#13. Nanook of the North (1922)

It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’m sitting at a café, writing this response, instead of attending the 9 a.m. training for my new job at the restaurant. I woke up early and ate a big breakfast, gave myself a pep talk, got all dressed up nice and fought traffic on my way to the mall but then realized, once I got there, that I didn’t have my social security card, so they sent me home. Gotta go back next week. Pretty embarrassing. Then I tried to leave through the wrong door while everybody watched me go. Fortunately I don’t exist on a high enough plane of consciousness to really register as much shame as that should probably ignite.

I’m excited about the new job but also embarrassed about this first impression and also I’m a bit worried, frankly, about whether I can live up to the task. Whether I’ll be able to stay on my feet, in constant motion, for however many hours at a time. Then I look at somebody like Nanook, for example, who, according to one of the intertitles, killed seven polar bears last year with nothing but his harpoon. Meanwhile I’m racked with doubt about whether I can go six hours without laying down.

Nanook hooks a seal through the ice and wrestles to pull it up.
Nanook hooks a seal through the ice and wrestles it up.

Apparently Nanook of the North gets a lot of shit for the fact that some of its events were staged. Or there’s a debate about it, at least. Accusations that Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker, was actually directing Nanook through each scene so that, rather than chronicling a typical few days in the life of an Eskimo family (as the film is ostensibly doing), he’d instead be able to sport some riveting footage of Nanook fighting an actual walrus, and of Nanook flaying a seal, and catching fish with his bare hands before killing them with his teeth.

If Flaherty did direct some of it, if he skewed the truth so as to make a more engaging documentary, I’m cool with it. Not sure I’d say that of a modern documentary, for some reason, but in this case it’s fine.

Sure, Nanook probably never had a day so busy as this one. But the things he’s doing in the film do appear to be common practices – and he’s pretty adept at what he does. It’s remarkable to watch. Susan Sontag talks in Regarding the Pain of Others about how the camera, which is generally heralded as giving us an unbiased record of events, is in fact inherently biased. In order to take a photo, she says, there needs to be a perspective, and “perspective” is basically another word for bias. It means that there are parameters to what you can see. In order to take a photo the photographer needs to position herself at a certain angle whereby, naturally, there’ll be things happening offscreen that might inform the context of what’s in the picture. Things in the foreground that obfuscate crucial things in the background. Not to mention the influence of captions.

I guess the problem kinda boils down to this: reporting the news is a matter of storytelling. Stories, however, have shapes, and reality does not. And here’s a good time to quote Cormac McCarthy:

the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.

So the newscaster or the documentarian or the historian is, by definition, imposing structure on a thing that has none. It’s like trying to build a tower out of water (and don’t smartass me about freezing the water first). If reality is given shape, it’s been hammered and mangled to assume that shape, and therefore can no longer be called reality. Same thing with Nanook of the North.

(Jesus. I’m still cringing about the social security card.)

This shot of Nanook &co hooking a walrus and wrestling it to shore is fascinating, I think, but maybe also testament to the fact that the movie is brutal in its way, and not for everybody.
This shot of Nanook &co hooking a walrus and wrestling it to shore is fascinating, I think, but maybe also testament to the fact that the movie is brutal in its way, and not for everybody.

Flaherty opens the movie with a sequence of intertitles. He says that this documentary depicts the efforts of Nanook and his family to survive the winter. Says too that, a year after this footage was captured, Nanook and his family died of circumstances similar to those depicted herein. This fact glosses the whole movie with something like nostalgia or grief (if those two things are different). Adds something bitter and beautiful. Made me wonder, though: would that bit of information about the death of these characters have been most effective to the audience at the beginning of the movie (where Flaherty shares it) or the end? Like the news we get at the end of Crumb, the documentary about the artist Robert Crumb. That near-the-end shot of a man peering out a window and the subtitle that appears on screen. It hits you pretty hard.

Anyway. Nanook of the North is brief and sweet and moving. I love it. Recommend it to everybody.

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