Frederic Back was one of the most important and acclaimed animators in Canada throughout his relatively short career in the 1970s through the early 1990s. Although born in The Territory of the Saar Basin (a dual-occupied U.K.-French territory that created from the acquisition of German holdings after WWI), he grew up in the cosmopolitan French-German town of Strasbourg. Many of his teenage and young adult years were spent in Paris before Back moved to Quebec in 1948 along with his family to take a job with Radio-Canada TV as an artist for TV show title sequences. During this period, he honed his minimalist skills as an animator, creating beautiful, albeit minor works, akin to those being developed simultaneously by Jean Giraud ‘Moebius’ back in France. After a dozen years in Canada working on title sequences as well as stained glass artistry, he was given the opportunity to direct his first work for Radio-Canada TV: 1970’s short film Abracadabra.
Directed, animated, and co-written by Back (alongside screenwriter Graeme Ross), this first work would lay out much of the groundwork for Back’s future projects. The artwork is very minimalistic, and his characters (four young children of different ethnicities) border on stereotype as Back works to develop a film about a subtext, about ideas rather than about characters. His bold line is reminiscent of Herge and other classic comic artists, and thereby openly at odds with the Disney Paradigm of animation, as well as the burgeoning Japanese animation styles popular at the time. Back’s art is staunchly within a European tradition of cartooning that was being lost to much of the world, and is today nearly completely absent except in the most underground of Underground Comix or Graphic Novels. It draws from deep wellsprings of tradition: from tribal and cave art, from traditional comics, from impressionism and pointillism, and overall from a rather effete artistic context.
However, the content of the film is itself quite banal. Abracadabra is a fairy tale of sorts recounting the children of the Earth living an idyllic life amongst the flowers and sunshine, innocents untarnished by the industrialization and commercialization of a post-WWII post-God post-modern world. A sorcerer enters the picture and decides to use his magic to steal the sun, to use his techno-fascist alchemy to claim total rights to a resource that ought to be open to all, part of the commons. He spirits away the sun, and total darkness descends upon the land. All plants begin to die, storms pour forth rain perpetually, and the joy of the our young Scandinavian blonde girl is destroyed. But she is no pushover. She decides to travel the world to find others like herself, ecological warriors who wish to fight back and return joy to their world by combating the exploitative forces whose wastefulness and capitalist evil threaten to make the world into a veritable hellhole.
The film is only nine minutes long and obviously serves as a pedagogical tool for the network Back was working for at the time. Its sentiments and approach are a bit obvious, but excusable in the context of a work broaching complex topics to a young audience. These ecological and socialist sentiments were very important to Back and to much of the world at this particular point in time, 1970, and would be topics that would only grow in prominence and import in the modern world to this day. Unfortunately, Back made the egregious mistake in his first film of portraying the polluters of the world as total, unrepentant evil fools. The realities of socio-economic forces that drive capitalists to make the world a worse place to live within, on occasion, are quite matter of fact, and those who engage in such activities are rarely as evil as represented in artistic works. And works like Abracadabra unfortunately perpetuate stereotypes that prevent the average person from better understanding such complex issues. Luckily, Back would become a more nuanced activist and artist in his future works that broach topics like environmentalism and animal rights.
Back in Japan, a young animator named Isao Takahata who had already directed his first feature film, Horus: Prince of the Sun in 1968, would come across the works of this middle-aged Frenchman Frederic Back and champion him as a cause celebre years later for his inspirational role in Takahata’s own works. Specifically, Takahata found that Back’s approach to filmmaking and animation was one of the first real, modern attempts to import meaningful issues into the medium and to create an animation for adults and children alike. He valued Back’s willingness to attack issues in the real world through his animation’s narratives rather than merely serving up facile surfaces for mass consumption, or worse yet, mere fables and banal morality tales ala Disney.
And most importantly, Takahata valued Back’s artistic proclivity and interest in making his films look great from a painterly perspective, his ability to condense and elongate time along with the best live-action directors, and the poetic pacing of his films. Although the 1960s were over and the hippie movement had been dealt a decisive death blow at Altamont, the ecological, social, and political consciousness of artists was still in vogue. And visual artists, above all others, were still producing highly ambitious works of an experimental nature that rejected brutal art in lieu of aesthetically pleasing works. Together, Back and Takahata, through their willingness to create conventionally beautiful art that tried its best never to talk down to an audience whilst essaying important topics and reflecting the real world, helped to promote a new artistic movement within animation that I refer to as Animated Poetic Realism (and discuss in more detail HERE) of which their later respective films L’homme qui plantait des arbres and Gauche the Cellist would serve as paramount examples.
But while Takahata was already well on his way to creating works in this vein, it would take a few more tries for Back to really crack the critical bubble and make himself well known. At least as well known as he would ever really become in a market wherein quality is always the first element discarded in favor of bullshit for the least common denominator.
[Next up: The Creation of Birds]