Norman McLaren


Norman McLaren

Norman McLaren directing Neighbours, 1952. photo by Evelyn Lambart

Norman McLaren (1914-1987) is a pioneer film animator, famous for drawing both picture and soundtrack directly on film and for mixing together live action with animated effects. His work is experimental, yet conveys a remarkable sense of charm, humour and popular appeal. Like his mentor John Grierson, McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland. The son of an interior decorator, McLaren studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1937, but did not graduate. He was absorbed by his early film experiments and left Scotland to work for the film unit of the General Post Office in London.

Norman McLaren. Undulations

"Filmmaking is my work, drawing is my play." Norman McLaren, 1978

During WW II, Grierson convinced McLaren to come to Canada to work for the National Film Board, promising the young artist he would not have to engage in war propaganda. McLaren quickly settled into the NFB, establishing an animation department in 1941 and creating such ingenious and diverse works as Neighbours, 1952 (Academy Award winner); Blinkity Blank, 1955 (winner of Palme d’or, Cannes) ; Le Merle, 1958; Canon, 1965; Pas de Deux, 1965; and the five-part instructional film, Animated Motion, 1976-8. McLaren used an extreme economy of means to achieve sophisticated effects that have a powerful visceral effect on viewers.  His work brings together interests in abstract imagery, drawing games, folklore, music, performance and education.
Opening Speech

This above clip is a mash-up of two works, Opening Speech, 1961, directed by Norman McLaren, and A Chairy Tale, 1957, directed by Claude Jutra and McLaren. McLaren and Jutra are two of Canada’s greatest film directors, and in this sequence the directors perform in their own films. Both use the stop motion technique to explore the theme of a man struggling with an uncooperative object. This mash-up is meant as a tribute to the charm and inventiveness of two great talents, edited by contemporary artist NV. A new soundtrack featuring the Charlie Parker Quintet has been added. The music dates from the period when the films were made, and, like the films, combines innovation with entertainment.

In 1961, McLaren made Opening Speech: Norman McLaren, putting his name in the title, as well as starring in the film. The project moves away from McLaren’s abstract painting-inspired experiments (Dots, Begone Dull Care) toward performance-based, multi-media work that is also an important trend in the Fine Arts at this time. In the film, McLaren commands a large empty stage, from which he is about to make a formal speech, but the filmmaker becomes lost in his notes, the first of many difficulties for the reluctant public speaker. This reflects a famous anecdote McLaren tells about presenting a script and storyboard to producer Alberto Cavalcanti at the General Post Office Film Unit in London, only to have Cavalcanti tear it up with the advice to, “Never write down everything precisely in advance.” (Derek Elley, “Rhythm & Truths,” Films & Filming, June 1974).

If words on paper do not make a film, then what does? Sound and image, performance and technology. In McLaren’s film, the performance and technology are clearly at odds as the microphone quickly develops a mind of its own. The sound goes out of sync with the picture. The microphone then rebels in other ways. The viewer is reminded that film is a form of technology, but technology, like inspiration or creativity, can never be fully controlled.

Women Studying Optical Construction, 1964

The animator was also an accomplished artist. Norman McLaren. Women Studying Optical Construction, 1964

There is another consequence of this rebellious microphone: a potentially stuffy speech is turned into a humorous game. It might be helpful here to compare the microphone in Opening Speech to HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by Stanley Kubrick seven years later. Both films are about machines that function like living entities with their own personalities and agendas. But if the machines have minds of their own, the minds are out-of-harmony, spiteful, devious. In both films, a malfunction occurs at the worst possible time. The errant microphone disrupts a public statement by a famous artist, drawing attention away from the artist onto itself. The microphone’s antics render the artist mute, and turns the honor of the moment into a public embarrassment. It hijacks the event, the opening of a film festival, just as HAL hijacks the space mission in 2001. In order for the space mission and the film festival to get back on track, the obstructing machines must be murdered. Once this murder occurs, both films then unveil a screen and a pre-recorded message—on film—appears and restores order.

Paranoia

Opening Speech and 2001 mix humour and paranoia together in their handling of delinquent machines. Novelist Philip K. Dick, an authority when it comes to delinquent machines, commented: “The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way. They show an unnatural resistance to change.” (quoted in Carl Freedman, Science Fiction Studies, March 1984)

Paranoia involves a projection of fears, mixed with feelings of self-love and self-hate. These are the two facets of paranoia remarked on by Freud, “self-aggrandisement” and “persecution by an imaginary enemy.” (The Schreber Case, 1911) Elements of aggrandisement and persecution are present in Opening Speech. The public speech inflates the speaker’s ego and the rebellious microphone punishes him without apparent cause. Since no audience is ever seen, McLaren’s stage antics become somewhat imaginary. It is as if he were performing for himself or as if the fame and frustration of the moment are all in his head.

2001

In 2001: A Space Odssey, 1968, actor Keir Dullea "murders" the computer HAL.

In contrast, it is not the astronaut but the machine who becomes paranoid in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The machine’s fears reflect a personality weakness in an otherwise seemingly flawless system. This weakness makes the machine appear psychotic, but in a human-like way, as it faces the prospect of being deactivated and removed from the mission.

Opening Speech could be described as a meta-discourse on film. It demonstrates how cinema manipulates time and space, as well as disrupting our sense of reality. Opening Speech ends by directly quoting two famous silent films, Sherlock, Jr. by Buster Keaton and Entr’acte by René Clair, both made in 1924. In the scene in question, McLaren jumps into the cinema screen, then steps out again, shattering the words, “The End.” In these film, figures move forwards and backwards in time to disrupt the viewer’s sense of reality. All three films raise the question: is cinema real? And, if not, what is reality?

Janet Cardiff. The Missing Voice, 1999.

Janet Cardiff. The Missing Voice, 1999. Audio walk, commissioned by Artangel, London.

Opening Speech draws heavily on vaudeville, but it also looks ahead to key moments in Canadian visual art. In one of artist Janet Cardiff’s best known audio installations, The Missing Voice, 1999, the recorded audio guide accompanies the viewer through a tour of Whitechapel Library in London, commenting on work within the space. However, the guide begins making unpredictable remarks that lead the viewer away from the intended experience to other points of interest, shattering accepted conventions in an unnerving about-face generated by a willful mechanical device.

 

 

The Automaton & Surrealism

Tippoo's Tiger

Tippoo's Tiger, automaton with mechanical organ, India, about 1793. Victoria & Albert Museum

The automaton is a life-like doll or mannequin that moves by means of hidden gears. A precursor to the robot, the auto-maton is a one-of-a-kind marvel used to amuse large audiences with simple tricks. In contrast, the robot is a product–and symbol–of mass production and the culture that depends on assembly lines and standardized parts. The best-known promoters of automatons were clockmakers, inventors, illusionists, magicians–Maillardet, Maelzel, Robert-Houdin–men of the 18th and 19th century who wowed prince and public alike with their ingenious mechanical toys. It comes as no surprise to learn that silent cinema pioneer Georges Méliès was a collector of automatons, using deceptive moving props to augment his repertoire of cinema tricks. More surprising is to learn that Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, social reformer and novelist Charles Dickens and inventor Thomas Edison also experimented with mechanical figures. (Gaby Wood, Living Dolls, 2002) Mary Shelley wrote the story Frankenstein, 1818, two years after seeing Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton in the watch-making district of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Shelley’s father, William Godwin capitalized on his daughter’s success by writing Lives of the Necromancers, 1834, a legendary history of artificial life.

"TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton

Henri Maillardet. "TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton, c. 1820, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

A charming example of a working automaton is “The Draughtsman-Writer,” created by the Swiss-born, London-based clockmaker and inventor, Henri Maillardet (1745-?). Badly damaged when it was donated to the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia in 1828, the automaton was mistakenly attributed to Johann Maelzel, a man infamous for his fraudulent chess-playing machine, (Edgar Allan Poe published an exposé on this subject, giving some sense of the fascination and popular appeal of these automata in 1836). A staff mechanic at the Franklin Institute was able to get the the Draughtsman-Writer
working. Wound up, the automaton produced 4 drawings and 3 poems, one of which boasted how he was beloved by women all over the world and even by their husbands, then concluded: “Écrit par l’automate de Maillardet,” revealing the true identity of the inventor.

automaton poem

An automaton's poem reveals the identity of its creator.

Automaton Sketch

Cupid Sketch produced by Maillardet's automaton

The automaton’s poems and drawings are designed to answer questions from the audience, such as “What does the future hold for me?” or “What am I thinking?” One drawing shows a cupid with bow and arrow, another shows a sailing ship. As portents of the future, love and a journey, are agreeable messages. The automaton is not just a mechanical wonder, it is also a fortune teller and a mind-reader. In his essay, The Uncanny, 1919,  Sigmund Freud writes at length about automata as examples of things that produce an uncanny effect. Freud’s definition of uncanny involves a fearful feeling toward something that is simultaneously perceived to be familiar, yet strange and disturbing. Freud develops this into a theory of how the unconscious returns suppressed mental impressions in an altered guise. Reactions to the automaton, Freud suggests, touch on our own ambivalent attitudes toward life ad death.

As a figure in art, the automaton represents a blurring of boundaries between animate and inanimate things. In a painting or a work of literature, a doll can be as life-like as a person. Artists can also portray people as mechanical and unfeeling. Art allows the viewer to perceive this humanizing and dehumanizing process at work.

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

An artist celebrated for exploring the automaton theme was Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). de Chirico was a Greek-born painter of Italian parents who travelled widely throughout Europe. His classical training was broadened by encounters with German philosophy, Symbolist painting and Cubism. de Chirico merged these diverse sources into melancholic pictures of deserted squares, often depicted in late afternoon light with long shadows. These paintings convey a dream-like sense of dislocation, where odd juxtapositions of unexplained objects, such as classical arcades, train stations, statues and modern mannequins, drawing instruments, easels, maps and scientific diagrams anticipate the surrealist encounter. In her introduction to Metaphysical Art, 1971, Caroline Tisdale notes how many philosophers and artists share a mistrust of physical appearances as an explanation of reality. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed how people become complacent surrounded by familiar things and this complacency stunts imagination. As an counter measure, Schopenhauer encouraged original thinking through a process of estrangement. One strategy of estrangement Schopenhauer suggests  is “to place monuments on low plinths so that they appear to walk among men.” (Tisdale, p. 9) The work of de Chirico, with its mannequin cities, fosters a similar feeling of estrangement. Art historian Wieland Schmied compares de Chirico’s figure of a jointed doll without a face to a blind but wise prophet: “Don’t we associate these figures with the idea of ‘inward vision’ or prophetic ‘second sight,’ precisely on account of the blindness that prevents them from seeing the existing world?” (Giorgio de Chirico: The Endless Journey, 2002, p. 61) Schmied goes on to describe the automaton in de Chirico’s work as an alter-ego, a doll artist. While similar visionary automatons appear in comic dramas written by the poet Apollonaire, a friend and early promoter of de Chirico, and Alberto Savinio, de Chirico’s brother, Schmied’s argument misses the satirical impact of a mannequin as thinker staring blankly at a complex diagram of the universe. Our new artificial selves are no more capable of understanding reality than our old physical selves were.

The Astronomer

Giorio de Chirico. The Astronomer (The Anxiety of Life), 1915

De Chirico suggests that classical statues and public monuments, which once represented community values in the guise of an ancestral hero or mythic goddess, have become obsolete in the modern age, replaced by mass-produced mannequins in shop windows. The mannequins are rootless and exhibit a plastic adaptability to different situations: they become the new comic heroes of absurd coincidence and irrational encounters.

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

To many artists, the automaton, with its hidden inner workings, recalled the operation of the unconscious. The term Automatisme was adopted by the Surrealists in the 1920s and by abstract painters in Quebec in the 1950s. Influenced by psychoanalysis and by Sigmund Freud’s use of free association techniques, artists were intrigued by the possibility of creating work that escaped the censorship of the conscious mind. By making art that defied rational principles, the surrealists hoped to bait, antagonize and expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Automatiste painting proudly asserted a connection to an authentic inner world, unhampered by artificial social barriers and conventions. This claim of authenticity would later be disputed by postmodern critics, who countered that all art, like language, is mediated by convention. This is criticism in hindsight. In the repressive Duplessis era in Québec, before the “silent revolution” of the 1960s, Automatisme served an important function, infusing creative energy via abstract art into an otherwise parochial art scene. For Paul-Émile Borduas, author of the revolutionary manifesto, Refus global, 1948, and leader of the Québec-based Automatistes, Automatisme was a move away from imitating foreign styles as Canadian artists had done in the past. Instead Borduas urged his fellow artists to be as innovative and inventive as leading artists elsewhere and to pioneer new ways of seeing of their own. For this, Borduas is celebrated as one of the most inspiring and liberating figures in Canadian art.