Flicker Alley, $44.95
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
Some years ago, I was at a conference on Arctic films at Nipissing University when I heard an intriguing paper by the Greeenlandic scholar Erik Gant. His talk took aim at the curious bifurcation in filmed portrayals of Eskimo peoples, using Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North and Friedrich Dalsheim's 1934 The Wedding of Palo as its bookends. The title of his talk was "Good and Bad Eskimos" -- and as I listened I realized I'd only seen half, or rather less than half of the important films depicting Inuit life, since I'd never seen, or even heard of Palo.
My ignorance was remedied, in part at least, later in the conference, when we watched almost all of a 16mm print of Palo that Dr. Gant had brought with him from Denmark (the conference organizers, unforgivably, shut down the film over time concerns before it had concluded). In the years since, I've often shared this film with my students in my Northern Exposures course on Inuit/European contact narratives, but the best I could show them was a badly-transferred VHS version with fuzzy subtitles that could hardly be read. Now, thanks to the marvellous -- and meticulous -- work of the folks at Flicker Alley, I can now show both films side-by-side in dazzling Blu-Ray transfers, and that's not all. This current set includes several other previously hard-to-see -- and, in some cases, impossible-to-see films of this era, revealing for the first time that Nanook, despite its considerable merits, never stood alone; in fact it was preceded and followed by many other films that sought to place before viewers what Nanook's promoters called "the Actual Arctic." Indeed, this release is the most wide-ranging, historically significant, and beautifully presented set of Arctic films ever made available for home viewing.
Some context is needed, however, to set these films in their historical place. To that end, there is Lawrence Millman's essay on The Wedding of Palo, which is, as his writings always are, deftly written, salted with humor, and impeccably researched. Indeed, Millman's references to Nanook are more informative than Flaherty's own piece on how he made the film (also included), which is riddled with painful condescension (he refers to his cast as "my Eskimos") and half-truths. Palo shines forth above all the other films in this set, despite its filmmaker's somewhat romanticizing tendencies -- it is simply magnificent. Its amateur actors, all East Greenlandic Inuit, do a remarkable job with the story, considering that this means of telling a tale was entirely new to them. The scene of the piseq (drum-dance battle) between Samo and Palo is one of the great moments in the history of cinema; the reaction of the sea of faces, from children to the aged, to each development in the duel is a symphony of laughter, ridicule, and (eventually) shock. The story may be a loose fabrication, but it's one the actors intuitively grasped, and brilliantly portray. Indeed, as Millman notes, it may aptly be said that Nanook is a fiction film disguised as a documentary, while Palo is a documentary disguised as a fiction film.
Of Nanook, I don't think too much more needs to be added here -- the Blu-Ray transfer in this set is from the same source as the old Criterion DVD, only sharper, and with a more luminous luster, as seen in these screen captures. Included on its disc is the television documentary Nanook Revisited (Saumialuk) by Claude Massot, an interesting but incomplete glimpse into some of the communities where Flaherty sojourned. Some (now well-known) truths about the film are revealed -- Nanook's real name was Allakariallak, and "his" wives were actually Flaherty's mistresses; the film crew finds and interviews the widow of one of Flaherty's sons, but gets very little out of her; one senses a sort of disconnect between the film crew and the Inuit. Another bonus feature of interest is the short 1928 educational film "Houses of the Arctic," which re-frames the "igloo building" sequence from Nanook with wordy title-cards devised by Harvard professors seeking to make a lasting impression on young minds.
But to my mind, the most absolutely fascinating material in this set consists of the two non-restored sections of two Arctic films made by Frank E. Kleinschmidt, here seen for the first time in 86 years. Kleinschmidt, who also did some safari and war films, is little known today but in his heyday he was a very visible and successful impresario of Arctic films, with which he often appeared in person as narrator. And nowhere can the influence of Nanook's success be more clearly read than in the contrast between the footage Kleinschmidt shot as part of his Carnegie Arctic Expedition feature in 1914 and his later Northern feature, the abysmally-titled Primitive Love. The Carnegie footage is an agglomeration of pure old-fashioned "actuality" footage, most of it shot with a fixed camera; there is little movement and less drama, and the only connecting is mere sequence; like a story told by a five-year-old, whose only segue is "and then," the early footage, despite its historical significance, manages to be deadly dull. Returning in 1927 in the company of the photogenic Mrs. Kleinschmidt (she has a cameo in almost all of the stills associated with Primitive Love), the poor filmmaker labors to build a lush and compelling story, using elaborately illustrated title cards, but fails miserably. A scene in which an Inuit woman seeks, we are told, to warm her "igloo" by lighting her qullik looks as though it were filmed in the lobby of a small hotel! Still, this exceedingly rare nitrate footage, preserved in the vaults of the UCLA film archive, illuminates, precisely through its failures, what made Nanook such a success.
The set also includes two other films, Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska (1949) and Face of the High Arctic (1959) -- both are reasonably competent productions, although they also serve, perhaps unintentionally, to illustrate how the documentary, a revolutionary genre when Flaherty pioneered it, gradually receded and became, for a long time, a byword for the boringly educational.
But that's a minor matter -- this set, taken as a whole, does an extraordinary job of setting Nanook in historical context, and bringing the nearly unavailable Palo to North American viewers. The supplements give fascinating hints as to our changing conception of the "actual" Arctic, and to the role of these films in shaping our understanding -- rightly and sometimes wrongly -- of the land and peoples of the Far North.