I sometimes complain about events at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (mostly for its industry-heavy programming, security procedures, and scary metal detectors), but the Academy provides more interesting fare than you might imagine. Last Sunday, they completely outdid themselves: for $5, the public was treated to catered wine and Asian food, a conversation with Canada’s National Film Board composer/sound designer Normand Roger (interviewed by Ratatouille composer Michael Giacchino), a pristine 35mm screening of four animated masterpieces, an interview with NFB animation legend Frédéric Back plus an exhibition of his artwork, and a Back-designed poster given on the way out the door. Try beating that at your local multiplex.
Normand Roger may not be a household name, but I quickly discovered he is a major artist who has spent nearly 40 years creating soundtracks for the NFB (plus documentaries, commercials, installations, even the PBS Mystery! theme) in addition to European and Japanese productions. Two of the films shown at the Academy were already on my all-time favorite short list–Back’s Crac! (1981) and Michael Dudok de Wit’s Father and Daughter (2000)–and the other two films are technically astonishing–Eugene Fedorenko’s Every Child (1979) and Alexander Petrov’s The Old Man and the Sea (1999).
Roger was born in Montreal in 1949 to a butcher who owned a grocery store; dabbling in music, he studied orchestration when he was 17 and began “scoring” abstract art, which eventually landed him a job (at 22) at the NFB working in animation, known for its forays into Norman McLaren-style experimentation. Roger explained to us that the NFB had a tradition whereby the sound effects and music are essentially created by the same person; when there is a budget big enough to accommodate an orchestra, it usually only includes 20-24 musicians, often (thanks to overdubbing) playing more than one part. Roger–a soft-spoken and charming gentleman–shrugged as he recalled his career, emphasizing his willingness to adopt new techniques and crafts, constantly learning on the go, and he was particularly proud of his creative diversity.
Every Child is an eccentric, six-minute film for UNICEF about an orphan baby being moved from house to house that illustrates a principle of the Declaration of Children’s Rights insisting on a person’s name and nationality. The soundtrack was created entirely through the vocal chords of two mimes from Montreal and was artfully layered together by Roger to produce a beguiling and hilarious alternate world. (A highlight for cinephiles is the duo’s impassioned rendition of a Michel Legrand tune from Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg.)
Roger has designed the soundtracks for all of Frédéric Back’s films since Illusion (1975), and Crac! is a movie that only gets more complicated and expansive the more I see it. Ostensibly the story of a rocking chair carved from a forest tree, used for years by a growing family, and eventually discarded only to find itself in a museum, the film is also the story of Quebec development, its native cultures and rural origins and eventual urbanization. In between these two narratives, it manages commentaries on traditional customs, indigenous music, child rearing, mass media, and even modern art. Created by Back’s inimitable pencil sketches on frosted cels (his expressionist wedding dance, all whirling blues and reds, is a high point), the film is an epic without dialogue; the images are held together by a musical theme Roger slowly develops over time.
Alexander Petrov is probably the world’s greatest paint-on-glass animator, as last year’s impressionist, Oscar-nominated My Love attests. His adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was designed for IMAX theaters, and its 29,000 oil compositions–painted by fingertip rather than brush, on multiple panes to simulate depth–create an overwhelming experience on the big screen, brought to even greater life by Roger’s thrilling sounds and music. But while Petrov is a master of lush and photorealistic detail, his films occasionally suffer from a romanticized sense of human emotion, particularly in his dialogue: in this film, a boy tells his wounded grandfather, “Get well fast, for there is much to learn and you can teach me everything.” It’s pretty much straight out of Hemingway, but it’s delivered with a kind of wooden sincerity that makes the sentiment ring hollow. By and large, however, this is powerful storytelling. Roger told us the most important points in any score are those in which the music starts and stops, and the musical pauses in Petrov’s film are among the film’s most evocative moments.
Michael Dudok de Wit, on the other hand, is a master of minimalism and emotion (as his Prix Robert Bresson award in Droue sur Drouette attests), and Father and Daughter is likely his most potent work. Again without dialogue, the film traces the life of a small girl who separates from her father at a nearby lake and returns to wait for his return year after year as she grows older. Dudok de Wit’s visual style renders patches of the landscape and silhouettes of his characters that reap deep emotional rewards in the service of the narrative. He asked Roger to score the film with the famous Romanian tune “The Waves of the Danube,” and even though Roger knew the song has different connotations in Europe (Old World nostalgia) than it does in America (wedding anniversaries), he agreed to use it, and the arrangement–which changes according to various chapters of the daughter’s life–works beautifully.
The 84-year-old Back is killing two birds with one stone this week with his appearances at both the Academy exhibit and SIGGRAPH. I’ve written about Back before, but it was especially pleasing to see examples of his work up close, the detail, soft renderings, and particularly his vibrant use of color. (One inspiration for him is the Quebecois painter Clarence Gagnon [1881-1942], whose love of realism and luminous, natural shades can be easily seen in Back’s cinema.) Original cels as well as preproduction artwork make up the bulk of the exhibition, but it also contains some surprises: sensitive animal drawings Back made when he was 17, political posters for various groups, and even contemporary activism created in the past year. Less like his lyrical film animation, his series of satires of famous paintings (like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus turned into a 1970 visual parody) bristle with outrage at a society with destructive values.
“Frédéric Back: A Life’s Drawings” continues in the foyer of the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater (1313 Vine Street in Hollywood) until November 1.