Today they released two new Heritage Minutes, centred around Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, exactly one year before the Macdonald birth bicentenary next year. As a big fan of the original Heritage Minutes, I was very excited to see them… and was rather underwhelmed.
I’ll say this right now: I’m not going to be Hank Hipster and say that the old ones were better because they were shot on standard definition, or that they used practical effects, or only used CGI that looked like it was made from spare code they got from episodes of ReBoot. These things were always filmed on the cheap, and nowadays that means as much green-screen as you can get.
Of the two of them, the one that comes closest to capturing the spirit of the old Minutes was the one for Sir John A. Macdonald, in which he sails for Charlottetown in 1864 to convince British North America to unite.
It starts out well; the traditional date-and-place label and a throwaway nod to Macdonald’s lifelong battle with alcoholism before settling in with Cartier, George Brown and an oddly present-but-mute Thomas d’Arcy McGee to blatantly spout exposition (or “lay pipe”, as they say in show business) in a manner not quite as ham-fisted as some of the worst offenders from the old ones (I’m looking at you, Sandford Fleming) before this weird breakdown in the middle where they all look at a map while Macdonald describes the extent of the future Canada while the camera overlays footage of landscapes on the map. This felt like the writers were stalling for time. The old-style Minutes definitely would have either given McGee a line here to lay pipe on the Fenian raids being a factor toward Confederation, or else put in some dialogue-free footage of servants or sailors or the ship’s cat or something. The thing then cuts to Province House a few weeks later, where Macdonald gives a chunk of speech, one guy at the end of the table (Charles Tupper, I think) slow-claps him, and they all go outside and pose on the steps, as the camera pans out and becomes the famous photograph of the Fathers of Confederation, just like at the end of “Rural Teacher” where they transformed into Robert Harris’s painting The Meeting of the School Trustees.
The one I really have my trouble with is the Cartier Minute.
By trying to cram in Cartier challenging Antoine-Aimé Dorion on Confederation, plus the creation of Manitoba, plus the negotiations for British Columbia to join Confederation, plus the framing device wherein Cartier’s monument at the Parliament is unveiled in 1885, it doesn’t spend nearly enough time on any one thing to do anything but rush through the dialogue (although I have to admit that I liked the line “ask for a railway, we’re building a country, after all.”). The scenes are over-edited, zooming in to meld one scene into the next instead of just smash-cutting from one to another. The Mumford & Sons-if-they-weren’t-trying soundtrack was much too upbeat for what was ostensibly a day of solemn memorial to the man.
And excuse me, but are they still supposed to be at the unveiling at the end? In 1885? Then why is the modern 1920 Parliament there? It’s even worse if you consider that the whole background is green-screen and they could have easily MADE A MODEL OF THE APPROPRIATE BUILDING.
One thing that bothers me with both of them is the way they end. The old ones would end with the phrase “A part of our heritage” appearing at the bottom of the screen, and then the image would recede into a little box as the sponsor credits appeared in a frame around it, as the action in the scene slowed to a sort of tableau vivant. The new ones shrink the screen without warning into a little square in a mosaic with stills from the other Heritage Minutes, which then morphs into the maple leaf in the Historica Canada logo.
And that really gets to what I think is wrong with the new minutes: not that they don’t have a sense of earnestness (they do, every bit as much as the old ones) but that they have no sense of pacing or restraint. They’re trying too hard. Compared with the old Minutes, the dialogue is too fast, the colours are too bright, the editing too slick, the score too cluttered. The old Minutes’ charm lay in their elegant simplicity: a single instrument. Grey skies. The camera just watching people do things for a while.
If the Cartier one had been done right, it would have stretched the B.C. scene to the full length. His role in Confederation and the making of Manitoba would have been narrated or inserted obliquely into the start of the conversation. And after he gives his line, there would have been a nice long pause to allow the other actors to react to the line.
That said, I always appreciate people going out and making an effort. If they just slowed the damned things down, we could be quoting lines from the next ones they make the way we say “But I need these baskets” or “IS THIS NORMAL?” now.