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.