Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I don't usually fall asleep during films. I have an annoying ability to become interested in anything on a TV screen even if the volume is muted and I stay awake despite physical demands of sleep.

I fell asleep 3 times during this film.


I wasn't even all that tired the second 2 times.

So, if that's not review enough for you, let's chat about Nanook. I tried to watch this with an objective eye and tried to keep in mind that it would be damned near impossible to make a film about an unknown group of Others without coming off as racist, even now. Add in that the film was released in 1922 and I'm surprised there wasn't a black-face intermission. Maybe seal-faced? ANYWAY, the film does manage to try valiantly to not be entirely "look at the strange people do strange things" in that there are a few family moments but even those are more like People's (US Magazine?) "Celebrities: They're Just Like Us!" section which is just "look at the strange people do things we do." I mean, seriously, we can't move from eating the still-warm-dead body of a seal (or walrus, or not-quite-dead fish) to Eskimo kisses and puppies and think, yes! just like us! But, could we get an honest portrayal of an Eskimo family from a white guy? I'm not sure but I lean toward an emphatic no.

The real problem with Nanook is that it lacks narrative. I'm told by the film, and Flaherty's wife in the DVD extra, that this film shows a year in the life of Nanook. Really? That seemed like a few days, one week at most, to me because not much happens. I have no way to mark time (and there are handy text cards inserted with frequency that could say "Spring!") given the seemingly year-round snow, my inability to distinguish the people from one another (and, no, that's no a "they all look alike" problem; it's a film quality problem and a "they're all covered in furs and snow" problem), and the lack of an overwhelming narrative. I understand that people's lives don't always follow a pretty narrative arc but, clearly, this film was edited down to around an hour of footage. If you're editing, make a narrative; maybe I wouldn't have fallen asleep so many times.

So what sayeth the book? Well, confusingly, the book says the film is a "series of vignettes that detail the life of Nanook and his family over a few weeks." Hmmmm. Like many "facts" about this film, this, too, seems part of the debate. Otherwise, real or staged, the book wants us to watch this one because it was so damned influential, because Flaherty is called the "father of the documentary," and because of it's stories (Flaherty setting accidental fire to his first film with cigarette ash, the fact of Nanook's death shortly after filming wrapped and the controversy of whether it was freezing temperatures or tuberculosis and whether his whole family died, too).

But, like cough syrup, I understand why it's needed but I don't like it one bit.


  1. HAH! Eskimos, they're just like us! Too right. And you're also right about the time line/narrative problems. If you're already going to stage stuff, why not impose a narrative on these people's lives. Even make some of them characters. Who's funny? Who is the planner? Etc.

    By the by, can you imagine setting fire to your entire magnum opus? Isn't that basically what finished Ralph Ellison as a writer?

  2. Yes! I needed characterization! The only hint of that we get is Nanook with his kid teaching him to be a hunter.

    I can't imagine that at all! Especially since it was Flaherty's cigarette ash that did it. Yep--apparently Ellison had a fire at home that he claimed destroyed some of his manuscript but I think some claim he just used that as a bit of an excuse.