Books

It’s the thought that counts

ALLAN FLEMING May 31 1976
Books

It’s the thought that counts

ALLAN FLEMING May 31 1976

It’s the thought that counts

BETWEEN FRIENDS/ENTRE AMIS By The National Film Board of Canada (McClelland and Stewart, $29.50)

From earlier days I remember the border as something frightening. Wrapped in my memory with all those idiot questions to my mother and me (age six or 10) about whether we were now or ever had been

Communists, it was a place to stay away from, 5,526.6 undefended miles of it notwithstanding. There was a dread about it, a feeling of dirty linen in old damp rooms.

I mention this to show I have mixed feelings about the border as the whole theme, for heaven’s sake, of Between Friends/Entre Amis, Canada’s milliondollar Bicentennial gift to the United States. No less than 312 10-inch by 14-inch pages devoted to photographs of and around the border, weighing in at about seven pounds, the work of 26 photographers under the direction of the National Film Board’s still-photo division—all of it selling for $29.50 until Prime Minister Trudeau presents it officially to President Ford in early June (when the price will jump to $42.50). Canadian booksellers are so confident about its sales prospects that they have already bought 90,000 copies outright. I hope they are able to sell them.

I only wish I liked the book more.

Technically the book is admirable. The printing (on French Quadrimétal plates) is excellent: it has produced equal and accurate color consistency throughout the printing run—something of great help to Dennis Tindale, the printing supervisor, since he had to print one half of every double-page spread in a different position from the other half on the same sheet. The result is one more printing success for Tindale, a native Yorkshireman who manages to print most things better than anyone else in Canada. Another technical achievement is the quality of the film work. All but five photographs in Between Friends/Entre Amis were developed from 35-mm slides: to enlarge them 20 times and more tends to destroy the clarity of the image on the transparency. Though there is occasional blotchiness in the reproduction, such distortion is remarkably rare.

But the real problem is that the book does not have any of the romantic vision we have come to expect from the NFB. It is on occasion rude, too often banal and oddly pedestrian (a double-page spread of Toronto hits a new low in the picture-postcard school), and as a whole the production conveys little of the honest beauty of the country either side of the border. It is simply not enough to go to a Buffalo gas station, line up three girls against the pumps, ask them to smile, and then tell the reader that Buffalo’s radiating pattern of road design was based on that of Washington, DC. Nor enough to line up five prairie farmers in Manyberries, Alberta, and then tell the reader that Manyberries is “eight miles ( 13 km) from Pakouki Lake.”

The photo captions generally are lamentable—clumsy, cursory, uninformative. The style ranges from First Grade Reader: “Mr. Judson Lank (left) and Mr. Frank Lank. Mr. Judson Lank is a fisherman; Mr. Frank Lank, his father, has retired from fishing. Fishing off Campobello brings in haddock, cod, pollock, herring and lobster”—to the Lyric Evocative: “West Poplar is at the Montana-Saskatchewan border, just south of the town of Killdeer, and 45 miles (72 km), as the crow flies, from the town of East Poplar, Sask.” These notes, inconveniently, are in the back of the book only, no mean feat to refer to unless you happen to be blessed with 16 fingers. And it seems a pity that the photo spreads inside front and back covers have not been captioned at all—hardly consistent, as there are 25 pictures duplicated on each spread, one ninth of the total photographic display.

The overall typographic design, consid-

ering the book’s high standards in technical manufacture, is disappointing too— doubly disappointing since it’s the work of Neil Shakery, whose previous work has often been superb. I gave up counting after 13 different sizes of type, and I had not yet reached the photo captions. Symmetric page is followed by asymmetric page; one soon loses a sense of a physically coherent book. Shakery is far better than this.

The book’s five double-page maps, charting the border’s progress from far northwest to farthest east, are simply presented. But I quarrel with cartographer Geoffrey Matthews’ decision to take most of the place names off the horizontal. The results look like nothing so much as the remains of a giant Dover sole meunière.

In sum, what the NFB has given us—and the United States—is a very mixed bag: some good photographs (Peter Christopher’s work, with the glaring exception of the Toronto spread, is particularly fresh and compelling), too many that are clichés, all of them beautifully printed but strung together on a theme that is not strong enough to hold. Why this photograph? Why that quotation under it? Many people are smiling at the camera. Nothing convinces me that they’re smiling at their friends across the border. Instead they’re as frozen in time—and have as little immediately to say to us—as the former U.S. presidents carved on Mount Rushmore,

370 miles (590 km), as the crow flies, south of the border. ALLAN FLEMING

A lian Fleming is the chief designer of the University of Toronto Press and has twice won first prize in Design Canada’s Look of Books exhibition, 1974 and 1975.