(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Tout Rien)
Before the release of Crac! in 1981, Frederic Back’s career as an animator and short film director was very intermittent at best. He created less than one short film per year and continued to make the bulk of his money working on smaller, less personal projects for the Radio Canada Broadcasting Company. But after toiling away on this film for 22 months during his free time between 1979 and 1981, Back finally released this 15-minute short film to audiences. The film made it to the shortlist for the 1981 Academy Awards for Best Short Film and even won the category, scoring Radio Canada and Back their first Oscars.
However, the process of the film’s creation was pretty arduous in a number of ways. Back required the help of an assistant for around 11 weeks during the project’s production run in addition to his own 22 months of animation work and the help of his usual team of editors and sound designers who searched tirelessly for the proper traditional Quebecois music to incorporate as a soundtrack. During this production, Back continued to paint onto frosted cells with pastel for all of the major action in the film’s sequences, but continued to advance his medium by penciling in backgrounds using the new Prismacolor pencil technology. And like all great artists seem to do at some point in their careers, he poured his blood, sweat and tears into the production, giving his all by accidentally getting fixative fumes in his right eye. This painful accident would weaken and nearly blind that eye for the remainder of Back’s life, thereby giving him his signature eyepatch in the process.
The story is one of a traditional Quebecois life of the past wherein small cities existed, but most people lived by themselves in the frontier, out in the woods where they were relatively isolated with just their family units. In this social landscape where the Church was once a great social space and public square for the disparate denizens of the cold north to congregate once in a blue moon, a young Native man finds a beautiful young French-Quebec woman to his fancy. The two go out and practice the normal courting rituals and spend time together before becoming engaged.
The young man, a woodcutter and trapper by profession, steals off into the forest one day to search for the perfect tree for carpentry work. He chops it down with his ax and the tree falls with a large crack (hence the title of the short film). The man drags it back home with the help of his horse and starts to work building his wedding gift to his lovely bride to be. The result is a rocking chair that will serve them for years to come as a beautiful reminder of their place within nature as human animals and as a token of his love for the woman forevermore. They grow together and have children who occasionally rough-house and damage the progressively ageing chair, which the man- no longer a young man- repairs often with tender loving care. And each time he repairs this icon of his life’s trajectory, he repaints it and makes it feel fresh and new thereby.
But things change, they always do. The children grow up quickly and leave the nest. The young man progresses into an old man, and eventually his wife dies. The chair’s seat breaks and the old man throws it out into the harsh clime where it sits and waits for generations as the old man perishes. His old cabin is put up for sale and eventually torn down as condos and other high-rise buildings rise up around it. Gentrification and urbanization wrack this once idyllic landscape with the visual tremors of civilization: the skyscraper, the apartment block, and finally the nuclear power plant.
But this is Back’s vision of the world and it can never remain sick for long without perishing totally. He believed in our ability as rational animals to come to the logical conclusion that we should cherish this planet and serve it well as good shepherds. Protests erupt and the power plant is gutted by the regional government that actually listens to its people. The old silo is renovated into a beautiful art museum where the elite enclave go to see abstract paintings and other forms of artwork much too cerebral to tug on the heartstrings and make one feel a positive emotion like traditional art can. A curator finds the old chair after all these generations and brings it back inside a new docile for complete restoration and a new paint job.
Once there, the chair becomes the favorite seat for a friendly security guard and guide at the museum. And more than that, the children, untainted by modernity and intellect, find the colorful and ancient chair to be absolutely fascinating. It becomes a beloved object to whole hosts of people once more and feels fulfilled in its duty as a chair that is no longer abandoned and alone in this world. And in the dark of night, when the night watchman is in a different corridor, it dances to the music made by the emotions of all of the paintings in the room and revels in its newfound usefulness: a reveling we can all sympathize with in our own wishes and desires to be useful to someone else, and to be loved by someone else by proxy.
The film is a veritable love letter to the imagined Quebec of Back’s childhood and to the historical Quebec wherein people really did live such beautiful, quaint lives in nature quite often. The young man is a paean to Back’s own uncle and the story is a reminder not to trade in old values for new ones, but to cherish the old values in the hope that they can enrich our lives in the present. Crac is the sound of a falling tree and thereby of deforestation and human progress, but it is also the sound of creation through destruction. It is the sound of a rocking chair’s rasp across the floor of a room and the sound of the breakneck pace of social change in the 20th century. A change that hasn’t slackened in the slightest into the 21st. But we can always continue to derive pleasure, joy, and energy renewal from positive traditions of yore in the hopes of assuaging some of the modern pangs of conscience and dread attendant upon us in the modern age.
[Continued here: The Man Who Planted Trees]
(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review: ¿Illusion?)
Taratata is a term you probably haven’t heard unless you’ve studied French, and even then, I studied French for four years at University and Quebecois culture, politics, and dialect for a full semester and still didn’t know what it meant. Google Feedback defines it thus: Onomatopée exprimant l’incrédulité, la défiance, le mépris. It is used as an onomatopoeic interjection expressing incredulity, defiance, or contempt. In the context of a short film by Frederic Back it is used with a political sense in mind.
But first to the film’s production history. Back’s previous film was released in 1975 and throughout the latter half of 1976 and the first few months of 1977, Back worked to create Taratata which would become his fifth film. Unlike Back’s previous experiments, Taratata is shorter than its predecessor. Rather than slowly working his form toward lengthier narratives, Back decided to condense the narrative and remove all extraneous content to make it as concise and cohesive as possible. He worked with one assistant (Suzanne Raymond) who aided Back as an in-between artist, tracer, and colorist, but otherwise left him to his own devices.
After doing a bit of research, I found that Back used assistants on half of his projects hitherto, but always for different reasons. On his first film, Abracadabra, Back had six assistants assigned to his production from a higher up at Radio Canada Broadcasting in order to speed along his process. Back chafed at these restraints and on his next two films, he refused assistance altogether, instead opting to create his films entirely by himself. This is kind of extraordinary as both of those films were released within one year, and it is only when Back had assistance that his production times began to drag on. For his fourth film, ¿Illusion?, Back again had an assistant (this time only one). And somehow his production time on that film (less than a minute longer than the two he created by himself) took a whopping 18 months to create. Although Taratata is three minutes shorter than that film at 8 minutes and 30 seconds, it only took him 8 months to produce. Suffice it to say that Back was an experimental filmmaker who took his time going down interesting rabbit holes and producing his work part time while fulfilling his main duties at Radio Canada.
The film itself is about Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec, which is an ancient European religious holiday that had previously been celebrated in the old countries for hundreds of years prior to colonization and European imperialism in North and South America. In Quebec, the festival was a celebration of Quebecois heritage and history, and Back shows this as parade floats of colonists and natives, of fur trappers and patriots, of the church and of traditional music and dancing, and of frontiering and exploration float on by through the streets.
A young boy attempts to watch the parade from a light pole, but finds himself viewing the latter half of the parade wherein the American flag is draped along many floats. This signals the parade of modernity that America represents to the world: Industry and its hazards like pollution, child labor, unsafe work environments, and alienation from one’s labor and one’s life. Militarism and its discontents like imperialism, slavery, death, the war machine, the military-industrial complex and the buying of politicians that signaled the death of democracy and a shift toward a corporate hold on politics. Nuclear science, the atomic bomb, nuclear energy and catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl. Skyscrapers and mega-architecture, the birth of cities, Durkheim’s studies on suicide, mass malaise and existential dread in the face of living life as a media being artificially made to revere to spectacle through advertising and other such forms of anti-Free Market propaganda (because remember, enough advertising is what makes a brand the ‘best’, not its actual qualities. Logic dictates that there are better soda companies than Coke and Pepsi, but we keep buying those because advertising perpetuates the rich company’s popularity despite it potentially not tasting the best or being the most affordable. Advertising is, in this sense, anti Free Market.).
The scared child who has witnessed this parade evades the scene by running down a morbid backstreet where he falls asleep until night falls. Once awakening, he returns to the main streets and finds trash littering the ground where this once great revelry of Quebecois pride and heritage passed through in its current devolved form. The boy imagines the grandeur of a great parade without politics and without the machine. And his vision is so potent and nostalgic and beautiful that it manifests in the minds of those denizens who were similarly disaffected by the charade of a parade Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day has become. All gather around to dream together of a better day, and the little boy retires back to his side streets with a smile across his face for the first time that day.
In the years leading up to Taratata, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was undergoing some real changes for the worst. It had become a day celebrated by the right wing and by nationalists who wished to revoke non-Catholic and non-French-Canadians from its celebration and thereby from an essential element of Quebecois-ness itself. In 1964, there were protests against the then-Governor Vanier of this right-wing nature. Again in 1968 there were riots against Trudeau’s visitation of the event as he was notably an inclusive politician and head of the Liberal party. In 1969, nationalist riots erupted like never before through anti-immigrant rhetoric and the effigy/icon of Saint-Jean-Baptiste was toppled and destroyed. Finally, in 1970, there was no Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade event at all.
Throughout the 1970s, these problems remained. But it just so happens that in 1977, the government passed a law mandating Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day a national holiday. This helped to transition the day definitively away from nationalist rhetoric as it became a time when many Quebecois were off of work and could celebrate the multi-faceted, multi-ethnic background and current reality of Quebec together without a preponderance of religious or traditional-ethnic rhetoric being associated. Today, this parade is a celebrated event and often fun parade for those of Quebec in which politics often comes to the forefront. However, these politics are often more inclusive and leftist, and thereby more in keeping with Back’s ideals and with the ideals of freedom and social liberalism on which Western democracies are based. And otherwise, this day has returned to being a celebration of heritage, history, and the multi-cultural present reality of the province that refused to be assimilated by English Canada so many times in its history.
[Next up: Tout Rien]