Monday, January 30, 2012

FEATURE: Dusty Ass Discounts - Soundtracks to Educational Films

Hi everybody. Yeah, I know. I haven't posted in a while. I know. Yeah. But I have decided that it's high time to get off my metaphorical ass and onto my literal ass to write something interesting and insightful. (As all my work is.) And I said to myself, what would be a better way to make my big comeback than by reinstating a classic YPOIW institution, Dusty Ass Discounts? And so I have. And here we are.

As you may recall from past editions of Dusty Ass Discounts, they were focused on the forgotten aspects of musical culture. Namely, old power pop bands and Space Age Pop and the like. Records that are dated, cheap, not very good, or just generally taking up space, normally found in thrift stores, or dumpsters behind the Stuckey's. And it's true that a good deal of it is very bad, almost laughably so, but there's a kind of aesthetic to it which keeps me so attracted. It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't listen to the stuff because it's so intangible, but there's definitely a vibe there that's unmistakable. In a lot of cases it's a retro feel to it, but every so often it's something you can't really put your finger on. I think the best illustration of this are NFBC documentaries.

The NFBC is the National Film Board of Canada, an agency of the Canadian government whose goal was to "produce and distribute audio-visual works which provoke discussion and debate on subjects of interest to Canadian audience...". It was started in 1939 in Montreal, and has been putting out numerous short films, nature documentaries, animations, propaganda and educational clips ever since. Now the quality of the Film Board's products have waxed and waned with time. In the 40s, it was of the quality you would expect from 40s war propaganda, and in recent years they've made some really good documentaries and animated short films. But the period of about 1971 to about 1985, the films made had a weird, goofy nostalgic quality to them, a lot like what you might find on those previous DAD editions. They're not bad movies really; some of them are actually pretty gripping and well edited (from what little I know about film). And granted, some of them are really bad, particularly some of the instructional ones. But even the bad ones how that perfect combiniation of poor film stock, awkward jerky narration, and (especially) a proto-ambient synth soundtrack to create a very nostalgic atmosphere and aesthetic.

Like I said before, the feel of these movies is really hard to explain. A few people, however, have been able to make a creative approxamation of that particular aesthetic. The best cinematic equivalent would probably be a show called Look Around You. It was on the BBC in the early 2000s, and is basically a parody version of what I'm talking about. It uses vintage cameras, and has an analog synth soundtrack composed entirely by the show's creator, Peter Serafinowics. (Under the name Gelg.) The episodes are each based on a pseudo-scientific concept, and are accompanied by the same bad acting and bad special effects as the original material. It takes a comedic look at those NFB  movies, while still capturing that same wistful feeling of them.

The other group who I think, in my opinion, really got this aesthetic down pat is the duo by the name of Boards of Canada. Which seems obvious, given the name, but they recall the films in much more than name alone.  The ambience and simplistic melodies recall the minimalist soundtracks of the NFB soundtracks nicely, and the vocal samples they choose evoke the dialog of the movies as well. It's really amazing how even just the melodic choices they make could plant the image and quality of these films, but Boards of Canada are known to have that effect on people. Also, quite a few of  BoC's songs are titled after NFB films, including one of my personal favorites, "Kaini Industries."

This is a film called Synchromy by the NFB's most well-known animator, Norman McLaren. I think it demonstrates a lot of the qualities I was talking about.

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