Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paddle to the Sea of Memory

One spring afternoon sometime in the mid-1970s, one of my grade-school teachers rolled a film projector into our classroom in Leaf Rapids. He darkened the lights and turned on the projector, flecks of dust visible in the cone of light. The projector’s fan whirred to life and film clattered from front reel to back, unspooling the beautiful and gentle tale of a young boy’s dream and his wooden creation’s incredible journey from Nipigon country to the Atlantic Ocean. The film was “Paddle to the Sea,” Bill Mason’s 1966 adaptation of the 1941 children’s book by Holling Clancy Holling. Another timeless gem from the National Film Board of Canada, the film was nominated for an Academy Award.

Over the years two or three other teachers played this film for my classmates and me; I probably saw it for the last time in grade seven or eight. Perhaps because I grew up in a remote wilderness very similar to that portrayed in the film, the story of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s improbable trek fascinated me. Like the boy who carved the little man and his canoe, I grew up surrounded by vast forests interrupted only by remote streams and rivers. And like the young carver, I dreamed of what wonders the world beyond might hold.

I love this film for a number of reasons: the beautiful colour cinematography, the whimsical sense of humour, the gentle, evocative narration, the understated but genuine performances of actors human, animal, and inanimate. (Paddle-to-the-Sea himself expresses a wide range of emotions thanks to Mason’s clever direction.)

But most of all, I love the film’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature. “Please put me back in the water,” reads a plea carved into the bottom of Paddle-to-the-Sea, and this plea is duly obeyed by all who read it, even though the beautifully crafted toy is a unique and wonderful treasure. Those who discover the little man and his boat are compelled by empathy for the boy; they help fulfill his dream that Paddle should reach the sea.

Whenever I feel disappointed in humanity’s foibles – our rush to war, our careless destruction of our environment, our everyday cruelty to each other – stories like this remind me that we are just as capable of greatness and good. I’m grateful to Holling C. Holling, the NFB, Bill Mason and my teachers, who all helped me see some of the beauty in man and the world.

After you’ve watched the film,  be sure to read the original book. It’s just as wonderful as the film, with an expanded storyline and beautiful illustrations.


Starship Jeffers said...

Earl, thanks for posting these great NFB films. I remember seeing "Paddle To The Sea" (PTTS)maybe a half-dozen times. It stands up well today as a prime example of Canadian cinema at its best.

I do not share your glowing assessment of the NFB, although around year 2000 to present they did do a good job of archiving their films. However the NFB now compared to how it was in the 1960's & '70's is much reduced. Getting production assests out of the NFB now is like wringing blood from a stone, and distribution? Forget about it.

Consider how the Trudeau and Mulroney gov'ts hacked back the NFB in the 80's and 90's to the point where it was about to be closed forever. Contrast to the Australian Film Board which has national distribution rights, meaning that Aussie theatres must show a certain percentage of Aussie films, and that their FB gets a return from the box office. In the 1980's, Aussie fils strug big with the likes of Mad Max and Mel Gibson, and more recently with film-makers like Baz Luhrman.

Internet is changing the face of film distribution somewhat, so players like the NFB now have a shot at the market dominated by televison and movie distributors, like Paramount, Buena Vista, Fox, etc. Still, you can't expect to make money without distribution. The NFB is definitely not up to playing in the major leagues. Canada could have emulated the Australian example, instead our tax dollars are going to pay for Mulroney's lawsuits and Trudeau jr.'s political ambitions.

Being in a landlocked prairie province as a child, I did not identify deeply with PTTS, except that I wanted the boat as a toy. One of my teacher was a cinematography buff, and explained how some of the shots in the movie were set up, detailing camera angles and the like. She wanted our class to become film-makers. One of the older classes had a kid who went on to become a Canadian child actor star, and another whose family was in deep with the CBC. My class was pretty much duds as far as film-making was concerned, which I now believe was our teacher's secret disappointment, or one of them, anyways.

We saw a fair amount of NFB animation (I wonder where the multiplane animation camera they used in PTTS went?) in school. At the NFB website, you must look up the twisted, lonely animation genius of Cordell Barker and especially Norman McLaren, whose trippy work drawing directly onto film stock led to his 1953 Academy Award for the slapstick and deeply disturbed short "Neighbours".

PTTS may be a classic Canadian film, but "Neighbours" is a baring of the Canadian soul, and a snapshot of the world at the time. Best not to watch it alone, or show it to children.

Earl J. Woods said...

Thanks for that, Jeff. I do agree that support for the NFB isn't what it was; I was looking backward with somewhat rose-coloured glasses. But whatever its current travails, I do believe that the institution has given the world some measure of great art, and I hope that by talking about these films we can convince our elected representatives that the NFB (and the arts in general) should be a greater priority for our nation.

We actually saw McLaren's "Neighbours" in grade 10 or 11, when I was attending Leduc Composite High School. I was blown away, and it remains a favourite.