Friday, October 9, 2015

Unreel: the lost art of the film countdown

This is an example of something that affected my childhood just as profoundly as those horrendous Civil Defense TV announcements with their headsplitting deeeeeeeeeet sound that convinced me I was heading for certain doom ("This is only a test").  During the Cuban Missile Crisis it very nearly happened, but that is another story.

When I was going to McKeough School in Chatham, Ontario, back in 19-blah-whatever, every once in a while there would be an Announcement. This would come from one of the spinster schoolteachers (all our teachers were Miss Somebody-or-other, no men or married women, we didn't think they could teach), and would set our little hearts a-thumping: we would be seeing a "fillum" that day.

We were trooped with military precision down to the basement of that hideous neo-Gothic structure (recently ripped down due to dry rot and excessive haunting) and sat on the damp floor. This is how we did things, how we moved bodies around: we marched in to school to military music in the morning, the boys on one side of the building and the girls on the other, as if grade school kids were going to indulge in some sort of awful debauchery. 

There we saw a Fillum, or Fillums rather. These were boring beyond measure, always produced by the National Film Board, and had no story to them at all. They were industrial things about how to manufacture pencils, or prim lessons in manners and decorum, how to obey your parents, etc. etc., though sex was off the table then, if not forever.

I'll tell you why we were transfixed by all this. It was a Fillum, that's why, and a bit of a break from the deadly boredom of all those lessons on penmanship, obedience and being a good citizen. But most of all, it was because of THESE things, which I didn't know went by the prosaic name of film leaders. To me they were a sort of rocketship into the land of soaring imagination, or at least the National Film Board. We were told NOT to do the countdown out loud, though many of us whispered it and, of course, filled in the missing "2" and "1" (and I am still not sure why it is always absent). By this time the space race was on, so that we actually were listening to countdowns on TV as one pathetic rocket after another fizzled and fell.

There is still great mystery and beauty in these things, since they're all different and all so utterly incomprehensible. If they have a purpose, I will never know what it is. Maybe filmmakers strung them all together into a countdown stag reel, who knows. (I'd be up for it.)  

Anyway, they don't seem to exist any more, which makes them even more precious in my eyes. That sound, too - the phhht, blp, blp, THUD, bzzzztztzt - all that stuff, the fuzzy splicky staticky noises I'm having such trouble describing - these danced with the splashy urgency of the images, the rush of descending numbers, the flash of - what? - that thrilling countdown that so quickly disappeared.

So where am I getting these, from whence have I dredged them up after all these years? As is usually the case, I 'm not sure of their origin. Before YouTube, all this treasure was just lodged in the back of my brain somewhere, so that I really didn't know if it had happened or not. If I tried to talk to anyone about it, they looked alarmed, as if I had gone dangerously insane or was at least delusional, so I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut. Then, of course, it all turned out to be True, because here it is again, flashing right in front of my eyes in a never-ending Mobius of magic.

This last one is a bit of a cheat, since I was still on Gifsforum (poor, dear, defunct Gifsforum), which gave you many options, including three speeds, turning colour into black and white or sepia, and reversing direction, not to mention captions and gifs that lasted up to 30 seconds. (These, which seem fairly long compared to the violent 2-second lurches you usually see, are only 20 seconds maximum.) So just to see how it would look, I ran it backwards.

By the way, if you are very, very quick, you might be able to catch the subject of the film. I can see that one of them says "ice fishing" (it's only on one frame or something), and another says "Pream" (remember all the Pream gifs I posted a while ago? Oh well.) The leaders are mostly gleaned from those YouTube compilations of old commercials and/or TV sitcoms of the '50s like Topper and I Married Joan, and no doubt are edited out in a lot of cases. But give me the big, sloppy sprawl of rotting old video, the kind of Fillum we used to devour while sitting on the damp floor of the basement of McKeough School, give me that raw unedited footage complete with the wild ride of the leader with its mysterious. seemingly useless and impenetrable countdown.

P. S. Watch all of these, they're all different and it took me two years to make and collect them. I went to a lot of trouble. Okay?

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