Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Nanook of the North" (1922)

For those very few filmgoers who are unfamiliar with it, "Nanook" tells the story of an Eskimo and his family as they struggle for survival in the frozen tundra. It is very much a "documentary" in that it documents the day-to-day life and process of survival, including the building of an igloo and a seal hunt.
But it is in these more "spectacular" scenes that the film earned its detractors. Take for example the interior shots of the igloo. Due to the intensity of the heat generated by lighting equipment necessary in 1922, the shots had to be faked using a "set", half an igloo with one side completely open for natural light to allow for filming, not unlike the open-air stages that permeated Hollywood in the early silent days. The seal hunt, too, is not entirely truthful-in fact, an already-dead seal is substituted for a live one in order to allow Nanook more freedom in his "performance" of spearing the seal and dragging it to the surface of the ice. In addition, the film presents the Eskimos performing rather ancient hunting and survival rituals, not exactly as advanced as genuine Inuit culture of 1920.

Flaherty's film remains the seminal, landmark film in the documentary genre. Flaherty himself was later denounced after facts regarding the fictionalization of certain scenes in "Nanook" came to light. Eventually stripped of his credibility among documentarians, film historians continued to appreciate his sophisticated use of location photography, which often produced beautiful and poetic results. By the end of his life, in 1951, Flaherty found renewed appreciation for his work by less harsh critics who found high praise for the humanism apparent in all his work, and the enthographic dedication with which Flaherty took time to learn about the cultures he was documenting. His final film, "Louisiana Story" (1948)-a tale of oil drillers in rural Louisiana-combined a narrative with documentary techniques, and for many years was frequently cited as one of the ten great films in the history of the medium.

Perhaps no other filmmaker has seen his reputation plummet more than Flaherty; once one of world cinema's most respected and highly praised artists on the level of Chaplin, Eisenstein, DeSica, etc., he is now a name in the footnotes of film history texts. Sadly, his work is in danger of neglect to the point of extinction from the cultural consciousness. The annual Flaherty Seminars keep his spirit of humanism in documentary film alive, however. Perhaps Flaherty's work will enjoy a renewed appreciation as more and more serious study toward documentary films comes into being.

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