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Keep it in Motion - Classic Animation Revisited: 'Vaccination Scar'

Every Thursday, Chris Robinson takes a look at films from animation’s past. Today: We remember the Canadian singer/poet/frontman, Gord Downie via Christopher Mill's video for The Tragically Hip, Vaccination Scar.

Didn’t plan on having a Christopher Mills double-bill this week, but when I learned that Gord Downie, the Canadian singer, poet, activist – best known for his work as a member of the Tragically Hip - died this week after a short, intense battle with brain cancer (‘the brain came down berserk” to tweak one of Downie’s original lyrics, “the rain came down berserk”), I thought of Chris’ beautiful video for The Hip’s song, Vaccination Scar (2004).

If you’re not Canadian, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip might not mean a damn thing to you, but in Canada they meant much to many. I was not a big Hip fan and haven’t listened to them all that much in maybe 10-15 years now, but what always attracted me to them was Downie. He had this mystical hobo poet madman presence on stage and lyrically. In fact, it was Downie’s lyrics – frequently addressing issues of Canadian history, society and culture – along with his manic and intense stage presence that elevated The Tragically Hip above other bands. Without Downie, The Hip were an above average bar band.

But boy could Downie write. His lyrics were a scream against American colonialism, a celebration of Canadian identity, of everyone’s unique identity (he became a very vocal champion for the rights of First Nations’s groups. His final project, Secret Path, an album/graphic novel and animated film, addressed the brutal treatment of indigenous children and families by Canada’s despicable residential school system), and, of course, he wrote about hockey.

When I was writing a book back around 2001 or so about hockey and identity, I used a lyric from Downie, “stole this from a hockey card.” It came from a song (“Fifty Mission Cap”) that was pretty much about the contents of a player’s life (who disappeared in a plane crash just days after scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal) as written on the back of a hockey card that was tucked up under some trucker’s hat.

Now, I grew up a massive hockey fan. I devoured every aspect of the sport, but as I grew older and got more into the arts, there was this sense of shame, of embarrassment. I imagined that my hip film studies classmates or band mates frowned upon my love of sport. Yet, for me, hockey was always an art.  Hockey players, the best of the them, were just as creative and inspirational as Norman McLaren.  Hearing “Fifty Mission Cap”, “Fireworks” and a few other hockey related songs, well, it told me that it was okay to embrace the sport, that it was a worthy and legit part of my cultural experiences. Nothing to be ashamed of.

I later used a Downie/Hip song, “Looking for a Place to Happen” as the title for my interview/diary/memoir about Canadian animation. It just felt like the perfect description of indie Canadian animation, which is so widespread and disjointed, sort of flapping strongly in the wind, with no apparent direction at times. For Downie, I think this was okay and, that’s really how I felt after finishing the book. We don’t necessarily have to have a direction or be firmly holding hands, so long as we’re flapping, we’re doing, being, living.

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A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.