82: Crac (Frédéric Back)
Essay by Patrick Mullen
Few filmmakers can say they’ve won an Oscar for
their work, and even fewer of them have lost an eye for it, yet Canada’s
Frédéric Back has the unique ability to make both claims. The late Québécois
auteur won the 1982 Grand Prix at the Ottawa International Animation Festival
for his wonderful film Crac. It was
at this time that Back lost his right eye following complications that resulted
from using fixatives in an unventilated room, but his loss is animation’s gain.
Crac displays remarkable vision.
The first of Back’s films to win the OIAF Grand
Prix, Crac stands as a hallmark of
the animation to emerge from Maison Radio-Canada. The film endures as an even
greater milestone in Quebecois cinema. It’s an elegiac story with its
whimsical, warm, and affectionate portrait of rural Quebec, but the film
remains ahead of its time with its potent allegory of environmental
witnesses the growth of a family in rural Quebec through the eyes of a single
rocking chair that sees the landscape change in many forms. Crac is a true family tale, as the idea
originated from an essay that Back’s 12-year-old daughter about a rocking chair
for class. Her essay spawned her father’s six-year labour of love, for Crac brings to life approximately 7000
drawings of coloured pencil on sheets of frosted acetate drawn over the course
of fifteen laborious months. The final work delivers the whimsical and elegiac
storybook aesthetic that typifies Back’s animation.
originally commissioned as a film for children and critics often describe it as
such, but this fifteen-minute short offers one of the strongest portraits of
Quebec nationalism in Canadian film. The film charts the journey of the chair
from the moment the Quebecker fells the wood of a wild cherry tree, which
breaks with an anthropomorphic ‘Crac!’ that gives the film its name. The film
celebrates the rural life from its opening frame as the music by Normand Roger
triumphantly heralds the woodsman as he trounces through the woods and chops
the tree while squirrels and a friendly deer observe the action. Crac certainly seems like a children’s
film from its introduction, but as Back gives life to the chair within the
growing family, the film delivers a powerful portrait of the strength of Quebec
in a time of change. It’s a timely parable for the province in the days
following its first sovereignty referendum.
The chair represents the heart and soul of
Quebec culture as it lives as a constant fixture in the household, rocking back
and forth with the family’s calico cat, as it witnesses the children grow and
leave the countryside while industry encroaches on the land. The film astutely
connects the evolution in technology with generational changes as the children
alter their attitude towards the chair as trains, automobiles, and eventually
the Canadian landscape’s worst predator—condominiums—ravage the idyll lifestyle
in which the chair resides. The kids are rough with the chair and break it in
aggressive behaviour that shatters the sense of community that Back establishes
in the early scenes of dance and play. The chair flourishes even after the
owner discards it, for it survives by giving rest to a weary security guard in
a museum, as it silently brings the memory of its country to life.
The rocking chair provides a salient metaphor
for the endurance of a Quebecois spirit that thrives as change refashions the
country. It embodies a salt of the earth characteristic that forms the
mythology of Quebec culture, and it offers one of Back’s most powerful
signatories among his films that, although considered children’s work,
frequently contain rich allegories for the futures of both the natural
environment and Quebec.
similarly evokes its setting, place, time, and spirit through Back’s stirringly
impressionistic style that situates the viewers as members of the community,
like neighbours watching the action through frosty windowpanes. Similarly, the
colours of the film are a fluid palette that grows with the rousing fiddle
music and celebratory hymns that drive the dialogue-free narrative. Like
Quebec, Crac grows quiet for a period
as the chair sits contemplatively, but springs to life again in its own
revolution of colours and energy that thrives in the afterhours of the museum.
The snowy landscapes of Back’s work, as well as
the propulsive traditional song that begins the film, create a strong sense of
place that is specific, but the resonance of the film is universal. “The film’s
appeal derives not so much from the handsome animation as the human warmth that
permeates the story,” wrote Charles Soloman in the LA Times following the film’s success and Crac remains a significant milestone for bringing a tangibly
Canadian story to an international audience. Back’s warm, elegiac approach to
the story lets the film reverberate strongly with viewers across generations
with its forward-looking nostalgia.
Proof of Crac’s
appeal to Quebecois, Canadian, and international audiences lives in its sweeping
tally of nearly two-dozen festival prizes and, on March 29, 1982, Back won the
Academy Award for Best Animated Short and helped establish OIAF’s longstanding
legacy of Oscar winners—a feat he would prove again in 1988 with The Man Who Planted Trees. Back almost
didn’t make it to the ceremony, but he changed his mind at the last minute and
accepted his award wearing the patch of a man truly dedicated to his craft.
Like the spirit Crac evokes so
beautifully, this gift from the poet of Canadian animation will endure for
years to come.
Mullen is a film blogger at Cinemablographer.com, contributor to POV Magazine
and The Canadian Encyclopedia, and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.