Sunday, August 28, 2005

Nanook of the North


Dir: Robert J. Flaherty (Man of Aran; Louisiana Story)

Reputedly the first documentary, this silent feature follows the life of Eskimo Nanook for one year. I watched the film for two reasons. One, to understand references to the title in popular culture. Two, because of its importance in film history. I watched it like I read Aristotle; I know I should, but I can't say it is the most enjoyable thing in the world.

First, praise. I can only imagine the hardships endured by Flaherty in filming. Of course, those are the hardships of Nanook's every day experience, but he did not have to lug a giant camera around with him. Flaherty spent years living among the Eskimos before filming, so the man gets kudos for walking the walk. And there are many scenes that are very interesting, especially the igloo building and some hunting scenes. I can only imagine how this must have blown people's minds in 1922. And, of course, the idea of making a feature film out of ordinary daily activities was revolutionary and essential.

Then, blame. The films view of Nanook is mixed in my 21st century eyes. It is clearly filmed with love and compassion and an awe of the survival skills of this family. But it is a product of the times, and pushes heavy on the "simple savages" angle, probably more so that should be be excused even then. This is a much more complicated case than "Birth of a Nation," though. There do not appear to be outright distortions in this one. Nanook really did smack his lips over raw seal meat. But the way it is portrayed embodies in a thought provoking way how even erstwhile benefactors can easily embody negative cultural attitudes in their depictions of others. I don't often ride this pony, but it is impossible to view the film without thinking about these things. Plus, even the first documentary stages scenes, a tactic I have never cared for in this type of move making. Oh, a storm is coming, there is immediate danger! (of course the film crew had an hour to set up a wide shot of the family coming over the horizon to get out of the way of that storm).

Criterion, of course, has made the movie pretty. For serious students of film history only.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 8/28/2005 02:48:00 PM that...

Was the transfer good? With such an old movie, I always fear that time would really take its toll. I have been meaning to see it, but it definitely does not sound like a purchaseable flick...even for a student of film history. Flaherty did another important documentary, the name escapes me (I think it is Man of Aran), but it is thought to be an even better film, although not as historically important (like Intolerance or Broken Blossoms is to Birth of a Nation).  

Blogger paroske noted on 8/28/2005 11:28:00 PM that...

The transfer is very good. Not perfect; they had to add a colored tint to a few scenes to make it show up. But completely watchable, all things considered.

Don't buy it unless you really get into documentary some day.