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click opera - Scottish independence and Norman McLaren
February 2010
 
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Sun, May. 6th, 2007 01:08 pm
Scottish independence and Norman McLaren

At last Thursday's elections the Scottish National Party became the most powerful force in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, opening the way to a referendum on complete independence for Scotland. What do I think of the prospect of independence for the land I was born in? Let me answer that obliquely: Norman McLaren.

Norman McLaren represents everything that I'd consider great about Scotland. For 50 years -- between 1933 and 1983 -- McLaren produced brilliant animations which are full of Scottish motifs, Scottish sensibility. Look at 1965's Mosaic, for instance, which basically riffs on tartan, or 1957's Fiddle De Dee, which uses Scottish fiddle music. And yet McLaren, a graduate of Glasgow College of Art, did all his significant work outside Scotland. Which makes him, sadly, a rather typical Scot.



Influenced by the Russian formalists and by Eisenstein, Norman McLaren spent his entire working life at the National Film Board of Canada, basically promoting the nation of Canada. It's work full of visual verve and wit, the fruit of near-total creative freedom. It could never have been made in the private sector. But equally, it could never have been made in Scotland -- the Scotland we know now, anyway. Just as I had to leave Scotland because there weren't enough indie labels there to sustain a music career, McLaren left his homeland in order to do work at his own level. Would Scottish independence change that? Then I'm for it. But I'm not sure it would.



McLaren went to Canada at the invitation of John Grierson, another brilliant Scot. Like McLaren, Grierson was highly receptive, culturally, to what was going on in the Soviet Union. For McLaren, Eisenstein and the Russian Formalists were determinant. (Would independence for Scotland bring about a cultural renaissance as amazing as the one that happened in the early days of the Soviet Union? Then I'm all for it.) For Grierson, it was the writings of Lenin on film as propaganda. Grierson -- descended from the same kind of radical post-Calvinist Scottish teacher and minister stock as my own family, a kind of left wing Lord Reith -- was very much focused on the problem that Bryan Caplan raises in his book about democracy; that poorly-educated and unmotivated populations make a mockery of democracy, and their bad choices will see it replaced, eventually, by something else. But whereas Caplan ends up suggesting that experts should run things and just cut the people out of the loop, Grierson took the Leninist route; the government should constantly educate, agitate, stimulate and motivate the people.



To this end he invented the genre of documentary as we know it -- he was the first to use the term -- working first with the GPO Films Unit in London (making classics like Night Mail) then heading off to Canada, where, in 1938, he recommended that the government start a film unit. Grierson became the first Canadian Film Commisioner, and the body he headed became the National Film Board of Canada. Their website describes their mission:

"The NFB is a federal cultural agency within the portfolio of the Canadian Heritage Department. Initially known as the National Film Commission, it was created by an act of Parliament in 1939. Its mandate, as set forth in the National Film Act, 1950, is to produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations."



One of Grierson's first actions in his new role as benign propagandist for Canada was to invite Norman McLaren to start an Animation Unit. So, from 1941 until his death in the late 1980s, Norman McLaren ran this animation unit, making film after brilliant film. Like Grierson, McLaren was contemptuous of the values of Hollywood producers. They were "dope pedlars". And, as you watch McLaren's animations (they've just come out on a 7 DVD box set which I very much want), it becomes clear that this work could only have been brought into the world with the support of a state agency.



Despite the highly formalist (Cute Formalist, I'm inclined to call it) nature of the work, it contains humanistic values which would probably be replaced, in the commercial world, by aggression, ugliness, triviality or sentimentality. It's also highly unlikely that the commercial world would have sustained such a brilliant creator on his own terms through five decades of productive work. Only an indulgent and enlightened state -- like a kind parent indulging a gifted child -- would let someone like McLaren basically play at his own pace throughout his entire working life.



In a sense, this is advertising, but it's rarefied advertising whose general purpose is to refine, define and shine up the image of a nation. In other words, it's (incredibly civilised) propaganda. And it's something Scots do well for other nations. Would we do it as well for our own? Neighbours is perhaps McLaren's most famous animation; its anti-aggression, anti-war theme led to work with another idealistic government organisation, UNESCO. (By the way, isn't the blippy electronic music fantastic?) He also spent a lot of time in India and China, raising awareness there of the potential of animation.

Scotland made characters like Grierson and McLaren, but so did the Soviet Revolution. In return, they helped Canada to define and promote itself, using it as a springboard to India, China and UNESCO. McLaren's work is Scottish, but also global. He's an artist -- admired by Picasso, amongst others -- but also an altruistic public servant, a propagandist, a formalist, a revolutionary, a man with world-scale vision.

Did what happened in Scotland on Thursday make more McLarens likely? If so, I welcome it. Did it make it easier for future graduates of Glasgow School of Art to leapfrog both England and America as places to make their mark and develop a truly global vision in a multipolar world? Again, I hope so. Would an independent Scotland bring a government-funded cultural renaissance? Would there be a National Film Board of Scotland as brilliant as the Canadian version? If so, hurrah.

Would creative Scots like Grierson and McLaren stay at home? I doubt it. The world is just too big and too interesting. But funding has to come from somewhere, preferably somewhere enlightened. An enlightened government determined to keep its people positive and active and involved. If a new Scottish Enlightenment -- or a new Soviet Revolution, for that matter -- edged closer to Edinburgh on Thursday, hurrah! If not, well, Scots will just have to keep advertising other people's enlightenment as and where they find it on their travels. They'll have to keep adding their creative value to other people's states. It's something we've learned to do rather well down the centuries.

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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 12:01 pm (UTC)

I love the way the film looks like lace ribbon in that first picture.


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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 12:36 pm (UTC)

What an odd coincidence. Night Mail seems to have attracted quondam self-imposed exiles; Auden and Britten were yet to skip to America, though, and Britten did come back. That sublimated urge to actually cross the border, following the cheque and the Sir Harry Lauder.

My intuition is that Scotland is more likely to become active yet poor (culturally speaking) in the short term if there is an actual split. There will be a strong state-encouraged nationalism to bolster the fledgling country, and this will dictate which projects receive copious funding and which are ground under foot.

That does mean that (cross fingers) the Scotland of fifty years after independence could provide fertile ground for cultural growth: in the same way that Ireland now does through tax breaks; and from the same motivations of the accumulated guilt of the well-meaning oppressor. A long time to wait, though. It'd be quicker to put Livingstone in charge of the Scottish Parliament, and change its name to the Greater Lothian Council. Job done.

(I was sure you weren't of the stock that your English accent on the vocals on Folktronic implied, but couldn't remember why. Another triumph for occasional half-hearted Googling and subconscious physiognomical analysis of LiveJournal icons!)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)

English accent! Hooooooooooooooots!

Some new states have all their interesting cultural stuff up at the front -- the Soviet Union, for instance. They keep the kitsch for later.


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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)

Soviet Union? Ah, well, you'll definitely be wanting Red Ken involved as early as possible. (If nothing else, he's got the cult of personality down pat.)


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 02:03 pm (UTC)

The body movements in "Canon" remind me of Algorithm March (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlRne8tZrI4). Lovely! - K.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
the market is not the mass market

While I'm sure you can pile anecdote upon anecdote about the need for government funding for the arts, the fact remains that the vast majority of great art and music has been made in response to the demands of the marketplace or on commission. Nowadays, the "market" is as small as you want it to be; the market does not now (nor has it really ever) meant the mass market. "Government-funded" anyway translates to "bureaucrat-approved."

I have yet to be convinced that the coercive force of the government (don't pay your taxes, go to jail) ought to be used to fund quirky animations and performance art. I suppose every cent spent on art is a cent not wasted on war. But shouldn't governments really be wiping out malaria and filling potholes and so on?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
Re: the market is not the mass market

the vast majority of great art and music has been made in response to the demands of the marketplace or on commission

Well, state commission is really just the modern version of the Pope heaping millions on Michaelangelo to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, isn't it? McLaren, had he been born 500 years sooner, might have been in the pocket of an enlightened pope rather than an enlightened government. He could have been subtly promoting Christ instead of Canada.


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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC)
One man's Heat is another man's Pure Reason

While I'm sure you can pile anecdote upon anecdote about the need for government funding for the arts, the fact remains that the vast majority of great art and music has been made in response to the demands of the marketplace or on commission.

This is one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? I state facts; you pile anecdotes; he/she/it makes baseless observations. At any rate, you pile wonderfully, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before your piling attracts patronage. I'd hold out for an Arts Council grant if I were you, though.


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)

"...poorly-educated and unmotivated populations make a mockery of democracy, and their bad choices will see it replaced, eventually, by something else. But whereas Caplan ends up suggesting that experts should run things and just cut the people out of the loop, Grierson took the Leninist route; the government should constantly educate, agitate, stimulate and motivate the people."

Ah--well, there it is, then. Scratch a theory, find a prejudice. So much for equality and brotherhood--they merely would prefer an even more rigid hierarchy, but one which favored them instead of the average citizen.


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)

McClaren's work is without a doubt humane and charming, but to dismiss out of hand the idea that such things are not possible in the commercial realm is a mistake. It's a matter of scale, working within the limits of time and resources, which can be just as invigorating. Just depends on the kinds of restraints one is best suited for. Surely there's room in the world for both.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)

to dismiss out of hand the idea that such things are not possible in the commercial realm is a mistake

You're quite right, I shall dismiss the opposite idea instead!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC)

Socialism doesn't assume we're all so equal that any kind of education is an impertinence!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC)

(That was in response to "So much for equality and brotherhood--they merely would prefer an even more rigid hierarchy, but one which favored them instead of the average citizen." The comments hierarchy could do with being more rigid!)


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
that blippy electronic soundtrack...

...was actually created by McLaren "painting" a soundtrack directly on the film. Back in those days, the soundtrack for a film was printed as a kind of waveform right alongside the photographic frames, and was read by an optical device in the projector. McLaren used this (and the knowledge that film moves at 24 frames per second) to alter the frequency of little dots and lines, thus creating pitched tones and textures and some semblance of volume control too. (things i learned in animation class in college)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 04:54 pm (UTC)
Re: that blippy electronic soundtrack...

Interesting!


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
Re: that blippy electronic soundtrack...

Wow, that's awesome.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 11th, 2007 01:46 am (UTC)
Re: that blippy electronic soundtrack...

me again.

Yeah, it was a great class (with Lois Siegel, herself an NFB filmmaker) at John Abbott College, out in the far western suburbs of Montreal (practically at the tip of the island actually). We actually got to try this out ourselves with totally blank film stock (no emulsion), to paint on and do scratch animation and do optical sound experiments. Kids today have no idea...ah the heady days of 1987.

You can think of it as an early form of sound synthesis, similar in execution to the Mattel Optigan, an organ that used similar optical-waveform "records", itself similar to the more well-known tape-based Mellotron.

Momus, I think you can probably scrape up several Bell & Howell optical soundtrack projectors in Berlin; do I hear a new album concept coming on? :D

AJ in Montreal


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yhancik
yhancik
yanou
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)

ah, thanks for posting this !

i missed a McLaren retrospective at the Anima festival in Brussels a few months ago, so *at least* i can get a weee bit of it


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)

I'd lke to see Scotland run England for a couple of hundred years.

I think the Roman occupation left a very bad scar on the psyche of the English, and we need help from The Scots to get back on track.

Hadn't seen that Nightmail for ages, Gawd don't it sound like a Pet Shop Boys record.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 06:26 pm (UTC)

Yes, Auden and Britten's rhythm is very similar to the one Neil uses on "West End Girls" ("Have you got it, do you get it, if so how often, Which do you choose, a hard or soft option?"). And there's something distinctly gay about the way the letters are described: "gossip... on papers of every hue, the pink, the violet, the white and the blue, the chatty, the catty, the boring...".

Then of course there's the last line "For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?", which occurs on David Bowie's 1983 song "Ricochet". I suppose it was part of the "Hard Times" element of the 1980s, the fact that if you weren't doing well you were out of work. The 1980s liked to see itself as one part the roaring 20s (for those doing well), one part the broken 30s (for those not).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 06:50 pm (UTC)

This is a particularly interesting review of the DVD box set of McLaren's films, raising issues like canonization, communist subtexts in the ostensibly formalist work, and McLaren's homosexuality.


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 07:36 pm (UTC)
Is schadenfreude now a Scottish word?

Mmmm a gay Leninist Scotland, I'll buy that.

What I think is happening in Scotland post election is interesting.
It could be PR stasis will take over with it all it entails about deals and politicking. Backs will be stabbed.

It seems that this vote for SNP was a leftist revenge vote to get a message to Labour who are all now chanting about "change".

Politics at its most beautiful is pressure. Being there and gaining concessions. Labour and to an extent the UK/US axis would never have changed if a situation like Scotland wasn't available to experiment with. I believe Scotland has on numerous occasions been a testbed for new policies and developments. It largely dominates the leadership of New Labour and of course was a source of the origins of Parliamentary socialism. Now it is saying we are not afraid of what News International are telling us.

I am curious to see where Alex Salmond's "Progressive Coalition" is going to end up. It began with disgruntled socialists - just look at some of the areas that swung heavily to SNP, traditional working-class Labour safeseats. Now we have the political machine reorganising itself in a time of spin, trying to be gracious but losing their heads in their good suits. People are watching and dogfights are not what we voted for but my word they are amusing.


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ex_newironsh15
chris
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 10:14 pm (UTC)

haha. The economist:

Yet both Scots and English gained from the 1707 union of the kingdoms. The Scots got free trade with England, and their trade elsewhere flourished under the protection rather than the hostility of the Royal Navy. Scottish industry prospered as the British empire did—an empire much of which was Scottish-built: about a quarter of the Britons in 19th-century India were Scots (witnessed even now in such place-names as Macleodganj and Campbellpore), and a Canada without Scots in that century might well today be a largely French-speaking one.

Damn you / us!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 6th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)

How fitting that fellow Scots Boards of Canada were inspired by their own ilk, across the Atlantic. Maybe this germ of thought is more Scottish than you let on!

~Kyle


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(Anonymous)
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
McLaren style.

If you like McLaren you have to check out Richard Reeves, an animator also from the NFB. He does animation direct onto film strip. His audio is also done directly onto the same strip so that each formal kinetic movement corresponds with the audio (which is his trope).


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(Anonymous)
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 02:28 am (UTC)
Re: McLaren style.

While you're at it you could take a look at the work of Len Lye, who some consider an influence on McLaren.

You can see his "Colour Box" on http://expandedcinema.blogspot.com/2006/12/len-lye.html


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(Anonymous)
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 03:33 am (UTC)
john smith

john smith also springs to mind - don't they look similar?

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/29/john_smith.html

,,ant


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 03:37 am (UTC)

Whenever I see the name McLaren, all I can think about is three buffalo gals kicking rhymie outside.


I'm sorry...I couldn't read the rest of the post. You should've put McLaren at the end!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 08:56 am (UTC)
my quiz for all

Hello
You are The Best!!!
G'night



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(Anonymous)
Mon, May. 7th, 2007 11:12 am (UTC)

Via Eisenstein we can further link McLaren's art to Japanese theatre. Turns out that Eisenstein's theory of montage was influenced by a deep interest in Kabuki.

Check out this page at Glasgow U. (http://www.hatii.arts.gla.ac.uk/MultimediaStudentProjects/98-99/9505060m/objects/eastinf.htm).


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 18th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)

I never knew until recently that the Bristish Post Office's film unit back in the 30s seemed the formative workplace for so much avant garde film.
http://www.cartoonbrew.com/ideas-commentary/len-lyes-post-office-films

Also considering the number of discs and quality of the transfer, the recent boxed set of McLaren is quite a bargain. The temporal effects and textures are all vandalized up by youtube compression in my opinion. I guess the only minor quibble I have with the DVDs are the films are arranged as programs on various themes like "dance", "surrealism" etc. so it's not actually 7 discs of unique content because the more famous films repeat giving a strange sense of deja vu. Considering McLaren would often perfect ideas over several visually similar films. So I guess while a chronological presentation would be less "digestable" then the 7 disc long "theme" compilations something chronological would give a sense of how his technique and themes progressed and interests changed.

-ndkent


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