father got a call from a neighbour down the road — Mr. Merritt, the local agricultural representative for the federal department of agriculture — who asked if “the boy” could come over with the tractor to try out a new tree–planting machine. The machine was designed to fit only the Ford–Ferguson, and we were the only ones in the area to have one. So my father called me over and said, “Go!” As I was pulling the tree planter across a field, I noticed a couple of guys off to the side. One was pointing and giving directions and the other one was setting up a tripod with a movie camera on it. After the test planting was done, I went over and asked them what they were filming. Raymond Garceau, the director, told me that they were from the agricultural unit of the NFB and that they were making a film about this new tree–planting machine. I got talking to them and told them how much I loved films, especially animation films and that I wanted one day to work in that field. They suggested that I send a job application to the NFB. I think Garceau must have mailed me one, although I don’t remember exactly how I got it. Anyway, I sent it off, and about six weeks later I got a letter asking if I were interested in a position as junior splicer at $100 per month at the National Film Board of Canada. My father said, “Go! It’s the government!.”
So, on July 12, 1948, I boarded the CPR train in Galt, hay seed in my hair, hauling a cardboard suitcase bulging with clothing and my mother’s cookies and sandwiches. I was off to Toronto and then Ottawa [where the NFB was located at the time]. And on the morning of July 13, I reported for work as junior splicer. I was 20, and had no education save four years at vocational school, where I learned the rudiments to auto mechanics, drafting, house wiring and wood-working–all useful things if you’re a farmer, but not much help in filmaking. So I learned how to splice film and I got rather good at it. I met practically everybody involved in production because they all had to come to my tiny cubicle to get their films spliced. In spare moments, I’d hang around and watch people edit or go down to animation and see how they did it, and then go into the optical camera section and watch how animation was shot. I thought I was in heaven. Anyway, after about a year and a half of spicing and learning, I was invited to come and join the animation department.

I understand Tom Daly, who would go on to head the Unit B team, was executive producer for the animation department when you were there. What was your relationship like with him?

Tom was truly the heart of Unit B. He was the executive producer of the unit and its brains and muscle, too. He was a master editor, and still is, and he took great care that we new ones were fully instructed in the rules of the craft. He’d give regular lectures and with the help of a 16 mm projector took us through a film shot by shot that he or Stuart Legg – the great British documentarian brought in by Grierson during the war to oversee The Worth in Action – had edited. Tom had apprenticed with Legg and learned the craft from him. In the war years, they invariably had to use newsreel material from disparate sources – British, German, Portuguese, American or Canadian – yet made it look as if it all came from the same source. Later, as head of Unit B, Tom continued to mentor and guide us. And he still edited. I remember Colin Low and me looking over Tom’s shoulder as he cut Corral and later City of Gold. And he explained everything he did. He was a master teacher as well as an artist. Without his guidance and infinite patience, many of us would never have worked on a film. And Tom challenged us intellectually too. He’d get those of us who were undereducated to read the classics, like Plato’s Dialogues. He was giving us a university education. No other executive producer would have taken the trouble to do this. In the end, Tom’s efforts paid off. Studio B did some of the NFB’s most interesting work and has never seen his like again.

It sounds like an ideal work environment. Does your relationship with Roman Kroitor go back to the early days too?

I met Roman first while I was still a splicing boy. He came to the NFB — I don’t know the exact year — as a summer student. He came into Unit B and therefore was under Daly’s jurisdiction. Roman was doing his Ph.D. in philosophy, I believe, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I met him in the usual way. He brought something in for me to splice. We got to talking and pretty soon we were spending lunch hours debating deep philosophical things while eating our sandwiches. Roman always won any debate. He was just too smart for me. He was also very outspoken, and he spoke his mind without much regard for diplomacy. Once, one veteran NFB director stopped Roman in the hall and asked him how he liked his latest film. It had just been screened and he noticed that Roman was there. And Roman said, “It’s a pile of shit!” And I’m sure it was Needless to say, the “old boys” became a little leery of Roman. They didn’t appreciate his frankness. However a least one of the old boys liked Roman’s chutzpah, and so Stanley Jackson would often join us in our philosophical lunches, which we would often continue at Murray’s Restaurant after work, and then we would go see a movie. When I finally got out of splicing, I was fortunate enough to be taken in by the animation department, which was the fulfillment of a dream I had ever since I saw Disney’s Snow White and the Seven dwarfs in 1937. Eventually, I began working with Robert Verrall and Colin Low on The Romance of Transportation in Canada.

Did you work with Kroitor prior to the Candid Eye series?

Yes. Roman’s genius came in handy on City of Gold. He helped shape the film, working closely with Tom Daly, who edited it, Colin Low, myself and Pierre Berton, who wrote and read the narration. Roman was a technical wizard. We had the problem of doing the complex, curved camera moves over the photographs. This was an immensely difficult task, and Roman invented a solution. We called it the “Kroitorer” and it consisted of a hand–sized platform with four tiny caster wheels, a magnetic solenoid, within which was a sharply pointed armature and an oscillating power supply that caused the sharp armature to vibrate up and down 24 times a second. The photograph was covered with a sheet of clear acetate. The Kroitorer was powered up, and moved over the photo, the pointed armature leaving a trail of tiny impressions on the surface of the acetate. Then black grease pencil was rubbed into these impressions to make them more visible. Next, the acetate sheet was placed beside the animation table under a small microscope a ttached to the table and the photo was placed under the camera. The camera operator had only to align the crosshairs of the microscope with the first dot, shoot a frame, line up the second dot, shoot another frame, and so on. The results were perfect. This saved us weeks if not months of work and reshoots. Roman and I then worked together for a couple of years on the Candid Eye series.

How did Candid Eye come about? How was it initially conceived?

I can answer this very simply — Henri Cartier-Bresson. One year I was given a book of Cartier-Bresson photographs, The Decisive Moment. The photographs absolutely stunned me. Here was real life, as it happened, captured on film at the moment of greatest clarity and meaning. I showed the book to Roman, Tom and others, with the purpose of convincing them that we could do this kind of observation on film. We had already seen work from the British Free Cinema and we were impressed. And then there were the earlier films of Pere Lorenz, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. We were also very familiar with the fine wartime documentary features like Desert Victory and The True Glory. So it was in the air and the Cartier-Bresson photographs were the final inspiration. Roman agreed we should give it a try, so we took the notion to Tom, who agreed with us. Off we went with little experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. I think our first film was The Days before Christmas, a natural subject, considering the season was upon us. A whole lot of us fanned out across the city and began running film through the cameras.

Candid Eyes was a true departure for CBC-TV and for filmmaking in Canada. Did you have any particular idea about how Candid Eye subjects should be approached? Is it possible to say there was a mandate, or a distinct philosophy, behind the series?

The idea behind the Candid Eye series was simple: show our world and the lives lived by ordinary people without influencing or manipulating them. Observe but do not disturb; preferably remain invisible. Our intention was to put the real world on film — sound and image — in order to help people become more aware of their community and the world they lived in. Who knows whether we succeeded. If nothing else, we recorded a bit of history. Pretty high-minded, if not a little naive, eh? Anyhow, that was it. Not much of a manifesto, but it allowed us a great deal of flexibility and a lot of room to grow. Today, anyone and everyone can do this with the marvellous new DV cameras. I sure wish we’d had these in the old days.

How much of what you did was made possible by the portable 16 mm cameras and possibilities for synchronized sound, so often hailed as the tools that made cinema verite possible?

Alas, we didn’t have a lot of that wonderful new technology at the beginning of Candid Eye. All we had was the little 16 mm Arri S, not a silent machine, therefore not suited to shooting sync sound. For sound, the sound recordist had to haul around a portable suitcase-sized recorder, the Maihack, which was spring wound and weighed about 50 pounds. A little later in the game we used the sprocket-tape machine for sync sound. It was designed and built at the NFB, and used specially perforated quarter-inch audio tape. However, this was not a portable device. The Nagra arrived sometime later. For sync picture we had the 16 mm Auricon, but it couldn’t be hand-held. It weighed about 40 pounds with a 1,200-foot magazine, so we used tripods. A lot of our stuff was shot on the handy little Arri S. The sound recordist picked up a lot of ambient sound and, with careful picture and sound-editing, we got it to look as if the material was in sync an editor’s trick from theearlier documentary days.

You know, the guy talking on the phone, shot so that you couldn’t see his mouth move and editing his voice over the picture.

Here I should digress for a moment and talk about this editing business. The fact is, every cut is a lie. The cutaway of someone intently listening to someone speak is shot after — or before — the actual conversation. Even with multiple camera shoots, the editor uses the ideal reaction shot rather than the exact, matching moment. And when one cuts back to the speaker, likely as not, a long chunk of the actual conversation is dropped in order to get to the point. So, the truth is adjusted. The irony is that, in editing, one has to lie to tell the truth, otherwise the audience would die of boredom or the truth would be smothered under a mountain of chaff. Anyhow, toward the end of the candid Eye series, the camera and engineering departments built a small, noiseless camera. It was a bit awkward to hand–hold, a design problem that could eventually have been corrected; however, just then, the French company Eclair put the NPR on the market. Perfectly balanced for hand–holding, relatively light — about 18 pounds — and almost totally silent. But it came too late for the Candid Eye, even for Lonely Boy [the immediate heir of the Candid Eye series].

A prevailing myth is that there was an active dislike of Unit B and its new ideas at the Film Board, that you were the renegade team. Was it difficult to work as part of this group at the NFB at this time?

The rumour is only partly true. Yes there was a certain disdain toward these young upstarts who thought they knew how to make films. I don’t think it was outright hostility. We were a bit of a joke making films on 16 mm, the “substandard format” as it was called. “Real pros” used 35 mm. Eventually, though, I think we won the old guard’s respect. And even they began to try 16mm. It was a lot cheaper than 35 mm and the equipment was much more portable. The BNC Mitchell, a 35mm blimped sound camera, weighed in at about 80 pounds. The French section of the Film Board was much more open to the newer ways and quickly adopted them. Within a couple of years the whole place was moving in the new direction.

Now, to get to Lonely Boy. There seems to be a dispute whether Lonely Boy was part of Candid Eye or not. Was it?

Lonely Boy wasn’t part of the original Candid Eye series, although it was a direct descendant. It was made in 1962. Candid Eye ended in 1961 with Festival in Puerto Rico, which was about Maureen Forrester in Puerto Rico. The idea for the film, I guess, came from me. We hadn’t really looked at pop music yet and here was an opportunity to go that route — a young, successful pop star from Ottawa, of all places. Roman and I went to Boston to see one of his concerts. The scene was totally different from what we had experienced. We were convinced that there was a film here.

I understand you only had one camera on that shoot. How did your team solve the problems of capturing so much action simultaneously with one camera?

One camera was all we needed. We had pretty well absorbed Tom’s editing lessons by then. We became quite adept at shooting with a mind to the editing process — get lots of cutaway material; get wide shots as well as close–ups; get reaction shots; get material to establish the location, etc. I’m sure you’ve noticed that at one point in the film Anka gets dressed in a black suit before stepping out on stage. Then, when he appears before the crowd, he’s wearing a white suit. Obviously shot at different times. Not an ideal cut, but the general trajectory of the sequence allowed us to get away with it. As I said, every cut is a lie. But sometimes one has to lie to tell the truth.

There is such a sense of immediacy about the film, as though you and Roman were completely thrown off guard by the sensation Anka had become, which is a credit to how the final film was put together. How much did you know about him before joining him for the few days of the film?

We didn’t know much about Anka when we started out. But we did see his concert in Boston and we knew that the material would be rich and relatively easy to obtain. So, with a fair bit of experience behind us, as well as a considerable helping of naivete, we jumped into the river. Then it was a matter of being alert to every moment and continually observant and trying not to drown.

I find it fascinating that while synchronous sound was a triumph of the verite movement, you eschewed it at several key moments in the film, such as when the camera rests on the screaming girls’ faces while we only hear Anka sing. And when Anka is seen writing on stage at the Copacabana, but we hear his voice on the track talking about the gift he’d been given. Can you tell me a little bit about how these decisions were made?

Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. Turning the screaming down as Anka continues to sing happened because even though the sound editor, Kathleen Shannon, painstakingly cut and synchronized every scream to the non–sync picture, the screams got to be a bit too much. The only solution was to turn them off. Surprisingly it worked better without them. The imagination continued to supply them. And the sound of Anka’s performance wasn’t recorded at that location either. Marcel Carriere, the sound recordist, was off in the crowd recording the screams while I was shooting picture, non–sync. If you look carefully, you’ll notice moments when Anka’s lips go out of sync a bit as he sings. That’s because the sound was recorded at another concert, a couple of weeks earlier. The band’s and Anka’s routine were perfectly repeated every time. The tempos varied very slightly, hence the out of sync, but it was so close we could use it for short pieces. It’s the magic of editing. The same thing happened at the Copac abana. We used a recording from another location, but this time the tempos were far off, so we used Anka talking about his gift to mask the discrepancy. This also had the incidental advantage of adding another level of thought, allowing the audience to be in two places at once. So you see, it was necessity that made us become inventive.

The film is so ambitious, employing cutaways, creative use of sound, self-reflexivity, interviews. Can you expand a little on the editing of Lonely Boy?

The editing of a documentary is like creating something out of thin air, The shots are often unrelated in time and space and yet, by bringing them together correctly, they begin to attract each other and cohere, like molecules forming a new substance. In editing — like playing an instrument — one has to know the rules as almost second nature. Then one has to let go and allow the material to lead you. The shots often tell one where they should go; one has to be alert and listen. The process of editing, especially documentaries, is probably the most demanding part of filmmaking and it’s also the most rewarding. In the editing process, the film begins to live. Even ordinary material, well put together, can really shine. Conversely, good material badly edited can ruin the project. The cutting of Lonely Boy, as always, was a collaborative effort. I did the basic assembly and Roman and Tom would look at it and make suggestions. Then John Spotton and Guy Cote took over — each with one half of the film — and did the final polish, adding some ideas that we hadn’t thought of. So, you see, even at this stage of the game, film is an ensemble art. This way of working was probably unique to our gang. Many great films have been made by individuals working solo. We were just more comfortable as a chamber orchestra.

I would like to ask you about what it means to you to make an observational film because there’s something transcendent about Lonely Boy and this seems to have something to do with truth, whether it’s an emotional or visceral truth. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Any of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs shows us the truth. He was our inspiration because he did it so consistently. Clearly, it was no accident for him. He knew exactly when to trip the shutter. With film, it’s a little different. It exists in time, and so the element of time becomes important. In both cases, though, there’s a shared commonality — and that’s structure. Roman — the great structuralist — used to clutch his forehead after a rushes screening and ask despairingly, “What’s the structure? What’s the structure?” And he was right to ask it, because that’s what a film is really about. I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about: music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This “something” is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark, But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree, even though the tree itself is still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure.” And the structure is what permeates the universe from the subatomic particle to the whole cosmos; in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing structure or truth. So you are quite right to raise the question. Truth is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Wolf Koenig’s films and television include: Neighbours 1952 (ph); The Romance of Transportation in Canada 1953 (coan, AAN-AS); Corral 1954 (ph); Gold 1955 (sc/ph/ed); City of Gold 1957 (d/ph with Colin Low, CFA-FY, AAN-SD); It’s a Crime 1957 (d); The Days before Christmas 1958 (co-p/co-d/coed, TV); Blood and Fire 1958 (co-p/ed, TV); Glenn Gould – Off the Record 1959 (p/d with Roman Kroitor, also ph, TV); Glenn Gould — On the Record 1959 (p/d with Kroitor, also ph, TV); The Back–Breaking Leaf 1959 (co-p, TV); Lonely Boy 1962 (ph/co-d with Kroitor, CFA-FY); The Great Toy Robbery 1964 (co-p); The Drag 1965 (co-p, AAN-AS); Stravinsky 1965 (ph/ed/co-d with Kroitor, TV); What on Earth! 1966 (co-p, AAN-AS); This is the House that Jack Built 1967 (co-p. AAN-AS); Psychocratie 1969 (co-p, CFA-FY, CFA-AS); N–Zone 1970 (co-ph); Hot Stuff 1971 (co-p); The Family that Dwelt Apart 1973 (p, CFA-AS, AAN-AS); The Street 1976 (exp, AAN-AS); The Hottest Show on Earth 1977 (co-p/co-d/co-sc, CFA-SD); Spinnolio 1977 (p. CFA-AS); Eve Lambart 1978 (exp/ph); Why Men Rape 1979 (co-p/co-ed); Ted Baryluk’s Grocery 1982 (co-p, GA-SD); John Cat 1984 (d/sc); Connection 1986 (d/ed); Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance 1993 (co-p).

*

 

E.T. and Me

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

E. T. and Me

 

I was eight years old when the film E.T. the Extraterrestrial was released. I’d never heard of its director, Steven Spielberg, who’d only made a small handful of movies by then, including one about a deadly shark. You know the one. To be honest, I’m not sure I had the slightest idea that movies were made by people, let alone famous would-be-auteurs and masters of cinematic imagination. Without question, I didn’t have a clue that pieces of spliced celluloid could be put together, mounted on a reel and shown through a projector to produce the spell we fall under when the lights go down and the curtains part (I’m not getting into the whole digital thing here – it’s still cool and ephemeral, watching movies). I was blissfully unaware of the hard work that goes into just about everything. It was 1982. Drew Barrymore was an adorable tot with famous, handsome ancestors whose tumultuous, triumph-over-adversity narrative arc had yet to unfold. Henry Thomas, who plays Elliot, the protagonist of E.T. was, and would remain a virtual unknown, though I’ve since seen him more times than is probably necessary in the Brad Pitt epic, Legends of the Fall. But none of this matters. The big draw here was the inordinately cute alien with the enormous eyes yearning to make a phone call to his loved ones in outer space. And we weren’t disappointed. To this day, its images are fixed in my memory: E.T. dressed up as a doll hiding out in Elliot’s closet, not getting spotted by Mom, who fails to notice there’s an alien in her house; the trail of Reese’s Pieces (product placement? What’s that?) Elliot uses to lure E.T. into the house for the first time, and of course, E.T. powering Elliot’s bicycle as they surge up into the sky and glide in front of the moon. I saw the movie with my mother and sister and we all loved it. Did we eat popcorn? I don’t know. Were there any ads or trailers before the movie? No idea. But I do remember that when we came home, I went to my room and saw the most magnificent thing. I shouted to my mother and sister to come join me. We stood at my big window overlooking the street, staring out in wonder. There in front of us was the very first rainbow I’d seen in my life. My mother stood between my sister and I, holding each of us by the hand. For a few moments I forgot all about the movie and its kindhearted aliens and cool spacecrafts and bike rides into the sky. The rainbow – this impossibly beautiful sum of light rays hitting raindrops – was the most magical thing in the world. It still is, though I’m happy to watch many movies, and be utterly moved by the best of them, until the next rainbow comes.