Overview of work
Pierre Hébert’s work is unlike that of any other creator of animated films, springing as it does from the twin inspirations of experimental and political filmmaking. His favourite technique – scratching on film stock – and his attitude to his art make him an unusual, perhaps unique, figure. Although he is often called Norman McLaren’s heir, in reality he can be assigned to no school.
|On Hop - Hop op (1966). © NFB||Memories of War (1982). © NFB|
His first professional films – Op Hop – Hop Op (1966), Opus 3 (1967), Autour de la perception/Around Perception (1968) – demonstrated an approach similar to that of mechanical music and his interest in mathematics and the sciences (as does Notions élémentaires de génétique, 1971). They are the work of a disciplined and adventurous creator, somewhat in the line of American experimental filmmakers of the day and also of the Viennese director Peter Kubelka (although Hébert had not then seen any of the latter’s work).
|Étienne et Sara (1984). © NFB||Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World. © NFB|
A change of attitude becomes apparent in his films during the first half of the 1970s. His political activism and his study of Marx and Brecht led him to make more engaged films. The first of these was Père Noël, père Noël/Santa Claus is Coming Tonight (1974), an alienation fantasy based on the story of Father Christmas. Entre chiens et loup (1978), a more substantial film, is a polemic on economics couched in a rich cinematic language not unlike that of epic theatre, using a range of dramatic resources including a pop song, silhouettes inspired by Lotte Reiniger’s work on the Weimar Republic, documentary soundtrack and images, sequences scratched on film, realistic animation and captions.
This theatrical approach is seen again in Souvenirs de guerre/Memories of War (1982), a brilliant example of his use of scratching on film for narrative purposes. Alternating this technique with that of paper cut-outs, real sound and traditional music, he produces a vivid anti-war document in which conflict is shown as a means of economic domination. The emotional impact of this film, the clarity of its argument and its continuing relevance make it a landmark in the history of animated film in Quebec.
The third period of Hébert’s career is less politically engaged and characterized by a multidisciplinary approach. Working with the poet Serge Meurant (Étienne et Sara, 1984), then with improvisational musicians (Chants et danses du monde inanimé – Le métro/Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World: The Subway, 1985), taking his inspiration from Picasso (Ô Picasso – Tableaux d’une surexposition, 1985) and Henri Michaux (Adieu bipède, 1987), he was gradually drawn to give performances during which he would scratch directly on the loops of film stock. One of these, Conversations (1987), given with the dancer Louise Bédard, the writer Sylvie Massicotte and the musician Robert M. Lepage, became the short film La lettre d’amour (1988), a moving exploration of the feelings of a woman in love.
Completed in 1996, La plante humaine, the title of which was taken from Julien Gracq, is an impressive synthesis of Hébert’s two earlier periods. It manifests the political concerns and dramatic cogency of Souvenirs de guerre, but also the interdisciplinary approach and the scratched-film technique of the recent performances. In a baroque manner, mixing images of various kinds, it presents television as a parable of the world, comparing its place in the modern world to that of creation myths in pre-industrial societies. La plante humaine won the prize for best Quebec feature film of the year awarded by SODEC - AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).
Thereafter Hébert left the NFB and has continued to make films, collaborating with dancers (notably Louise Bédard) and musicians (especially Bob Ostertag), exploring the new possibilities offered by computerization with the enthusiasm of his earliest days.