Nanook of the North

Friday, 29 September 2006

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #33: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.


This is the third time now that I’ve seen Nanook of the North. I’m currently rewatching films I’ve already seen but not reviewed that are on the Criterion list. Despite the fact that Nanook of the North is filled with more inaccuracies and staged scenes than actual ethnography, it is important to realize that though much of its criticism is accurate, it isn’t all justified.

Flaherty was blazing trail for feature length non-​fiction filmmaking, as well as location shooting in harsh environments. The camera he used was so large that a non-​authentic three-​walled igloo had to be constructed to allow enough light and space inside for filming to take place. He used this equipment in the Arctic, on ice fields and in blizzards and hauling it hundreds of miles. And while actualities were common fare at nickel odeons, constructing a non-​fiction narrative of this sort had never been done before.

This is a situation in which criticism should not be personal. In hindsight, taking in the legacy that Flaherty created with documentary cinema, it is easy to rip Nanook of the North to shreds as more story than document, but aim would be better taken at documentaries which are arranged in the style of Nanook and continue to make the same mistakes and falsifications, often deliberately.[Michael Moore, I’m looking at you.] In fact, I would argue that Flaherty made no mistakes in the filming of Nanook apart from being careless enough to accidentally burn the negatives from his previous attempts at making it.

From an ethnographer’s standpoint, Flaherty’s insistence that the Inuit use methods that were already becoming used less and less often was inspired. The prevalence of firearms, Western building materials and motorized watercraft was on the increase, and likely within another generation it would have been impossible to make a film like Nanook of the North. So Flaherty was unknowingly creating salvage ethnography that has been equally important to anthropology as to cinema. It is no coincidence that I watched this film once in a film class and once for an anthropology class.

It is possible to read the film as a meta-​document about spectatorship in the early 20th century as well. Flaherty was clever enough to realize that he must craft a film that his audience would enjoy so we end up with patronizing and romantic intertitles and oscillating shots of the Inuit as skilled and simple [Nanook and the gramophone being a prime example of the latter] but always as savages. Flaherty’s presence as a character within the film is minimal, unlike in Hoop Dreams [another Criterion title] where the director acts as a participant-​observer.

Ultimately, I think it is important to recognize the faults in a film like Nanook of the North while not holding it against the filmmaker. This film is truly a landmark of early cinema, so it is no surprise that its form continues to be copied even to this day. Mistakes and all, and even by those who should know better.


• Watch the entire film at Google Video.
• How I Filmed Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty.
Criterion Essay by Dean W. Duncan.
Roger Ebert essay.
DVD Outsider Review.
• Misrepresentation of reality in Nanook of the North [with a tiny video clip] Full project on the film here.
Gerhard Lampe’s academic analysis of Flaherty’s style.
The Criterion Contraption’s review.

Beer and Grassroots Activism

Thursday, 28 September 2006

I was at Edison’s last night meeting with some neighborhood folks about a possible synergy between the larval Tremont Civility Project and a possible mentoring program to bring together new residents, long-​time residents and even longer-​time residents. I also got pretty drunk.

Rogue Brewery’s Dead Guy Ale

This ale was moderately hoppy with a thick grain and fruity hints, perfect for a fall afternoon or summer evening.

North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout

This imperial stout deserves being named for a man with an eleven inch penis that was worshipped as a fertility charm. A strong rooty front note fades into a hint of anise and some sort of wood flavor. The finish is almost too smooth, without the lingering stout flavor I’m used to. This might be because it was bottled. 9% by volume. I don’t really know what I’m talking about here if you hadn’t already noticed.

Flying Dog Brewery’s Pale Ale

Now that it is morning and I’m sober, I actually think I’ve had this before. I can’t really review it because I think it acted as a palate cleanser after the Old Rasputin. I remember that it was about as hoppy as Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA.

Palma Louca

This Brazilian Pilsener was the surprise of the night. I don’t really like pilseners, but my habit at Edison’s is to always try a beer I’ve never had before. I believe this is now my favorite south of the border beer. It beats out Pacifico, Dos Equis, and Corona in terms of flavor and refreshment. And it didn’t even have a lime in it.

Round VII — Third Night of Interviews

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

I swung on up to Ohio City last night for some sushi from Kimo’s before going to the last night of interviews for this round of Neighborhood Connections Grant-​making. Kimo’s was closed again. The third time in a row this has happened to me. I know he does the sushi for the Indians, and that its a big account for him, but it is a hassle to get there and find out he is closed. I guess I’ll have to start calling first. Maybe he could use a website to keep folks informed? Instead I went to Heck’s again. I’d last been there over a year ago with Patrick in our quest for the best burger in Cleveland. I wasn’t impressed with their burger then, and I wasn’t impressed with the pasta dish I got last night. The food was good enough, but I can and have made better at home.

The six interviews we had last night switched back and forth between sports/​exercise programs and educational programs. Unfortunately the same problem we’ve had in the past also came through with several of these groups. Most or all of the money would go to pay themselves or their business. I’m sorry, but if you request $5000 and all of that money is going to pay for memberships to the business you own you aren’t going to get the money. Similarly, if you request $5000 and all of that money is being split between the workers at the business while claiming their hours as in-​kind contributions, you’re not going to get the money. I think that is one of the positives having community activists as the grant-​making committee. We know all of the tricks people will use to make a buck. I wonder what it says for the Cleveland economy that small businesses are so desperate for patronage or cash that they’ll create one-​off programs and hope the funding source doesn’t look too closely at their application.


Tuesday, 26 September 2006

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #23: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop.


This is a good time to explore the Criterion Collection’s mission statement, since I know plenty of people think that having RoboCop on a list with The 400 Blows and 8½ is an abomination.

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-​winning, original supplements.

RoboCop is the kind of film on which an enterprising and lazy film student could base an entire thesis. It is a post-​modern masterpiece, in both lit-​crit and cult-​crit usages of the term. While films like The Terminator and The Matrix are also excellent post-​modern films, they lack a certain cultural applicability that is the main motive force in Verhoeven’s image of the future. To call RoboCop a comedy or satire is to do it a great disservice. It is often barkingly funny, but the pervading brutality, callousness and cynicism is not present for its own sake but to flesh out an idea and warning about Verhoeven’s prediction of cultural evolution in the late 1980s. The fact that RoboCop is more and more often billed as a comedy does more to strengthen the prescience of the film than anything else. We laugh at RoboCop because we are continually becoming closer to the future it predicts. We laugh because it is correct, even though we don’t want to believe it.

RoboCop, therefore, becomes the poster child of post-​modern man. And there is nothing funny about him. While gay gang-​member drug dealers blow apart Detroit with huge guns held crotch-​high spurting fire [No, I am not kidding], RoboCop is driven by his prime directives to bring justice to all and sundry but for a select few. He is a man imprisoned within circuitry, who can feel his family although he cannot remember them. With a subjectivity so fractured and controlled by corporate and political interests there is little cause for RoboCop to accept the name of the dead man he is [Are all cops named Murphy?] or to accept anything at all.

RoboCop is far too sympathetic a character to be funny. Despite all of the strictures placed upon him, he strives to be as autonomous as possible, to live up to obsolete standards in a cutting-​edge environment with ADD newscasts NUKEM board games; he ultimately triumphs because his prison is also his weapon. So if that isn’t reason enough to include RoboCop in the Criterion list, nothing I can say will change your mind.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the stop-​motion animation debt that the film owes to Ray Harryhausen. I love that man, and were it not for him, the ED-​209 and the 6000 SUX commercial, integral to the cultural aroma of the film, would have not been nearly as effective.


Criterion Essay by Carrie Rickey
• YouTube clip of RoboCop’s introduction, one of cinema’s great reveals.
The RoboCop Archive
The Criterion Contraption’s review.


Monday, 25 September 2006

Buckwheat BlessingYesterday was a terrible day to be heading west on I-​90. I hit Buffalo right after the Bills game got out, had torrential downpours all the way to Cleveland and arrived back in town right when the Browns game finished. People were driving and not-​driving like jackasses in the rain. The people pulled over on the side of the road didn’t turn on their hazards and there were people driving in the rain that had no lights on at all as well.

I picked up Mark Z. Danielewski’s latest while I was in Canada and an annotation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that I’ve never seen in the states. It cross-​references with his Letters and other primary and secondary source material [much of which I own] so I’ll be geeking out in Tolkien-​land for awhile.

I ate much delicious food and managed to find a Notre Dame fan to watch the friggin’ game with.

Beer and Sushi

Friday, 22 September 2006

I’m in Kingston, Ontario, Canada at the moment and just got back from the Kingston Brewing Company Limited where I had a Dragon’s Breath Real Ale, which is an English-​style ale, non-​carbonated and hand-​pumped from the tap. It was thick and grainy like you’d expect from an English Ale, and very smooth to drink, especially for me, since I tend to gulp non-​carbonated beverages. I also had far too much sushi today.


Thursday, 21 September 2006

The night before last I met a relatively new Tremont resident for beer and tacos at the Lincoln Park Pub. We spent nearly two hours chatting about the various places we’d lived in Indiana, job prospects and how to fix Cleveland. Yesterday I was going to write more about this, but due to a power outage, I had no internet access. They ended up sending us home from work at 11, after nearly three hours of sitting in the dark. So, I did what any red-​blooded American man would do with an extra 4 hours of time in a day; I went shopping. I finally found a replacement hoodie, even though it is brown, not black, slightly distressed and from a company called American Rag. At least it doesn’t have a logo on it and I am now warm. It does have an inside breast pocket which will be perfect for my camera when I’m out and about.

When I got back to Tremont, Rafiq needed a ride out to E.91st and St. Clair so I took him and a friend out there and spent a solid forty minutes talking poetry and the artistic process with the friend. I’ve forgotten his name because I’m a jerk. Friend is going to LA for a few months for some intensive writing with a creative partner in crime and from the few glimpses I had of the work he has done and has planned, he’s going to create some fierce stuff.

The weather yesterday was the sort that only appears in the fall. Brisk and mostly cloudy, mostly nimbus but ragged in shape and errant in movement that light from the sun kept leaking around them all and making the whole day into a fleeting golden hour.