I’m off next week to Glasgow for this year’s Screen Studies 2012 conference, so I thought I would post a sneak preview of the paper I will be presenting there: Hinterland Who’s Who: Nature, Nostalgia and the Bureaucratic Uncanny. The conference theme this year is “Other Cinemas”, which fit perfectly with some of the work I am doing right now on public information films and public service announcements.
This time round I’ve turned my attention to the Canada of my childhood and consider the wonder and weirdness of the Hinterland Who’s Who series of PSAs from the 1970s and 80s. As you’ll see, my overall claim is that PSAs/PIFs have a special role to play in the effort to think about the connections between television and memory. The primary question I explore in the paper is why these films have stuck so tenaciously in memory, haunting many of those who saw them even long after they fell out of the regular broadcast cycle.
Part of this has to do with representations of violent death. The cautionary PSA/PIF is a close cousin of the horror film in that the world is represented as a profoundly dangerous place and death is always just around the corner for the innocent who is insufficiently vigilant. But there is something about the tone of these films as well, even the non-gory ones, that unsettles and haunts.
So here is a little taste of the paper itself, with the HWW short for the woodchuck embedded within:
For those who grew up watching Canadian television in the 1970s and 80s, the haunting flute melody that begins the majority of the Hinterland Who’s Who public service announcements should be instantly recognizable. Commissioned by the Canadian Wildlife Service and produced in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, the Hinterland Who’s Who series of vignettes profiled a wide array of animals native to Canada, showing each of them in their natural habitat and providing some basic facts about the species and its behavior through voice-over narration. This straightforward description of the formal features and pedagogical aims of the series, however, does not capture the weirdness and allure of the vignettes themselves. The force and impact of these films, especially in retrospect, derives primarily, I would argue, from their tone and texture. The somnambulistic cadence of the narration, the eerie stillness of the wilderness soundscapes, and the sparse randomness of the information provided about the animals somehow render these films both charming and creepy at the very same time.
My aim here is to account in some small way for the affective force of the Hinterland Who’s Who films. Part of this is generational, even biographical, having to do entirely with the formative experience of seeing these shorts innumerable times at an impressionable age. Yet I will argue that the import and significance of the series extends beyond the personal and sentimental. The original Hinterland Who’s Who series documented the distinctive natural landscape of Canada and focused on animals most readily associated with the nation, yet the sixty-second clips also stood out distinctly in the televisual landscape of the 1970s and 80s, differing dramatically in style and atmosphere from the regular programming that surrounded them. This stylistic and tonal oddness, a calm contemplativeness that is also strangely eerie and elegiac, is the main reason, I think, why these vignettes are so powerful. It distinguished them when they first aired and it is also why they have stuck so resolutely in memory for those who experienced Canadian television in the era when they were in heavy rotation. Memory is key here. These shorts disappeared from television at some point in the mid to late 80s and have become readily available again only quite recently, via individual enthusiasts on YouTube and officially on the website of the Canadian Wildlife Federation. In the intervening years, these shorts, whilst unavailable, assumed a kind of talismanic status, a lost bit of television beyond the scope of commercial reissue or official and subsidized digital-archival collection.
While thinking more about this trajectory from televisual disappearance to digital return, I also want to claim that these films represent loss in a far more general way as well, not in terms of the extinction of any of the species represented, but of the disappearance of a whole structure of feeling and way of life. The continuing force of these vignettes fits with the contemporary nostalgia for the welfare state, the melancholic fascination in today’s culture with things produced in recent memory, but which seem to come from a different world. They stand as examples of the hauntological, a term coined by Jacques Derrida that in memory studies has come to denote the affective force and cultural resonance of those products of the past that unsettle the present by virtue of the latent and unactualized political aspirations they bear within them. These shorts are haunting not simply because they reproduced the call of the loon or because the narration is distinguished by an undercurrent of deep sorrow, but because even after they disappeared from television, they remained in cultural memory, almost as a kind of half-remembered childhood experience that one is no longer sure ever really happened.
That’s a brief taste of a longer paper which in turn comes from a much bigger project about memory, television and the welfare state that I hope will see the published light of day at some point in the future.