CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 14. . . . March 14, 2003
It's particularly challenging to review a compilation video when the quality of the titles varies. Best of the Best: Romantic Tales and Other Whimsical Relationships boasts ten titles, all Oscar nominees or award winners, and so most would admit that these titles have gained high praise at some time in the history of the short, animated film. The real difficulty is that looking at these titles as teachers and librarians might, especially when looking for material for 21st century Canadian students, the usability of these titles varies greatly. On the basis of the educator's point of view, I found that four of these films would be of great value to most viewers while the other six have more limited appeal.
First, the four most appealing tales are George and Rosemary, nominee, 1987; Strings, nominee, 1991; Bob's Birthday, winner, 1993; and The Street, nominee, 1976. Admittedly, these films are the four most recent of the group, and that means that most viewers will be impressed by the animation quality which shows recent advances. Bob's Birthday (David Fine and Alison Snowden) is drawn in a cartoon style which will be familiar to fans of Bob and Margaret, the syndicated television program which arose from this film. Although the main event of the story is Bob's surprise 40th birthday, students will be interested to see the same characters (Bob, Margaret, their pet dogs, Bob's dental office receptionist, a variety of eccentric patients) and plot lines (Margaret's efforts to inject some excitement into their rather predictable existence as busy professionals, Bob's concerns about the direction of his life, the dogs who spend their time in ridiculous poses while begging for food). Bob's Birthday also features Bob wearing only a shirt and showing anatomically correct genitalia. He bemoans Margaret's lack of interest in his partial nudity and complains about their boring friends. (It's really Margaret's embarrassment as she tries to salvage the situation because the friends are in hiding, watching and listening and waiting for the signal to yell "Surprise!") Her solution is drily humourous.
George and Rosemary, also by Fine and Showden, is drawn in a similar style. The story, while less detailed than Bob's Birthday, nevertheless has the surprising results of a senior's infatuation with the elderly woman who lives across the street. Once again, the narrative has a clear structure, some novel plot ideas and emotions depicted through visuals (watch George as he attempts to call Rosemary on the phone). Strings (Wendy Tilby) and The Street (Caroline Leaf), while separated by 15 years and composed by different artists, have a somewhat similar atmospheric and dreamy style, and both appear to be done using oil painting on glass. Otherwise, they are quite different. Caroline Leaf has realized The Street, a Mordecai Richler short story (this alone will make it appealing to secondary English teachers) narrated by a young boy, with understated figures suggested only in broad strokes (a grandmother lingers on her death bed as a round hump under covers, her daughter goes about her daily routines including the indeterminate beating of something in a mixing bowl which morphs into other objects). As in Bob's Birthday, there is one adult moment (a brief mention of orgasm by the boy's older sister) which recommends it for a high school audience. Strings concerns a group of classical musicians, a quartet of strings, practicing in an apartment when the chandelier overhead begins to loosen. The cause is the bath water of the elderly woman above which is leaking on to the floor and weakening the plaster around the fixture. When one of the men from the group takes his tool kit upstairs to offer repairs, a romance begins. There is abundant detail here, and because the film is wordless, it focuses the viewer on the visuals which tell the story. I would name Strings as the best of this collection, despite the greater recognition of Bob's Birthday.
As previously mentioned, there are six other titles in this compilation which, I must admit, I might uncharitably attribute to NFB's desire to fill up the tape--but they are of some historic interest to film makers, especially as Oscar nominees, and might be of use to creative teachers. A Chairy Tale 1957; Walking, 1968 and Pas de Deux are all wordless films which might be useful to English as a second language teachers. A Chairy Tale is the "dance" between a man who wants to sit down and a chair which refuses to cooperate. Walking is a collection of people walking (of course) in many different ways. Pas de deux is a ballet manoeuver filmed by exposing the same frames several times which results in the ghosts of each movement visible in a sequence.
The Romance of Transportation in Canada, 1953; and The Drag, 1965 will look very dated to most modern viewers. Either one might be useful to a teacher interested in showing students how Canadians used to do animation, perhaps in contrast to more recent documentaries about Canada's history. The Drag is especially interesting as it was made for the Department of Health and Welfare, and the federal government is still making films to try to convince Canadians to stop smoking.
The final tale, The Family that Dwelt Apart, 1973, is based on a short story by E.B. White (of Charlotte's Web fame, but I could not see any stylistic resemblance). It will also be a difficult sell for a classroom unless a grade 11 or 12 group is looking for a representation of a New Yorker magazine short story to augment their studies. I found the narrated story, especially the unusual theme of interfering with solitude, more interesting than the visuals. I was also surprised to find an American story in this Canadian collection (Bob's Birthday is very British, however, so clearly the NFB encourages inspiration from a variety of sources).
All in all, this compilation is probably still worth purchasing especially for teachers trying to economically add to their collection of visual materials. I wished that there were more information on technical details, adding to the knowledge of viewing and representing techniques which many teachers are lacking. For example, how does Wendy Fine (Strings) achieve the look of steam rising from the bathtub? Best of the Best: Romantic Tales and Other Whimsical Relationships may not contain all classroom winners, but it undoubtedly includes some excellent films.
Recommended with reservations.
Deborah L. Begoray is an Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor in the areas of Language and Literacy at the Faculty of Education, the University of Victoria, Victoria, BC.
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