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 Post subject: 33 Nanook of the North
PostPosted: Sat Feb 12, 2005 9:17 pm 

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Nanook of the North

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Robert Flaherty's classic film tells the story of Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada's Hudson Bay region. Enormously popular when released in 1922, Nanook of the North is a cinematic milestone that continues to enchant audiences. Criterion is proud to present the original director's cut, restored to the proper frame rate and tinted according to Flaherty's personal print.

Disc Features

- New digital transfer, digitally remastered at the visually correct speed by preservationist David Shepard
- New orchestral score by silent film music specialist Timothy Brock
- Excerpts from the television documentary Flaherty and Film, featuring interviews with the filmmaker's widow and Nanook co-editor Frances Flaherty
- Stills gallery of Flaherty's photographs of life in the Arctic

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Last edited by Martha on Wed Aug 10, 2005 10:39 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 09, 2005 10:05 pm 

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I'm curious to know, since I just watched this film last night...

Is it true that nearly all of the scenes are staged? What is the proportion of staged scenes to 'authentic' ones?

Can anyone shed some more light on this?


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 10, 2005 12:48 am 
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Apparently, Flaherty's practice was to stage the specific events he wanted to film after having spent weeks or even months living among the people he was filming. So, yes, I'd say that the vast majority of footage you see in any Flaherty is "staged" in the sense that he told the "actors" what to do in order to fit the frame. Yet there is a weird "authenticity" to what Flaherty ends up with -- probably because of all the stories and local culture he had absorbed in the months preceding. But these are not documentaries in the sense with which we are now so familiar. (Even though the word "documentary" was first applied to Flaherty's 1925 follow-up, "Moana.")

If you want more info on Flaherty's cinematic methods, I highly recommend that you check out HVE's two Flaherty films: "Louisiana Story" and "Man of Aran." Both have nice transfers and extras, and both really ought to have been Criterion entries. (In fact, I personally consider "Man of Aran" to be Flaherty's masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1930s.) The docu on "Man of Aran" goes into some of the specifics of Flaherty's techniques.

Also, Milestone's release of "Tabu" (which Flaherty and F.W. Murnau were supposed to co-direct, though Flaherty dropped out over creative differences with Murnau) also contains some interesting info on Flaherty. Now, if only someone would get around to releasing "Moana," Flaherty's only major film not currently out on DVD....


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 10, 2005 5:56 pm 
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tryavna wrote:
Apparently, Flaherty's practice was to stage the specific events he wanted to film after having spent weeks or even months living among the people he was filming. So, yes, I'd say that the vast majority of footage you see in any Flaherty is "staged" in the sense that he told the "actors" what to do in order to fit the frame. Yet there is a weird "authenticity" to what Flaherty ends up with -- probably because of all the stories and local culture he had absorbed in the months preceding. But these are not documentaries in the sense with which we are now so familiar. (Even though the word "documentary" was first applied to Flaherty's 1925 follow-up, "Moana.")

These are good points. It's important to understand that Flaherty was making his films well before any notion of "documentary ethics" had been established. Since the birth of cinema, actuality films had involved a considerable amount of 'staging' (Lumiere cameramen filming exotic activities around the globe, for example), and such a priceless 'documentary' record as Hurley's roughly contemporaneous stills and moving image of the Endurance expedition involve quite a bit of manipulation just to represent the story he needed to tell.

In many cases, the technical limitations of early equipment necessitated a degree of 'fakery' in order to document an important truth (as when Flaherty had to create fake igloos so he could shoot interiors). Flaherty's aim was to document a way of life, not a series of incidents that happened to occur while his camera was on, hence the need to ask his subjects to 'perform' their regular activities in decent light and within the view of a not-too-mobile camera.

Flaherty's individual vision, improvised in isolation, never strictly adhered to documentary standards, even once they emerged, and his films may best be understood as a kind of hybrid form. Man of Aran, for example, documents a practice that had long since ceased in real life, and Louisiana Story is exquisitely poised between the three spikes of documentary, fictional narrative and industrial film.

This kind of hybridisation was probably the dominant form of documentary in these years. Jean Epstein's works oscillate between fiction and documentary, but generally contain elements of both, and Cooper and Schoedsack's wonderful Chang is so contrived that it's only a documentary in the most vestigial sense.


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 1:10 pm 
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All great points, zedz! I think that you're absolutely right about needing to approach these "documentaries" -- and nearly all others made before the 1950s -- as hybrid art forms. On the one hand, the impulse to document aspects of everyday life is as old as the medium itself (just like photography). Yet there's another, equally strong impulse to provide spectacle for the audience's enjoyment (as indeed the medium itself is a very powerful form of spectacle). And of course, since people like Flaherty were not just creating the documentary genre as they were going along, but also helping to fine-tune the vocabulary of cinema itself, I definitely think we can't hold them to the same standards that we might people like Marcel Ophuls, E. Morris, and even M. Moore.

Instead, I much prefer approaching Flaherty's films -- and to a lesser extent Schoedsack's/Cooper's -- as works of art. It's just a shame that Flaherty has become one of those filmmaking pioneers (like Pudovkin and even Griffith) who seem to be talked about more than watched. I find Flaherty's films incredibly vivid and fresh, especially his editing techniques. In fact, it's worth mentioning that many subsequent directing giants (including Orson Welles, John Ford, and Michael Powell, all of whom were directly influenced by Flaherty) regularly referred to Flaherty as the cinema's first true poet.


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 5:34 pm 
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This discussion is providing me with a handy step-ladder to one of my hobby-horses: the notion that all cinema incorporates both documentary and fiction threads. The two poles of cinema as a commercial entity, since day one, have been 1) showing audiences real things that they could not easily see otherwise; 2) creating spectacles specifically for the camera and selling those.

Even within the Hollywood system, there are significant elements of the former, with the star system being the most obvious example, and even the most artificial productions contain vestiges of documentary. The Incredibles, for example, on some level documents the technology used to create it (the same applies to a Stan Brakhage painted film), and as time passes, that documentary aspect is likely to become more and more prominent, just as when we watch Melies films today we're probably paying more attention to how he achieved his tricks than the magic of the contents. The same is true with period cinema. I think it was Yoko One who observed this effect of slippage from fiction into documentary: the more time passes, the more films come to act as documents of past fashions, hairstyles, design and technology, and for this reason even the most ordinary or inconsequential fragment of film can become fascinating with the passage of time.


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 24, 2007 6:44 am 
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I just rewatched this last night, and suddenly I noticed this little half-sentence on the cover: "tinted according to Flaherty's personal print". Well, perhaps I'm getting colourblind or something, but I didn't see any tintings. This is plain black and white, with some minor variations in contrast and intensity, but nothing that I would describe as 'tinting'. Now I'm completely happy without tintings in this film and am not sure whether I would prefer it in blue or something, but has anybody got some information about what is going on here?


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 25, 2007 1:14 am 
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There are tintings-- I clearly remember them. I believe they come in the night time and exclusively at the very end. And they are hugely subtle so it's totally understandable you missed em. I almost did.

But true-- mostly black & white, which makes it very odd.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 25, 2007 7:35 am 
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Thanks Schreck, I indeed must have missed them. It's not a big issue anyway, but it's good to see that they made them so subtle that they are not intrusive (especially as the tintings were 'electronically recreated').

HerrSchreck wrote:
But true-- mostly black & white, which makes it very odd.

Not sure what you mean by 'odd' here. Would you have preferred it tinted in the 'usual' way? One of the great strengths of "Nanook" is the way Flaherty creates poetry out of the impression of a faithful recreation/documentation (barring those manipulations pointed out in the booklet) of reality. And more obvious tintings, much as I love them in silents generally, might have worked as an unnecessary 'veil' of that reality, highlighting the inevitable artificiality of the product.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 25, 2007 7:55 am 
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No what I guess I meant (re "odd") was how the film is 99.9999999% straight b&w, and then suddenly right before it ends you get a tinting schema. He (Flaherty) obviously had something about this moment-- I don't remember the specific scene it's in I just know it's there-- that he really wanted us to feel a bit amped up about. I'll be pulling it out to watch.

It's really a wonderful film indeed, and in fact I just finished a run of rewatching SAVAGE INNOCENTS, whose plot made me want to watch STORM OVER ASIA (non-white hunter-trapper/inhabitant of the outer wastes coming to sell furs to the white man, to be duly taken advantage of with the inevitable clash of cultures)... now I want to track back even further & hit the source-- NANOOK (though the interlude w the white man here is quite sanitized of course).

Contrary to most critics I love Flaherty's (and Murnau in TABU, also the sublime HIMALAYA et al) "artificial families" in NANOOK, MAN OF ARAN, LOUISIANA STORY, etc; by hiring native ethnographic non-actors he creates sort of mythological paeans to the corresponding culture's Littlest Guy, resulting in absolutely beautiful poetry. By littlest I mean-- by today's terms-- the guy we in the west would never celebrate in film. The poor worker living off the land under trying conditions and is perfectly healthy mentally & physically for it... a buried statement in there about modern happiness during the age when millions were flooding to the cities to find gold sidewalks & fame. Almost like a modern day version of the oral tradition passed down through rustic & tribal cultures rhapsodising their own versions of their heroic ubermenschen.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 25, 2007 8:26 am 
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HerrSchreck wrote:
. By littlest I mean-- by today's terms-- the guy we in the west would never celebrate in film. The poor worker living off the land under trying conditions and is perfectly healthy mentally & physically for it... a buried statement in there about modern happiness during the age when millions were flooding to the cities to find gold sidewalks & fame.

Absolutely true, and I too wonder how much of the fascination we experience is because of our own well-nourished modern-life boredom and a romantic wish to return to a simpler, more 'innocent' and thus more 'spiritual' (for us) life-style. Something like this might also be at work when watching apparently totally different films like the Paradjanovs or even "Bicycle thieves", "I know where I'm going!" or "Electric Edwardians". Or think of Pasolini's fascination for the Arabic world. There is certainly an exotistic desire at work here not necessarily shared by those actually living in these 'realms of nature' or 'the past'. Flaherty does not show us those bits of modern, western life technology that had already intruded into 'paradise' when the film was made, and which were certainly appreciated by the Inuit. I think they were more apt to use it than we think (and that scene where Nanook encounters the gramophone is certainly not representative and might have only been put into the film to enhance our idea about the Inuit's supposed 'innocence').

These films are nevertheless important historical/ethnographical documents of a vanished culture, despite of them being 'composed' to make a 'general', idealized portrayal of the particular culture in question. Thus I still find it regrettable that Riefenstahl couldn't bring herself to cut her footage of the Nuba people into a 'proper' film. Even if the material she shot was not up to her usual standards, if would still have been of considerable interest now that that culture is no more.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 25, 2007 3:32 pm 
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HerrSchreck wrote:
It's really a wonderful film indeed, and in fact I just finished a run of rewatching SAVAGE INNOCENTS, whose plot made me want to watch STORM OVER ASIA (non-white hunter-trapper/inhabitant of the outer wastes coming to sell furs to the white man, to be duly taken advantage of with the inevitable clash of cultures)... now I want to track back even further & hit the source-- NANOOK (though the interlude w the white man here is quite sanitized of course).

Contrary to most critics I love Flaherty's (and Murnau in TABU, also the sublime HIMALAYA et al) "artificial families" in NANOOK, MAN OF ARAN, LOUISIANA STORY, etc; by hiring native ethnographic non-actors he creates sort of mythological paeans to the corresponding culture's Littlest Guy, resulting in absolutely beautiful poetry. By littlest I mean-- by today's terms-- the guy we in the west would never celebrate in film. The poor worker living off the land under trying conditions and is perfectly healthy mentally & physically for it... a buried statement in there about modern happiness during the age when millions were flooding to the cities to find gold sidewalks & fame. Almost like a modern day version of the oral tradition passed down through rustic & tribal cultures rhapsodising their own versions of their heroic ubermenschen.

Have you seen Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, HerrSchreck, and if you have what did you think of it in relation to these films?

(I'd also recommend Smilla's Sense of Snow for an interesting tale that features the main character's undefined sense of yearning for a return from the city!)


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 12:05 am 
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No to tell the truth I've never even heard of them. I've been so heavily buried in silents and grabbing the wackjobby little AMAZING MR X / NIGHT OF DEMON / WAY OUT type tiny-budget 1940's-60's programmers that have been leaking quietly out on dvd that my foreign film acquisitions (and trips to the cinema) have been atrophied lately (though I did get out this weekend to finally see the sublime LIVES OF OTHERS).

Tell me about these films.

Just to re-emphasize, for anyone who loves these sorts of films, HIMALAYA by Valli is damn near required seeing. Quite a beautiful & astonishing film made in a forbidding environment, and a wonderful tribute to Flaherty and Murnau's ethnographic paeans.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 12:40 am 
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Sadly I do not have the time right now, but I think a thread on "ethnographic" films would be in order. Flaherty and Murnau would be amongst the grandfathers of the "genre," but there are many other films of this nature out there (both past and present), and they are generally fascinating. It would be interesting to see the forum's recommendations and thoughts...


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 1:06 am 
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And let's not forget the Soviets! Particularly in the silent era-- you have Victor Turin's TURKSIB, you have the great Khalatozov's SALT FOR SVANETIA (which HIMALAYA in theme somewhat resembles i e acquiring salt via long arduous trek for a dislocated mountain village). Strip away the hyperexperimental stylizations of Dovzhenko and Paradjanov and you have ethnic portraits using a goodly number of non-actors.

I dunno whether HAPPINESS by Medvedkin could be managed to be squeezed into this box since it is so absurdly hallucinatory beyond all getgo, but it's an ethnographic portrait of peasant life in the USSR that is as delightful as anything ever made.

Hell even some of Pudovkins works beyond STORM OVER ASIA, even END OF ST PETERSBERG, contain wonderful ethnographic portraiture with many non-actors... though these films clearly devolve into historical epics with professional actors with high melodramatic arcs. But they have their Flaherty-esque moments.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 6:01 am 
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Another interesting one would be Victor von Plessen's "Kopfjäger von Borneo" (Headhunters of Borneo, 1936). This is a half-fictional documentary much in the vein of Murnau's "Tabu". I guess Plessen first filmed the village life and people there and then adapted most of his material to tell a love story which the voice-over commentary tells us is a mythical tale among those people. This was filmed by Richard Angst, who was second cameraman and later main cinematographer on a lot of films by Arnold Fanck, and it shows: very 'beautiful' compositions, low contrast and atmospheric, and clearly emphasizing the 'romantic' aspects, not unlike to what we see in Fanck's "Ein Robinson" (also a film with some ethno-/geographic interest in places). Although Plessen is nowhere as good as Flaherty, it's well worth seeing if only for the beautiful face studies and nature photography.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 8:27 pm 
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Atanarjuat was the film that immediately came to mind reading your last post, since it seems like "the oral tradition passed down through rustic & tribal cultures rhapsodising their own versions of their heroic ubermenschen" that you were talking about.

And then Smilla's Sense of Snow came to mind with the comment "The poor worker living off the land under trying conditions and is perfectly healthy mentally & physically for it... a buried statement in there about modern happiness during the age when millions were flooding to the cities to find gold sidewalks & fame". While the film doesn't tackle immigration, it features a character who has grown up in Copenhagen with Inuit roots and investigates what seems to be the suicide of an Inuit boy in her block of flats. There is the sense of being disillousioned with the city (such as the father who is happy with his place in the world marrying the stereotypical bimbo the age of his daughter, adding to her disappointment with the society!) and a wish for a more connected way of life which connects into the thriller plot of corporations trashing the few unspoilt areas left in their search for new materials to exploit, with a few deaths along the way necessary in the bigger scheme of things!

Bille August's film is very good but I slightly prefer the novel by Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, as it is able to get much more into the head of the introverted lead character (luckily I won a competition at the time the film was released on video so I got the VHS and the paperback together for free!). Julia Ormond gives an amazing performance however, and I keep thinking she deseved much better than her high exposure but pretty poor films (First Knight, Sabrina, Legends of the Fall) from 1995/96 gave her. I'll be interested to see what she has been up to in Inland Empire!

The flaws that the film was heavily criticised for are very much present in the book, so it perhaps shouldn't be held too much against it, and if you are prepared for the shift from murder mystery to action thriller in the final section it is very enjoyable!


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 9:09 pm 

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colinr0380 wrote:
Atanarjuat was the film that immediately came to mind reading your last post, since it seems like "the oral tradition passed down through rustic & tribal cultures rhapsodising their own versions of their heroic ubermenschen" that you were talking about.

Along these lines - Rolf de Heer's moving, beautiful, sublimely funny TEN CANOES, which will be getting its American release in the coming months from Palm Pictures, is very much about adapting the oral tradition of a people to cinema, and is probably more experimental in this regard than ATANARJUAT, which I greatly admire. De Heer tries to find cinematic means to come to terms with the unique oral tradition of the Ganalbingu language, and his narrative construction, shot composition, and editing patterns reflect this bargain between two competing forms of expression. It's truly remarkable stuff.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 11:49 pm 
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portnoy wrote:
Along these lines - Rolf de Heer's moving, beautiful, sublimely funny TEN CANOES, which will be getting its American release in the coming months from Palm Pictures, is very much about adapting the oral tradition of a people to cinema, and is probably more experimental in this regard than ATANARJUAT, which I greatly admire. De Heer tries to find cinematic means to come to terms with the unique oral tradition of the Ganalbingu language, and his narrative construction, shot composition, and editing patterns reflect this bargain between two competing forms of expression. It's truly remarkable stuff.

Absolutely agree - it's an extremely impressive collaboration and hard to believe it came from the same guy that made Bad Boy Bubby. This is surely a case where the "director=auteur" equation reveals itself to be horribly simplistic.


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2007 5:49 am 
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I finally watched this last night, I had already seen extensive extracts but to finally see the whole film was a joy. I'm loving the discussion and would second the idea of an ethnographic documentary thread (if there isn't one already).

I was wondering about the score, whilst I greatly enjoyed Timothy Brock's work I couldn't help but wonder what sort of musical accompaniment would have played with the original screenings, is there no information in existence? I haven't had a chance to check out the disc fully so if there is anything on there I'll get round to it this weekend.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 10, 2013 1:39 am 
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It seems that Nanook of the North is being released on blu-ray on March 12 by a company called Flicker Alley. The film is being released with other documentaries in a bundle/boxset.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 10, 2013 1:55 am 
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Flicker Alley is a great label that we have a pretty lengthy thread for. Some discussion about Nanook and how a Flicker Alley release doesn't necessarily rule out a Criterion one here.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 10, 2013 5:14 am 
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FWIW, the company takes its name from this street in London. More information on the film companies headquartered there here.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 10, 2013 12:11 pm 
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Thank you guys for the links. It's kind of weird to see that Criterion apparently is planning on releasing this too after Flicker Alley has put so much effort (at least on the extras) on this release.


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