Nanook of the North, and the Capital “T” Truth
It took a work of pure fiction for me to understand the importance of journalistic integrity. When I was in college, enrolled in a feature writing class, I was constantly adding a hyperbolic adjective here, smudging a quote there, to make a more compelling work. I assured myself that truth was a malleable concept and what the people really wanted was narrative. Right?
I aced the class, and then came the fifth season of The Wire. Templeton, a Stephen Glass type, hungry to make his name with a juicy feature, misattributes quotes and events, and, though he has his reasons, as everyone in David Simon and Ed Burns’ sprawling opus does, he is a worse human being for it. The Wire hammered home that everyone is responsible for what they say and do, and I finally “got it”, and I am a better human being for it. Everything, as Simon and Burns repeatedly pointed out, is connected. The truth matters.
Robert J. Flaherty’s century old (!) documentary, Nanook of the North, is largely unconcerned with the truth, as far as any contemporary documentary filmmaker, perhaps save Werner Herzog, would come to define it. What is reported as an actual portrayal of the Inuit lifestyle is comprised of staged hunts, with Inuit’s costumed in ancestral garb to play up their exoticness. If this is Flaherty’s fault (though he clearly loves his subjects and their way of life), or an early film-going public’s disregard for Flaherty’s initial attempts at the picture, a public who needed constant reassurance of a definitive boarder between “us” and “them, is uncertain. Nanook of the North is patronizing, not only to the Inuit people, whose lifestyle Flaherty supposedly brings to light, but to its audience, who are spoon fed two lumps of sugar with every fact. The film might as well be called “Those Wacky Eskimos.”
In a particularly skewed sequence of events, Nanook, real name Allakariallak, attempts to eat a gramophone record, apparently puzzled by the strange technology, despite knowing exactly what a record was and how it worked. In the opening titles, Nanook is reported to have frozen to death on a hunt, another lie. Or so says Wikipedia, which, yes, is where I’m getting my “facts,” for a hundred-year-old film, and yes, I’m assuming that these allegations of fictionalized events on a community wiki are true. It’s all very tricky business, this truth, and people, me included, tend to believe anything they’re told, which is one of the reasons I began doctoring my collegiate features in the first place. Had I not read that Nanook of the North was partly staged, yes, I would have had my doubts. After all, capturing “in the moment” footage was nearly impossible with the clunky film equipment of early cinema, but the labels “documentary” and “news” and “truth” are powerful tools, and as an audience member, I want to believe in them. I want to know some things are certain, that some are sacred, because it matters.
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Another personal top 10 list of the day by an Ill Stills reader:
geterklyed asked you: To go with my top ten greatest films list, or my top ten favorite films list? Because I’m an awfully pretentious human, I’ll do both, okay? Okay. Greatest: 1. Stalker, 2. Ugetsu, 3. Ordet, 4. Orphee, 5. Citizen Kane, 6. Tokyo Story, 7. Sansho, 8. The Godfather, 9. Ivan’s Childhood, 10. There Will Be Blood. Favs: 1. The 400 Blows, 2. Lost in Translation, 3. Stalker, 5. There Will Be Blood, 6. Mean Streets, 7. Alien, 8. Lives of Others, 9. Persona, 10. The Shop on Main Street.
I’m always more interested in the movies that are the greatest from a subjective standpoint, not those a critic feels are the most technically accomplished, or the most canonical, though I’m sure for many there is an overlapping. How is The Godfather a greater film than The 400 Blows? What makes Citizen Kane deserving of greatness over Persona? It’s interesting that There Will Be Blood is the only film to make both lists *as is Stalker geterklyed reminded me*. Blood a masterpiece to be sure, but that for geterklyed so few other films are both favorites and great movies is confusing to me. On some level, the films in list one must be favorites, and on another, those in the favorites list are great to her/him. I don’t mean to imply that this methodology is wrong; I just have a hard time grasping the need for such a separation in the first place.