Saturday, May 24, 2014

Criterion #33: Nanook of the North

directed by Robert J. Flaherty
English inter-titles
79 minutes

The second earliest film in the Criterion Collection is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It dates from a time when motion pictures had hardly drawn clear lines about what documentary filmmaking was. In the early days, every film was a document and then storytellers got involved. Certainly the Eskimo Nanook and his family are real people who lived in Canada on Hudson Bay, and it was understood at the time that Flaherty had captured actual moments from their life (although we know now that some scenes were staged). In that respect, Nanook of the North is widely viewed as birthing the documentary genre, setting the groundwork for other filmmakers who wished to tell the stories of actual people.

The story goes that in 1913, Flaherty was working for a prospector and brought a movie camera along on an expedition. He allegedly became so intrigued by the lives of the Inuit that he spent most of his time filming them instead of doing his job. Unfortunately the 30,000 feet of film he shot burst into flames (ah, the perils of nitrate prints) when he accidently dropped his cigarette. So in 1920, after having raised funds, he returned to make a proper film about life in the arctic.

Flaherty must have culled together countless hours of footage. So he obviously carefully selected the most interesting or awe-inspiring episodes and then strung them together into something that resembles a narrative, complete with a central hero trying to protect his family. He begins with initial introductions to Nanook, his wives Nyla and Cunayou, and the children Allee and Allegoo. 
Establishing shots of Nanook (The Bear) and...
...Nyla (The Smiling One), his wife.
The first episode brings them to the “white man’s” trading post where they will barter arctic fox furs and such for tools that they need like steel knives. The rest of what Flaherty presents is sheer survival tactics. Nanook goes on a solo fishing trip, bringing back some salmon. Later there is a walrus hunt. Following that, Nanook retrieves an arctic fox from a trap and hunts a seal, which he and his family promptly butcher and begin eating. The other major survival aspect is shelter. And we get to see Nanook building the igloo they will bed down in for the night.
Nanook patiently awaits a fish to pass by
To keep it from flopping around, he has to bite the fish's head.
But this isn’t an all work and no play lifestyle. Flaherty takes the time to show us the fun to be had sliding down an ice hill while Nanook works hard building that igloo. There’s also a scene of Nanook teaching his boy how to handle a bow and arrow, getting practice on a little snow sculpture polar bear.
Flaherty is not above shooting a scene of an awe-struck Nanook supposedly listening to a phonograph for the first time. So confused is he by the technology, he tries taking a bite out of the record.
examining the phonograph
"Let me try to eat this."
Sadly, I have a suspicion that Flaherty must have instructed Nanook to do that (what would make anyone think that it was edible) to play to the lowest common denominator of audience members: the people so na├»ve, those who are so ignorant, so accepting of the ‘fact’ of native peoples’ simple minds that they would be amused by such a scene. It’s a standard trope throughout the history of literature and cinema to depict American Indians and other native North Americans as simpletons. Of course other minorities have historically put up with such humiliation. It’s also interesting to note that throwing bones to the basest members of the audience is still fairly common practice in commercial filmmaking. You need only subject yourself to any Adam Sandler film and then look at the box office figures for proof.

By modern standards of documentary filmmaking, a lot of what Flaherty engaged in wouldn’t pass muster. He “cast” his movie with locals to stand in as Nanook’s family. In fact, one of the women represented as Nanook’s wife was Flaherty’s own common law wife. And many scenes were staged for dramatic effect. From his point of view, Flaherty was trying to meld the real with the dramatic, creating some kind of narrative out of the lives of the Inuit. Documentary filmmakers still craft narrative today, but their methods are usually more journalistic and subtle. In 1920 when Flaherty was shooting, there was no code.

Two of the most well-known and dramatic sequences turned out to have been manipulated in some way. The first we see in the film is the walrus hunt. We see the men harpoon the great beast on the shore and struggle to pull the 2,000 pound animal toward them.
the struggle to pull the walrus ashore is very real
In point of fact, by 1920 the Inuit in that area, including Nanook, were regularly using rifles to hunt. So this sort of primitive method was used to present on screen tension. But at some time in the recent past, they had been using a harpoon method. So what Flaherty shows is not, strictly speaking, an accurate depiction of Nanook’s life at that time, but of the treacherous and difficult life of the Inuit generally. Also, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his Great Movies review of the film, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script.”[1] So it still functions as a document of something, just not necessarily of exactly how these people were living in 1920.

The other big sequence is the building of the igloo. Again here, Nanook is actually creating a structure from blocks of ice. It’s the interior scenes that are questionable in their authenticity. Because Flaherty could not get his equipment in a normal sized igloo, they tried building one large enough that collapsed. When they got it right, the light inside was insufficient. So the interior igloo scenes actually involve a three-walled igloo that allows the natural light of day to shine on the characters. This is clear enough if you examine the lighting and scope in those scenes.
It doesn’t change the fact that what we see Nanook and his family doing “in” the igloo is real. They bed down for the night without clothing and cover themselves in furs. Flaherty just gave us a recreation of something he otherwise couldn’t capture.

From a technical standpoint, the film really lacks sophistication. The quality of the images is often grainy and lacks a lot of clarity. The lighting is generally very poor and there’s little to no camera movement. Given the harsh and freezing conditions Flaherty was working in, this is hardly surprising. I certainly wasn’t expecting a grand and technically proficient piece of work from the early 20s. The film is meant to be notable for establishing some of the parameters that later documentary filmmakers would use and for showing the general public something they were likely seeing for the first time and unlikely to ever see or learn much about again, except from books. Descriptions from books can be vivid, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it for yourself.

At its core, Nanook of the North stands as a document of the fast-disappearing culture and lifestyle of the Inuit people. Flaherty was not exactly setting out to make what we now know as a documentary film, but he was surely aware of the short history of cinema as a medium for capturing people in actual life situations. The film ends up as a cross between a travelogue that shows us another people in another place, unfamiliar to the vast majority, and a narrative. It succeeds to some extent as both, preserving dramatic form as well as journalistic storytelling in singularity.

Criterion disc features:

Very light on special features, which was a hallmark of a lot of Criterion’s earliest releases.

-          A musical score by Timothy Brock adds some great dramatic touches to the on screen action. Brock has also composed scores for other silent classics including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Sunrise.
-          A gallery of still photos by Flaherty depicting life in the arctic doesn’t really add much beyond what we can already experience in the film.
-          There is an excerpt from a TV documentary called Flaherty and Film featuring Frances Flaherty, Robert’s widow and also editor of Nanook. She talks about how her husband was not making a documentary film in the way a 1957 (when the program aired) audience understood it. As far as he was concerned, he was making a commercial feature for the theatrical screen. His films combined “art and science,” she says. It’s only about eight minutes long and worth a look. I especially liked how the opening titles of the program quaintly credit her as “Mrs. Robert Flaherty” because of course women have no identity outside marriage to a husband.

Further reading:

-          This essay by Dean W. Duncan is brief but informative, although he doesn’t provide any sources for some of his claims, such as the fact that the seal Nanook hunts was already dead and the pulling on the harpoon line was actually done by some off-camera people. This supports the sense I had while watching that scene that his bopping and flopping didn’t really appear genuine.
-          The New York Times review, as it appeared on 12 June 1922, praised the film’s depiction of a real life hero more compelling than any in manufactured drama. Hindsight provides the review a severely ironic twist the way it goes on about the drama created by authentic people trather than a cast since we know that Flaherty ‘cast’ his film with people who were not actual family members.
-          Here’s blogger David Blakeslee, who is working his way through the Criterion Collection chronologically.
-          Matthew Dessem’s blog has been an inspiration to me and I fully admit ripping off his formatting ideas.


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