Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nanook of the North (1922)

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Robert Flaherty directed this. He was also a producer and (uncredited) writer and cinematographer on the piece.

WHAT: The last time I watched Robert Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North I was sitting in on a City College of San Francisco course taught by Ira Rothstein. He introduced the showing with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard on fiction or "narrative" films: that they are "nothing more than documentaries of actors at work."

One might say the same thing about non-fiction or "documentary" films as well (I use quotes around the word "documentary" because the term was not in use at the time Nanook of the North was made). Acting is not just merely a profession, marked by its connection to training facilities and professional guilds.  It's also an action that each of us has learned to perform to make it through the varied situations of the modern world.  And when we are conscious that there is a camera trained upon us, we tend to "act" differently than we otherwise would, whether we want to or not.  If the photographer explicitly asks us to pose or to perform a certain action, we're all the more likely to be pulled out of the actions we would take were a camera not present; we may attempt to conform to the requester's expressed wishes, or else rebel against them, but it becomes difficult if not impossible to act as we would if we didn't know the camera was there.

As one learns when watching Claude Massot's 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited (available on the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition of Flaherty's film), Nanook of the North was made with the hearty cooperation of its Inuit subjects.  Indeed Allakariallak, the actor who played the title character (Nanook was not his real name) was delighted to comply with his director's requests, which included: acting as if he had not heard a phonograph record before, when in fact he had, and engaging in a walrus hunt using methods that he and his fellow tribesmen had not employed for years - which Erik Barnouw seems to imply was actually an idea generated by Allakariallak himself, knowing it would be in sync with Flaherty's own aims in encasing in the amber of celluloid film the singular traditions of the Inuits.  

It's often noted that Nanook and its offspring like Chang (Cooper & Shoedsack, 1927) are not "pure" documentaries because the actions of their subjects were not merely observed and captured, but directed by their makers, and because they're edited, with the help of title cards, into a narrative form that distorts fact in the service of adventure and excitement (and, say the cynical, box-office). But is there not documentary value in seeing people perform tasks that, even if they may be obsolete on a day-to-day basis, are still in their living muscle memory? Allakariallak may or may not have ever hunted walrus without a rifle himself, but at the very least he'd known people who'd had no other option, and was a far more authentic choice to do so on screen than any Hollywood actor would have been.  As Barnouw wrote about the Inuits involved in the film: "Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life."

WHERE/WHEN: Nanook of the North screens today only at the Castro Theatre, at 1:45 PM, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Though I haven't seen the shorts screening as part of the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema program launching the 21st SFSFF's final day, nor the Hal Roach two-reeler What's the World Coming To?, which plays as part of the Girls Will Be Boys noon program, I've seen all five "feature-length" films screening today: Ernst Lubitsch's I Don't Wan't To Be a Man (the other piece of the aforementioned gender-bending showcase), Nanook of the North, Fritz Lang's haunting Destiny, Rene Clair's final silent Les Deux Timides and the mindblowing Douglas Fairbanks extravaganza (and Victor Fleming's directorial debut) When the Clouds Roll By, though of these only Les Deux Timides in a cinema with live musical accompaniment.  If I could see only one of them again today (and I'm so grateful that this is not so) it would be Nanook. Though I'm excited to finally see the Lubitsch, Lang and Fleming on the Castro screen with an audience, I remember them all (and it's been quite a while, especially for Destiny) as films with incredible scenes rather than as incredible films from start to finish. Nanook is a more consistent, coherent work despite its controversial aspects.

Despite being the most famous of today's films, it also seems the least likely candidate to screen again in a Frisco Bay venue any time soon. I could picture When the Clouds Roll By appearing at the Stanford Theatre, for instance (Victor Fleming seems pretty popular there; his most famous film Gone With the Wind screens July 1-3 to celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday). And it's been long enough since the last Lubitsch, Lang, and especially Clair retrospectives at BAMPFA that I wouldn't be so surprised to see their films show up there (though I wouldn't count on it either). Nanook of the North could appear as well, but since it's screening SFSFF as a BAMPFA co-presentation I rather doubt it would be soon.

Probably the most likely venue to show any of these films again is the most consistent silent film venue around: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, the same room where Charlie Chaplin watched movies over 101 years ago. Next weekend the Edison will play host to two days and one night full of Chaplin film screenings as well as a Chaplin look-alike contest on Sunday in honor of the annual Niles, CA Charlie Chaplin Days. The following weekend Chaplin's The Vagabond opens a four-film program of comedy shorts also including a Charley Chase film, a Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton's Cops (in case you missed it at SFSFF yesterday), all in 16mm with live piano accompaniment from Judith Rosenberg. And the final weekend of June is given over to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, whose line-up seems especially strong this time around, with an opening night showing of my favorite early Cecil B. DeMille drama The Golden Chance (RIP Bob Birchard), a Saturday evening show including this year's SFSFF MVP Wallace Beery in Behind the Front, and a Gish-filled Sunday afternoon with Dorothy in Nell Gwyn followed by her better-remembered sister Lillian in the excellent Victor Seastrom adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Not to mention a plethora of one-and two-reelers shot in Niles and/or other Essanay locations, including the 2015 throwback Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, which was shot in the area by a modern crew using vintage equipment. Diana Serra Carey (the former silent-era child star Baby Peggy) is among the cast members.

But I suspect Niles is not likely to show Nanook of the North in the near future, if only because it just screened there this past February and repeats of that sort are rare for this venue.

HOW: Nanook of the North screens via a 35mm print, with live musical accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.

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