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May 23, 2002 The National Film Board during the Cold War: Tom Waugh



Tom Waugh

Cinema Professor Tom Waugh, Concordia University Research Fellow, 2002.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Eleanor Brown

The sissy flower flounces and wiggles and shamelessly cavorts until two pipe-smoking men in suits and ties, the Neighbours of the title, fight over it to the death.

Concordia Cinema Professor Thomas Waugh is astounded that the National Film Board’s now-legendary filmmaker Norman McLaren got away with this silent short in the 1950s. “Whatever the explanation, 50 years later, Neighbours is as interesting for its treatment of Cold War gender insecurity as it is for its brave discourse on Cold War missile envy,” Waugh said.

He was speaking at the DeSève Cinema on May 4 as one of two Concordia University Research Fellows for 2002. In his lecture, titled “Monkey on the Back: National Cinema and Queer Others During Canada’s Cold War (1945 to 1960),” Waugh connected the personal and the political in a wide-ranging look at art and propaganda.

The squabbling neighbours of the classic NFB film were modern, middle-class conformists and consumers who had displaced the macho cowboys and entrepreneurs in a new social order. Waugh said that their descent into savagery exposes “an intense ideological struggle over masculinity.”

The postwar era was a time of great upheaval. While the United States rushed headlong into purging and scapegoating of communists and homosexuals, Canada lagged slightly behind, a “kind of branch-plant tag-along version.”

This country, like the U.S., experienced the official institutionalization of psychiatry after the war, Waugh said. The NFB, reflecting the ethos of the time, produced a series of films on mental health whose underlying message was that citizens with a Peter Pan complex must be forced to grow up.

“The series symbolically cemented the shift from the villainy of fascism to the villainy of controlling or distant mothers.” Its catalogue would soon be filled with movies on gender and masculinity, “the kind of films that express anxiety about bachelors and spinsters, and warn us of great but unspoken dangers.”

Being Different shows a little boy being warned to toughen up by his best friend after he waxed poetic about spending a summer chasing pretty butterflies. “Nobody does that unless they’re a little crazy, or a girl,” he is admonished. “It makes people feel funny when you’re different like that.”

Feeling of Hostility features Claire, whose distant mother makes her desperate for the love of another woman, her teacher, but she is unsuccessful, and eventually can trust no one. “Although she is not conscious of it, Claire cannot like men,” intones the narrator.

Sometimes, Waugh noted, it is what’s left unsaid that has impact. “One kind of marginality remains unmentionable and off-screen, and that is at the very centre of the corpus, the real monkey on the back of the postwar NFB,” Waugh explained.

Waugh said what has been called the “gay male expulsion from representation” lasted into the 1980s at the NFB. However, Neighbours creator McLaren was gay.

Even today, the film seems startling and raw. At the time, it was a bombshell, and not only because of its avant-garde film technique. McLaren created a startling pas de deux with the savage suburbanites, who acquire warrior facepaint and rip off their shirts.

Censors wanted two violent scenes in which the men kill each others’ wives and babies to be deleted. “It became a rivalry over a flower by two apparent bachelors,” Waugh said, bemused. “This is a very queer flower, rather camp at the very least. This little flower, in its own context of silence, I think needs to be seen as a full-blown icon of Cold War desire.”

Waugh founded the Concordia interdisciplinary studies program in sexuality and the lecture series in HIV/AIDS. Maclean’s magazine has cited him as a reason to choose Concordia for cinema studies over any other university in Canada.