Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Remembering the Academy Award-winning work of Norman McLaren, whose 1952 commentary on suburbia still resonates.
The short, stop-motion film starts off innocently enough. Two suburban neighbors sit on their respective lawn chairs to read and smoke. Upon the discovery of a flower in-between them, both men become attached to it instantly. That's when everything goes straight to hell.
As they begin arguing over to whom the flower actually belongs, the petty altercation takes a seriously dark turn as both men eventually resort to killing each other's wives and children, and finally, each other.
What appears as an absurdist look at suburbia is actually a commentary on world peace during the Korean War. Neighbours (1952) was created by the pioneering animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. Scottish-born, he moved to Canada in 1941, and helped found the National Film Board of Canada's first animation unit.
McLaren spent time in China shortly before filming Neighbours, and it was there that he found his own faith in human nature reinvigorated after witnessing the beginnings of Mao Zedong's revolution. Naturally, that was a view few others in North America held at the time, but McLaren hoped his message of goodwill would transcend politics.
Neighbours gained popularity after it won an Academy Award in 1953 ("Best Documentary, Short Subjects," despite having no documentary elements), but only after its message had been diluted. As Albert Ohayon explains on the NFB's blog, under pressure from distributors, the film board began to distribute a censored version, cutting out the especially violent scenes. Years later, as the Vietnam War escalated, McLaren had the original version restored, and "its images of innocent people being attacked was a strong allegory for war," writes Ohayon.
Whether it's the message or the technique, Neighbours remains unforgettable.