#MyNFB : The Family That Dwelt Apart and My Introduction to the Joys of Unhappiness
They say comedy is tragedy plus time. Pain, the reasoning goes, becomes funny only when it has receded into a past where it can no longer be felt.
But Yvon Mallette’s animated short The Family That Dwelt Apart seems determined to explode this formula, insisting that comedy can come from cramming as much tragedy into as little time as possible.
In the film’s eight short minutes, there are three drownings, a plane crash, a death by dried apricots, and the eradication of an entire family due to accidental poisoning. There’s nothing funny about its plot, yet comedy shines like a black diamond from the film’s very core.
I was introduced to this film as a young child thanks to an improbable-sounding branch of the Edmonton Public Library that contained a small petting zoo. Next to hutches of live rabbits and ducks sat a row of scratched-up VHS tapes, including NFB animated shorts from the ’70s. Every few weeks I brought home, along with a stack of picture books, tapes that introduced me to obscure directors, abstract animation, and occasional nudity.
I quickly learned that unlike Disney, the NFB’s cartoons weren’t about to spoon-feed me a happy ending. I remember watching Getting Started, a film about the self-inflicted torment of practicing the piano, and Blowhard, a crushing parable about humans’ relentless desire to exploit resources no matter the cost. But no film introduced me more plainly to the universe’s indifference to hardship than the Oscar-nominated The Family That Dwelt Apart.
The short, based on an E.B. White story of the same name, is about a family living on an otherwise unpopulated island on the fictional Barnetuck Bay. Happy in isolation, they enjoy one another’s company and sleep the winters away until one particularly cold year when, iced in, they become the subjects of a botched rescue mission. Disaster and miscommunication ensue, resulting in the death and suffering of nearly everyone involved.
Watching it back then — and still now — I couldn’t help but wonder: What was this film trying to tell me? That humans are inherently destructive? That communication is, at best, a precarious game of broken telephone? That life is so deeply absurd that even death and loss are laughable?
If so, the film supports this final point quite well. It’s packed with tiny hilarious references, rich details, and manic physical comedy. Rescue planes engage in battle with King Kong, a baby sucks whiskey from its bottle, and a soundtrack of Dixieland jazz bounces maniacally in the background as the death toll mounts. It’s slapstick, but with a sharp slap.
If the film has a moral it’s that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But then, morals are for children, and this isn’t a children’s movie. So instead of reducing this tale to its black ending, I prefer to see the film as a celebration of the details that decorate our time on earth, and the pockets of humour that can be found even along the path to destruction. Mallette’s film reminds us that every life ends in the tragedy of death. So why not appreciate moments of humour and absurdity while we can — if only for eight minutes?
The Family That Dwelt Apart
The Family That Dwelt Apart, Yvon Mallette, provided by the National Film Board of Canada