Thursday, December 25, 2014

When is a blackbird white?





As I prepared to adopt another bird (more later!), an old song about a bird kept playing in my head. A French Canadian song. A song I had heard only once. A song I thought was attached to a piece of animation. The animation being done by the legendary Canadian film innovator Norman McLaren. But do you think I could find it?

I had no idea of the title. All I had was "French Canadian folk song about a bird" - specifically, a bird whose body parts drop off, then multiply. Strange?

But not if it's Norman McLaren, the mystic pioneer of animation who was known to draw images and even a sound track directly onto film stock.




Where did I see this? On TV? In school? It might have been at Bondi, the mystical vacation spot of my youth, where on Friday nights we saw films, not on a TV but projected on a screen. This was up in the "rec room", a woody-smelling place meant for rainy days (which was seldom used). All I remember is a ping-pong table, some old 78 rpm records (including the complete score for South Pacific), and a wheezy old organ you pumped with your feet.

But ah, those Friday nights! Often the movies were from the National Film Board, a Canadian institution which spewed out educational films, movies that were Good For Us (and taught us something, too!). But there was also this wacky aspect of the NFB, the animation. (Canadian animated shorts still win a disproportionately high number of Oscars.). McLaren's work was known for being surreal to the point of dadaism.




With this one, I remembered the sorrowful Gallic minor-key tune and even the French lyrics vividly, and the poor bird made of white chalk lines with its body parts flying all over the place. But what was the song called, what was the name of the film, and (more to the point) could I dig it up on YouTube and see it again?

The internet never ceases to fill me with wonder. It didn't take long, after all: I tracked it down on (naturally) an NFB web site/film archive.  I knew it as soon as I saw the title. It's called La Merle (The Blackbird), even though, ironically (though not for McLaren), it's white.




Post-bird reflections. I thought of one more Bondi special, called Glooscap Country. Found it easily, as this was something every Canadian schoolchild was required to see. I remembered the narrator, and beautiful scenes, and just one line: "Amethyst. The eye of Glooscap." And by God, not only did I find the movie - I found the line. So one more bit of seemingly-irrelevant information rattling around in my head has clunked into place.


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