Nanook Of The North Essay, Research Paper
Nanook of the North
In 1922, Robert Flaherty debuted his epic ethnographic film entitled Nanook of the North. At the time, nobody knew of the impact that it would have on the entire industry of filmmaking. One of the innovators of the ethnographic film, Flaherty took his camera into places that no one had ever imagined. His expedition into the Arctic brought forth a new style of filmmaking that is still used in many films today.
The first thing that everybody must notice about Nanook of the North is the cinematography. At this point in the era of film the equipment was obviously quite primitive when compared to everything that we have today. This, however, did not hinder Flaherty in any way as his film still contains many of the most breath-taking images still available for viewing. For example, the opening sequence to the film contains an incredible deep-focus shot of the icebergs floating around in the sea, as the sun is high above the water. Everything in the shot seems to be in place and a type of peace is established before you are introduced to the film s main character, Nanook. Later in the film the camera revisits similar shots using the barren landscape behind the action to further reveal the desolation of the Eskimo people. All you can see is snow and ice for miles and miles as the subjects engage in their activity. Civilization has not touched these
people, and therefore the landscape is peaceful behind the action, even though the Eskimo people are constantly struggling with their natural environment.
Flaherty was also able to pull off many other things than beautiful imagery with his camera work, though. As a matter of fact, the key to the success of Nanook of the North was his innovative camera techniques. In David Parkinson s History of Film, Parkinson states “shot with a participatory camera , the scenic footage and dramatic reconstructions of Nanook of the North captured the spirit of the Eskimo lifestyle through an inspired montage of close-ups, reverse angles , pans and tilts”(45). The key phrase here is “participatory camera,” as Flaherty placed the viewer inside of the action with his personal camera. During many scenes, you feel as involved in the action as the subjects; One scene in particular was the shot of the blizzard conditions attacking Nanook and his family s freshly built igloo. Snow is swirling in all directions and the camera is in the middle of all of it.
The camera work is not the only significant development that this film brought about. This film actually established the rules of ethnographic filmmaking. Many sources blindly praise this film just because of the fact that it did become the model for most other films of this nature to follow. One such comment was “Robert Flaherty used the techniques of narrative editing to heighten the realism of his documentaries”(Parkinson 45). Upon further analysis of the film, however, one begins to see that this is far from true. His films are less like reality and more like his view on the Eskimo people. Unfortunately, his view on the Eskimo people would raise outrage among most viewers today, and amazingly enough his viewpoint is revealed by the same narrative editing that Parkinson claims brings reality. Over the years, this film has been cut and recut so many times that there are several versions available. I have seen two, and it was the narrative editing that changed the entire meaning of the film. Without the use of inter-titles the film seemed more like a documentary as it just showed the every day life of the Eskimo people. You are not told what they are doing; you are left to find out for yourself through the camera. With the addition of the inter-titles, nonetheless, the film becomes a racist view on the Eskimo s and a celebration of the white man conquering the west. The titles themselves suggest a stupidity possessed by the Eskimos as in one scenario they refer to the trading post as “the white man s igloo.” Little comments like this make the Eskimo s seem needy of help and it was good that “the white man” had come to save them.
The use of inter-titles was not the only thing that brought Flaherty s opinion to the helm, though. His montage style editing also played a key role in this. One scene in particular has Flaherty basically de-humanizing the Eskimo people and setting them on the same level of savage beasts. He inter-cuts several shots of the dogs ripping away at the meat that has been fed to them with Nanook gnawing away at meat from, most likely, the same animal. After it goes back and forth on these two events for a while, one begins to subconsciously make the connection of Eskimo and beast. Also, Flaherty found it necessary to include several shots of Nanook licking his knife after a fresh kill as if implying that the Eskimos, like wild beasts, can t stand the hunger and will engulf their kill when they first have the chance. The editing served other purposes than to express his views, obviously, and was served better by the fact that this was actually Flaherty s second attempt at a film coming off of an Arctic expedition. Flaherty “had been able to anticipate editing problems, providing crucial close-ups, reverse angles, and a few panoramic movements and tilts to yield moments of revelation”(Barnuow 39). In particular, the use of close-ups in this film were very effective, but editing them in at the proper places were key to the drama of the story. The close-ups provide support to the hardships of the people and are used after intense moments, such as the shot of the blizzard, to show their struggles with nature.
It must be mentioned that this film is the ultimate testament to the age-old story of man vs. nature, even though it contains the stereotypical viewpoints that are aforementioned. The film does remain close to a “document” of the lives of the Eskimos with or without the messages interwoven by Flaherty. You see the struggles of Nanook and the hunters as they wrestle to bring in a seal for food. You see the process they go through to make their igloos for shelter. You see them surviving the elements in their own way, and Flaherty does an excellent job of capturing that with the camera, but his viewpoints are added with the editing process which takes away from the “documentary feel” of the film.
Escaping from the idea that this film should be discarded due to its societal implications, I once again return to the technique employed by Flaherty. Most of the lighting in this film was natural lighting; something that is very rare in films today. By using natural light of the outdoors Flaherty provided many poetic images as he captures the life of Nanook. When natural lighting was not possible, Flaherty improvised to make it work. This deplorable action took away from the realism of the action once again. For example, the igloo that is constructed by Nanook was actually built a little larger since the cameras did not fit inside of the igloo itself. They had problems with this, though, as during the first attempts the domes collapsed. Eventually “they succeeded, but the interior was found too dark for photography. So half the igloo was sheared away Daylight lit the scene”(Barnuow 38). This improvisation obviously altered the state of the subjects, as they were subject to the cold of the outdoors without protection just for the shot. Flaherty passed this on to the viewer as the real thing, nevertheless, without a doubt in his mind.
There is one obstacle that the casual viewer of Nanook of the North cannot overlook, and upon further analysis of the film it becomes more detrimental to the actual value of the documentary. I speak of the idea of Nanook of the North as a truly objective film, or a document of the lives of its subjects. As a matter of fact, the ethnographic film as defined by critic Walter Goldschmidt “is film which endeavors to interpret the behavior of one culture to persons of another culture by using shots of people doing precisely what they would have been doing if the camera were not there” (Warren 150). Since Nanook of the North is classed as an ethnographic film it should follow this basic rule, but it doesn t. As Andrew Sarris states in The American Cinema, “Actually, his films slip so easily into the stream of fictional cinema that they hardly seem like documentaries at all” (42). This is closer to the actuality of what Flaherty is presenting for several reasons. First off, the aforementioned stereotypes play on the mind of the viewer and you are given his perception as opposed to an objective lens. Second, I must discuss the presence of the camera in the shot. Back to Goldschmidt s comment on ethnographic filmmaking, he seems to advocate the use of surveillance in filmmaking, but that brings up many moral issues that most filmmakers are not willing to deal with. Flaherty did not simply look over the action like that, though. He brought the camera out and was as much a part of the action as the subjects. It is not just a document of events, but it is a type of authenticity with spectacle. Although these events did actually happen, they may have occurred differently without the presence of the camera. Who knows if this is truly the way the Eskimo people acted?
Nanook was obviously affected by the camera, as he seemed to play to the humor of the audience. One such example is the scene in which he bites the record. At that time, the phonograph had been in existence for quite some time, but it simply captivated and amazed the character Nanook. Once again, Sarris provides support for this idea, saying that “by involving himself in his material, he established a cinematic principle that parallels Werner Heisenberg s Uncertainty Principle in physics, namely, that the mere observation of nuclear (and cinematic) particles alters the properties of these particles” (42). Basically, he is saying that the presence of Flaherty and the camera disrupts their normal life as the people caught on film are, in essence, “performing” for the camera.
Other than the fact that the characters are exposed to the camera and may act differently when the camera is upon them, the editing of the film also raises the question of objectivity. Flaherty himself chooses what shots he wants to include in the final film making it a slanted view. In most films, the ratio of film shot to film actually used is somewhere around the ratio of 9 to 1. That means for every 10 shots only one is used, the other nine are discarded. Since Flaherty probably worked with a similar ratio, he had plenty to choose from to make his story work and provide his views on the lives of the Eskimo s.
Nanook of the North has obviously stood up to the test of time. It still catches the eye of all filmmakers and deserves to receive praise for it revolutionized the documentary film and cinematography in film as we see it today. Even though it is stereotypical in nature, this film has a value to it that most others cannot compare to, making it an important subject for study even today.