Big, isn’t it?

I saw COSMIC ZOOM, a Canadian Film Board animation by Eva Szasz, when I was a small, microbe-sized child, and truly, it did freak my mind. As David Cronenberg has persuasively argued, it’s very hard to tell what will be upsetting to a child — he was terrified by a moment in THE  BLUE LAGOON (not the Brooke Shields version) as an infant, my friend Robert was terrified when he went to see BAMBI and was subjected to trailers for TOMMY and SHIVERS — go figure! — but even now I would guess that showing children a wordless movie that teaches that they are miniscule specs in a vast, indifferent and dark universe, prone to mosquito-bites and containing only viscous glop which, analysed at gigantic magnification, reveals only a featureless BLACK DOT (I swear I had recurring nightmares about that dot, which to me represented The End of the World — and I only just realized this film was the source)… well, it does seem possible that such a film might blow a few emotional gaskets in the Very Young.

Looking at it again, I dig the visual beauty, also the way the whole film occurs during the suspended decay of the last chime of a church clock, which seems very Cocteauesque. And Pierre Brault’s music is strangely disturbing, not just for the atonal swirl of the reverse movements back to “normal view” (to borrow a phrase from THIS ISLAND EARTH), but for the benign, tranquil quality which seems to embody the universe’s total indifference to human life and makes the film all the more terrifying.

I’m telling you, I’m shrieking through my fingers just at the size of CANADA, here.

In this age of Google Earth, what the movie does is maybe less amazing to the kids out there — the faux-satellite views of ancient Alexandria in Alejandro Amenabar’s AGORA didn’t wow me as they once might have, for the same reason — but the stylistic approach is still attractive, I think.

44 Responses to “Big, isn’t it?”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    The weird thing about Canada is the sheer size of it vis-a-vis the tiny population. It really is a country of empty spaces – which I don’t think any film has ever really captured. Cronenberg gets a sense of the sterility, but not the emptiness.

    God, that sounds I don’t like the country where I grew up, and I do. But I think the “great Canadian film” has yet to be made!

  2. rosemurasaki Says:

    Now I feel dizzy.

    So, basically, Charles & Ray Eames ripped this off and added a redundant commentary in Powers of Ten?

    And Men in Black signed off with something similar, but speeded up:

  3. William Shatner (another great Canadian of our time) wanted to begin his Star Trek film with a cosmic zoom, but he was talked out of it by the fussbudgets at Paramount. Then Jonathan Frakes swiped the idea for his first directorial outing.

    The Eameses do seem to have borrowed the idea. IMDb says that’s a physicst called Philip Morrison narrating, but to me it sounds exactly like the Great Percy Helton. It’s definitely better without VO — the Szasz version gives you space to think (and freak).

    The other great evocation of Canadian bigness for me is a Laurie Anderson routine where she talks about getting away from it all in the wilderness. She was chopping firewood when the axehead flew off. She waited, and it landed a short distance away. And she suddenly thought that if it had clonked her on the head, she was miles and miles away from help, and became rather alarmed…

  4. rosemurasaki Says:

    And the intro to Contact:

  5. Yep. and as the title of this post suggests, Powell and Pressburger were there first, although they couldn’t really suggest a single-shot approach.

  6. Wow. Thanks for that. Wouldn’t it be nice if the running time of every Superman film looked pretty much like this?

  7. I still like the idea of a James Bond-type film where the evil uber-villain threatens to take over (destroy?) Canada. I got a huge kick out of the notion when it was brought up recently in a previous post. Perhaps well-known Canadian (by way of Old Blighty) Mike Myers could revive his Austin Powers franchise with this premise (although there’s a big part of me that wouldn’t recommend it). I also thought that the old SCTV crew would’ve had a field day with the idea.

  8. Heh.

    My Canadian-raised friend Simon thought it was interesting that Cronenberg chose to make Ballard’s Crash, since the author’s vision of a concrete, impersonal modern city didn’t correspond to Simon’s perception of London at all, but seemed a perfect match for his memories of Canada. And what Robin Wood saw as Cronenberg’s “cold and joyless” worldview is really just a restraint that’s foreign to Hollywood notions of emotion.

  9. Well I am not that much into Cronenberg and I don’t find Atom Egoyan or Guy Maddin cold and joyless either.

  10. Oh, they’re not. But they don’t exert themselves to create an impression of warmth either — the emotional heat is understated and unannounced. Of course Wood’s beloved Howard Hawks was a great exponent of understated emotion, but his films do exude bonhomie. Canadian cinema finds a different route to the heart.

  11. Pfft. William Shatner, Mike Myers. Why not remember some great Canadians actors?

    Like Ned Sparks.

  12. Canadians made fine slashers in the 1970s and 1980s: BLACK CHRISTMAS, TERROR TRAIN, PROM NIGHT, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and MY BLOODY VALENTINE all spring to mind.

  13. They used to show Canadian Film Board animations and US public safety films after the news in Ireland very frequently, partly as filler in one-hour slots to deal with the fact that American TV episodes are only 45 minutes long, and we saw some very strange and inappropriate things as children looking forward to 7 p.m. shows, like “The Last Prom,” a car safety film directed at teenagers. I remember seeing this film in that slot and being completely mystified by it.

    As you said, you never know what a child will react to: I was absolutely terrified by an episode of “The Greatest American Hero” that involved electrocution, so much so that the show was thereafter banned in our household!

  14. I remember seeing Norman McLaren’s Neighbors on Channel 4, back when you could discover stuff like that on TV. Made quite an impression, especially the sound effects/music.

    Never realized Sparks was Canadian — he seemed to embody an archetypical US flavour of hard-bitten cynicism, better than any US actor.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    I’m a huge fan of Guy Maddin but don’t think of him as a ‘Canadian’ film-maker per se (except in the glorious MY WINNIPEG). He seems to inhabit some queer parallel universe all his own.

    Atom Egoyan has done some interesting stuff, but he failed completely to capture the rural Canadian community in THE SWEET HEREAFTER. I spent several years of my childhood in a town very much like that, and he got the atmosphere totally wrong.

    Yes, it was a brilliant move by Cronenberg to relocate CRASH to Toronto. It works so perfectly there, you’d never imagine the book was set some place else.

    Plus, Cronenberg doesn’t do other places particularly well. Both NAKED LUNCH and M BUTTERFLY are weakened by his failure to bring settings to life…and the London of EASTERN PROMISES resembles no city I have ever seen.

  16. I thought that Cronenberg’s vision of London was fascinating – even though it didn’t in any way resemble my version of the city – because it emphasized the way in which a huge metropolis can be experienced as something akin to a circumscribed village by an actual resident. You can see the same small selection of streets, people, locations every day and live them as a subset of the larger city, which fades into the background.

    I’m struck by how many people where I live – Boston – experience the city as more of a series of individual neighborhoods, so much so that “my” Boston is completely different to that of a colleague who lives in a very different part of town. My impression is that this is equally true for people of, say, different immigrant groups: Haitian Boston is very different to Irish Boston or Russian Boston, for instance.

  17. It’s true, he’s quite culture-specific. I don’t think shooting Naked Lunch on location, as originally planned before the Gulf War got in the way, would necessarily have helped, either.

    Egoyan seems pretty much an urbanite. The barn full of lit candles in The Sweet Hereafter was a dead giveaway. I know he said he was looking for a slightly surreal effect with that, but it was way too extreme.

    Also saw a recent interview where he bemoaned the failure of Where the Truth Lies, saying that to succeed nowadays a film noir had to be like LA Confidential. I wondered what he meant, and then he explained: “Really good.” So I wondered why he hadn’t made a really good film in order to solve that problem.

  18. I’m guessing that most cities can be carved up into ethnic sections, especially in the US, where laws enshrined such behavior before the 1960s, and custom keeps it that way even today, however illegal it might be. We had Chinese, Italian, African-American, and Mexican sections of town. Now we have added Vietnamese and Laotian sections as well. I happen to live in a small neighborhood where there was never much of an ethnic identity (it was mainly WASPy, but with a lot of immigrants), and there never will be one now since the nearby hospital got so big that all you can tell of the residents now is most of them have medical degrees. It’s hard to get a whole city right on film, it seems easier to get just a piece of it right.

  19. Judy Dean Says:

    Anyone who belonged to a UK film society in the 60s and 70s will recall, with mixed feelings, the work of the National Film Board of Canada. As a one-time FilmSoc secretary who turned inevitably to their catalogue of freebies when our budget was running low and we needed a programme filler, I was always a bit apprehensive – sometimes they were as good as Cosmic Zoom, sometimes not…….

    And I don’t know how many Eastern European animated allegories about creation and evolution I inflicted on my fellow members.

  20. I think if you get a tiny bit of a city right, it can stand for the whole. Rear Window certainly feels like a slice of 50s NYC, although I have no way of judging its accuracy.

    The other great Canadian shorts are The Railrodder and its accompanying doc, Buster Keaton Rides Again, for which I will always be grateful to our friends in the north.

  21. I don’t know why that short should have provoked angst. The kid was wearing a life-jacket.

  22. That’s not going to protect him against the VAST GODLESS UNIVERSE!

  23. Of course, much of this discussion pre-supposes that you want to get the city “right” – and of course people may feel they got it “right” by their own standards. When I lived in Berlin in the late 1990s, local opinion seemed to be pretty much evenly divided as to whether “Run Lola Run” captured the spirit of the city as it was c. 1998, for instance. Since so many Berliners are not native to the city, all such opinions to be taken with a pinch of salt, naturally.

  24. Gareth,
    This is true, Hitch didn’t make San Francisco look as I remembered it and I was there not that many years after Vertigo (I was small, but we had relatives that lived very close to SF). It seemed glazed and touristy, the kind of San Francisco I saw on field trips in elementary school, where they kept us far away from Market St and the wharf. I don’t think it mattered to the story, but it did distract me the first couple of times I saw it.

  25. I remember seeing this one TV around 1971 — I think is was shown on a US kid’s program called Curiosity Shop. Watching it now on my computer monitor at work, I started feeling extreme vertigo, and I wanted it to end about halfway through!

  26. Foulard — good! I bet that’s the desired effect!

    The Snow film reminds me that if you stand on a beach and bend over backwards, you can see that the horizon actually curves UP at the edges, as if we were all living on the inside of a vast sphere. Which is probably the case and everything else is a NASA conspiracy.

    Hitch always took a somewhat touristic view of locations, using whatever a place was famous for. But in Vertigo he also creates a sort of dreamlike City of the Dead…

  27. Thank you, David E, for that clip from Snow’s LA REGION CENTRALE.

    Here one should note that Michael Snow is also Canadian, and that his WAVELENGTH is one of the greatest less-than-feature-length films ever made.

  28. I think we might be on our way to a Unified Theory of Canadian Cinema here. One that unites Cronenberg, Maddin, Szasz, Shatner and Snow. I’m just not sure if we can put it into words.

  29. David,
    Very true, but I wonder why he picked San Francisco for his City of the Dead. It was the least dead city I’ve been to.

  30. I think great Canadian film has yet to be made. Nice article on Canadian Cinema!

  31. I guess Hitch needed an American city with an air of history being apparent still, not wholly concreted over.

    Well, the great Canadian film — you have something to aim for! It’s quite handy not having a Golden Age as such, should stir people up to make one happen!

  32. What I was hoping to find (and didn’t) was a clip from Snow’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Denis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) which among other things contains several renditions of “O Canada.”

    It also contains numerous renditions of Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream.”

  33. THANK YOU! I’d always traumatically half-remembered a mosquito on the arm of the sleeping picnicker in Powers of Ten but was never able to find it, and THIS is where it comes from.

    What I think Szasz captures particularly well here is how much of space is SPACE – those points where everything disappears from sight and you are left in absolute darkness. I’ve started reading Olaf Stapledon’s extraordinary “Star Maker” whose narrator makes just this journey, much of which is taken up not by a view of whizzing stars but huge swathes of utter nothing. Written in 1937 Stapledon’s description of the Earth viewed from space is also spookily accurate (he describes the sea as a mirror, an observation I’ve ecountered nowhere else pre-Sputnik).

    Oh and on the subject of the National Film Board of Canada, I encountered this animation yeaterday. It’s superb and somehow features REAL EYES:

  34. Is the whole thing CGI just pretending to be puppets? That would explain the eyes, or at least substitute one technical mystery for another… and is the sexual tennis player Jerzy Kosinski? He looks like Jerzy Kosinski.

  35. I really liked ”Where the Truth Lies”, I thought it was this great genre deconstruction the way ”The Player” was and Kevin Bacon, Firth and Alison Lohmann are quite good. I think Egoyan didn’t mean disrespect to the Curtis Hanson film and caught himself in time to avoid risking a bad headline, he was just referring to the formulaic approach to “neo-noir” in Hollywood at the time which is imitating that film. Egoyan’s film isn’t about noir really, it’s about memory and mass media and the infringement on the former by the latter and it expresses that in quite fascinating ways. It’s my favourite 50s nostalgia film over the last decade and quite in the spirit of Kazan, Ray, Minnelli.

  36. It’s interesting that it deals with those themes since by creating a very dark story using characters clearly modeled, at least superficially, on Martin & Lewis… that’s kind of a vivid case of the mass media infringing on memory…

  37. Not CGI. To my eyes clearly not (and now I think of it CGI can’t do eyes either). No, there’s a couple of “making of videos” whose footage suggests that the eyes were superimposed. You also learn, terrifyingly, that this took two men two years of 14 hour days. The old fashioned way.

  38. Wow. But those backgrounds are frequently CG.

    It’s interesting how the eyes MOVE robotically, maybe that was just an instruction for the “eye actors”.

  39. Interesting. Maybe the eyes are real, but still animated (like the actors in Svvankmajer short). It’s an extrordinary effect.

  40. Crikey I’m bad at typing. Sorry, I should get out more. So should these guys:

  41. […] doc in which everything is fake but everything is true, and it’s part of the NFBC’s ongoing project to make me feel small. The special effects are really terrific — I’d argue that their Moon is even superior […]

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