Archive for March, 2009

National Film Board of Canada logoI made a spectacular personal discovery a month ago.  And I say “personal” only because when I search the topic online it appears as though everyone else, from print media to the blogosphere,  is in-the-know.  I missed the press release, obviously.

But no matter, because this is the type of announcement that is, unlike most other current news stories, only getting progressively better and better.  Curious?

In January, the National Film Board of Canada launched an online screening room, effectively blowing the dust off 70 years of archived films.  Hundreds of experimental films,  animations, and Canada-focused documentaries are now available to stream, to share, to embed.  And more are added monthly.  It’s an incredible film and culture resource as well as a great way to ‘kill’ 10 minutes, or half an hour, or a whole evening.

For the NFB, this is mostly about brand awareness.  Their brand is damn good (over 5000 awards, including 12 Oscars) and many of their films have been widely influential; but popularly, the NFB remains relatively obscure.  Despite their films’ presence in public libraries, in classrooms, and in the past billings of every major film festival, Canadians seem passively aware of the institution and its legacy.

Which is what makes this offer so fantastic.  Prior to this online endeavoNFB Mediatheque stations on John St, Torontour, NFB films were really only accessible by VHS (though poorly distributed) or at the NFB’s mediatheque stations in Toronto.  This is to say that you had to seek out the films.  I mean, really them seek out.

During almost every trip I have made into Toronto over the past four years (say, two dozen downtown adventures), I have tried to carve out some time at the mediatheque booths.  I made it there three times.  The third time, only last summer, Colleen and I managed a record hour and a half at the self-service mini-theaters ($2 all-day access!), but really never got beyond the index.  We scrolled (and scrolled), managing only to write down titles we’d like to see…at some point…in the future…when we have more time.  We were, incidentally, in Toronto that day to submit our applications for an E2 working visa at the Korean consulate– a move that effectively rendered our “must see” list as obsolete as an all-access pass to the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.  Alas.

Hence, my (our) excitement when I stumbled across a Walrus article detailing the new online screening room.  Hence our delight over the course of the last month as we’ve holed ourselves up in our Korean apartment with our laptop, our cable connection, and, now, our Canadian film archive.  We’ve forsaken society to spend evenings with the NFB; we’ve dined with the NFB; we’ve fallen asleep to the NFB; we’ve been late for work because of the NFB.

But enough now.  I want to share some with you. I had hopes of embedding the films into this post, but it appears that I am unable to do so on wordpress.com — which is an open-invitation (read: cry for help) to anyone tech-savvy enough to solve this problem.  Click on the photo image to access the film on the NFB site and click on the director’s name to access their bio on wikipedia.


The SweaterThe Sweater” by Sheldon Cohen, 1980, 10 min 21 s

Who remembers this classic rendering of Roch Carrier‘s “The Hockey Sweater”?

"Canada Vignettes: Log Driver's Waltz" by John Weldon

Canada Vignettes: Log Driver’s Waltz
By John Weldon, 1978, 3 min

A delightful staple from the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood.

Honourable Mention:

The Big Snit by Richard Condie, 1985, 9 min 54 s
The Cat Came Back
by Cordell Barker, 1988, 7 min 39 s


"Neighbours" by Norman McLaren

Neighbours” by Norman McLaren, 1952, 8 min 6 s

McLaren, a pioneer of stop motion animation, takes a comic look at the escalating violence of neighbours in this Oscar-winning short. — see also McLaren’s A Chairy Tale, 1957, 9 min 54 s

"Very Nice, Very Nice" by Arthur LipsettVery Nice, Very Nice
by Arthur Lipsett, 1961, 6 min 59 s

Lipsett was an influential collage artist, piecing his films together from sound and audio scraps.  Read an overview of his life and work here — see also “21-87“, which influenced George Lucas’ concept of ‘The Force’.


The documentary technique, in Canada, has been widely used in all areas and aspects of art.  Some poets and critics have even gone so far as to claim that “documentary poetry” is a uniquely Canadian mode of writing.  However true that may (or may not) be, there can be little doubt that Canadian writers and filmmakers have lent considerable breadth and innovation to the field of documentary-making.  The NFB, itself, was first headed by the very man who coined the term ‘documentary’, John Grierson.  Under Grierson’s direction, the NFB began cataloguing the lives of ordinary Canadians, eventually also supplying the equipment and technical know-how to immigrant and First Nations communities so that they could represent themselves– a notable shift in perspective.  Here are a few recommendations:

Ted Baryluk's GroceryTed Baryluk’s Grocery
John Paskievich, Michael Mirus, 1982, 10 min 19 s

This fantastic, Genie Award-winning short on Ukrainian-Canadian Ted Baryluk’s Winnipeg Grocery store is visualized entirely of photographic images and narrated personally by Mr. Baryluk.

"Lonely Boy" by Wolf Koenig and Roman KroitorLonely Boy
Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, 1962, 26 min 35 s

A highly influential, cinéma-vérité documentary on Paul Anka in his early teen-sensation days.  It’s also a nice reminder that Beatlemania didn’t create the swoon-screaming-female type.

Kanehsatake 270 Years of ResistanceKanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance
Alanis Obomsawin, 1993, 119 min 15 s

This feature-length documentary, centering on the Oka crisis in 1990, has won 18 international film awards.  Obomsawin filmed the armed-standoff from behind the barricades for the duration of the 78 day-long standoff.  In light of Ipperwash and Caledonia, make time to see this.

RiP! A Remix ManifestoRiP! A Remix Manifesto
Brett Gaylor, 2008, Chapter 1 (0f 13): 5 min 23 s

RiP! proves to the doubting crowd that the NFB remains bold and avant-guard. Here, Gaylor marshals an open-sourced afront to corporate media culture, creating a digital mash-up of culture to challenge current copyright laws.

Needless to say, the archive has a lot of depth.  The NFB’s “expert playlists” can help you categorize and navigate the archive.  I’d love for you to add your own film links in the comment section; there are a lot more NFB films that deserve mentioning (and many more still that I haven’t seen).  So please pass on the love and enjoy the viewing while you’re at it!


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Lest you think my students are only capable of techno-brutalized Engrish sentences, I thought I should make mention of a few instances where the electronic translator, well, worked…kind of.

Ex #1

Usually, after working through a new reading passage with my students, I request that they create sentences using their newly acquired vocabulary.  Try as I might to get my students to actually invent new sentences, most simply copy the word’s usage directly from the story we read.

Last week, the word “chew” seemed to be particularly problematic.  Their homework, then, amongst other words, was to create a sentence using “chew.”  Statistically speaking, these were the results:
70% returned with a fully plagiarized sentence: “Little Billy chewed his food noisily.”
20%” handed in fairly simple (but commendable nonetheless) sentences of their own imagination:  “I chew food” or, it’s variant, “I chew gum.”
10% (ie. one student) submitted this delightful ‘creation’:  “He spent the whole night chewing it over.”

Ex #2

In a case very similar to that mentioned above, I asked for a sentence Rockhopper Penguincontaining the word “eyebrow.”  We were learning about penguins and had just read about the splendidly amusing features of the Rockhopper Penguin:

“The yellow feathers of the Rockhopper Penguin look like long eyebrows”

Again, most of my students simply copied this sentence as homework; thankfully, however, one student ventured out into the creative realm, writing, “my eyebrows are novel.”

I chuckled aloud at the idea of ‘novel eyebrows’ but my student was quick to come to the defense of his sentence.  He stated emphatically that, yes, his eyebrows were very novel indeed.  I looked up from his homework to see for myself.  And sure enough, his eyebrows, though wide enough to be bushy, were, in fact, rather sparse– the hairs receding up into his forehead sporadically, with no clear delineation of a single brow.  It was a wonder I had never noticed them before.

“You’re right!” I conceded, “your eyebrows are rather novel!”

Ex. #3

This has nothing to do with techno-translators, but everything to do with a good quote.

I have a student who, on any given day, would far rather be playing computer games than studying English (okay, I have more than a few of these types).  But no other student is like this one.  First of all, his name, Luigi RunsLuigi, is derived from the (in?)famous Nintendo character.  Luigi is quite big for his age, consistently lumbers into class late, and never, absolutely never, has a pencil with him.  But I really enjoy working with him; the more difficult it is to interest a student, the more rewarding it can be when you (finally) have them focused and learning.

Yesterday, unfortunately, Luigi was less than interested.  He squirmed all class, tuning in only insofar as his needing to answer the occasional question.  Near the close of class, he interrupted the lesson with lazy waves of his hand and an equally tired, almost anguished, call:

Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher…I have question.
H’m, yes, Luigi.
Who made English?
Well, no one really.  It happened over 1500 years ago.
Well, I want to kill him.

The bell rings, leaving me feeling quite enamored with my profession.

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“Your late twenties are all about coming to terms with your own mediocrity.”  So said my minutely older friend a few months ago, before resigning his body to the lulling heat of the green-tea bath, sliding out of sight beneath the water’s shimmering, yellow-green surface.  I wanted to object, to muster a bold retort.  I wanted to marshal an argument based on the conceptual fruits of perseverance, discipline, and hard work.  I wanted to wrestle a smidgen of realistic truth out from a tired, idealistic cliche, like “all your dreams are within your reach,” or something like that.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs.  This is the best I could find.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs. This is the best I could find.

But of course, I didn’t (as my grammar makes abundantly clear).  I watched as my friend’s hair spread itself flat along the surface, as it danced cautiously, like seaweed, in the agitated waters of a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang).  I watched from my perch on the other end of the small pool; my arms spread wide, crucified to the tiled edge.  My lower torso bobbing weightlessly to the shooting time of two underwater jets.  My stomach exposed, naked.  The steam rising slowly through my sodden mass of chest hair.

I knew that any counter-argument would only amount to hot air and, in this case, quite literally.  Our education systems (both in the West and here in Korea) are structured so as to give off the plausibility of your being anything you want to be: combine hard work and perseverance with good grades and innate abilities and, presto (or is it abracadabra?), you’re halfway up the corporate ladder to a management position, or combing the ocean floor for new marine life, or blasting off to space, or what-have-you.  It’s not that this never happens.  Indeed, many of the people we idealize, whose biographies we keep repeating, seemed on-track for success at a very early age.  Lance Armstrong, for instance, was cycling far out to neighbouring towns at ten years of age and then calling home to be picked up, so of course he went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  Or a nineteen year old Steven Spielberg, who skipped out of a tour of Universal Studies, retrofitted a closet into his “office”, and worked away on his first film, unnoticed, for some time before being found out (and subsequently hired on for his tenacity).   Since teaching in Korea, I’ve felt this strategy of hero-making a bit more acutely.  The textbooks I teach from are full of short bios on famous people, designed to inspire young students– and depress their aging teachers.

With no such immediately obvious trajectory to famous success, I’ve been developing a bit of a neurosis.  There is, here, an anxiousness to aging that I have not hitherto recognized.  There is an acute, looming sense of coming-up-short, of  having underachieved and, hence, squandered what “could have been.”  This neurosis is relatively minor (or, at least not maniacal– rest assured dear family, friends, and concerned readers).  It mostly consists of constantly, and almost unconsciously, comparing myself to whomever wrote what I am reading, directed what I am seeing, or spoke what I am hearing.  And it’s not an outright comparison either; it is simply noting each person’s date of birth and recognizing that they were a member of parliament at 32, or a published author at 27, or a first round draft pick at 18…etcetera, ad infinitum.

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms.  Photo by Jasonunbound

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms. Photo by Jasonunbound

It was at this jjimjilbang and to my wizened and minutely older friend that I admitted to such unfair self-comparisons.  Incredibly, I found an ally (for misery loves company), someone with the same penchant for feelings of inadequacy before the cultural productions of the young and the brilliant.  It is fitting that our ensuing conversation occurred within numerous hot pools, saunas, and cold waterfalls, all of varying degrees of temperature; a body simply cannot help but feel old in a Korean jjimjilbang.   Perhaps it’s the rapidly pruning fingers and the absorption of so much water that makes one feel closer to death; or it’s the way in which six hours of bathing seems to call for a thousand years of sleep; or, at the very least, it’s the horrific amount of dead skin peeled off by scrubbing brushes at the sit-down shower stalls.

Whatever the case, it is the prospect of death, I think, which drives these ludicrous comparisons, which makes me horrified at the thought of ‘wasted time’.  I rarely read a book twice; I almost never see a movie a second time.  And it was nice to share a genuine laugh at our ridiculous notion of gazing out over the vast expanse of human artistic production and comparing ourselves to any one and all.  It was like an AA meeting for the washed up and old (yep, we’re almost 26 and 27 respectively)!  I know, intuitively, that such behaviour is destructively selfish.  For, what else is it but pure selfishness when you cannot see past the tip of your own nose to genuinely admire the accomplishments of another person?  Admittedly though, we did share a triumphant high-five, in the sea-salt sauna, I think, upon realizing that the quirky and brilliant Cohen Brothers, though youthful, are in fact in their early-fifties!

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

Anyway, I think this habit goes back a long way.  In elementary school, I used to envision the Ninja Turtles breaking through the cinderblock wall of my classroom and calling me away to an all-important battle against Shredder.  My dream never did pass beyond the gaping jaws of my classmates, who were clearly jealous that I was on the “in” with Donatello,  for that was all I wanted anyway, to be different and recognized and, well, cool.  Perhaps not much has changed.  I hope this all sounds rather more melodramatic than melancholic; it’s not that I’m an unhappy, dissatisfied person– much the opposite in fact.  It’s simply that in the face of others’ successes, I feel I must not waste anytime.  And this ticking clock (call it my biological clock) produces a measure of anxiety from time to time.   That’s all.  Besides, the comparisons are not all bad.  Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran the headline “At 70, A Novelist Is Born, about Alan Bradley, a crime writer from Kelowna, B.C.;  though I will never be a crime writer, such stories do give me hope.  And maybe, too, I should stop reading Nietzsche (who, incidentally, was chair of philology at Basle University at twenty-four years of age).

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