30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

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 Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)

A great humanist classic—I can think of few other films that so directly appeals to the viewer to enter into a thoughtful and respectful engagement with a foreign culture and generate what feels like a genuine connection to an unknown “Other”—even as the ethnographic form inherently creates representational and ethical dilemmas. To be fair, Flaherty, an explorer and prospector-turned-filmmaker, made his film before “documentary” was distinguished from any other type of filmmaking practice, and the fact that elements that are passed off as reality are in fact staged and/or scripted wouldn’t have given him or original audiences pause in the way it does for us today. Some of these fabrications are relatively benign, such as Nanook’s feigned amazement over banal Western objects or the depiction of him using traditional hunting weapons instead of his gun, while others are more disquieting, such as the fact that Nanook’s “wives” were apparently nothing of the sort, but Flaherty’s own common-law wives(!). But then there is the film itself, which all these years later still manages to slice through all surrounding discourse with a startling immediacy and vitality—as is often noted, Nanook (real name: Allakariallak) is in every sense of the term a true movie star, exhibiting a charisma and photographic magnetism that would make many a manicured Hollywood star green with envy; Andrew Sarris declares the scene when he pops his head out of a just-constructed igloo and smiles directly at the camera as nothing less than “one of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema.”

The film follows Nanook and his (purported) family as they navigate the desolate expanses of the arctic tundra of northernmost Quebec, always, it seems, just on the knife-edge of starvation and at the mercy of the sub-zero temperatures—as we watch them fish, hunt for walrus and polar bears, travel in sleds drawn by packs of Huskies, and construct canoes out of seal hides what becomes so clear is how every aspect of their existence requires the greatest effort, often repeated daily without any reprieve. But the clear hardships are balanced by depictions of humor, and Flaherty has a lovely, understated way of staging sequences that unexpectedly turn into sight gags. The film that kept coming to mind was Patricio Guzmán’s recent documentary The Pearl Button (also, happily, currently available on Fandor and which I highly recommend), which is partly devoted to capturing the memories of the several remaining indigenous people of South America’s Patagonia region, a culture which now only exists in a small number of photographs and recollections that are quickly fading; if Nanook of the North fails as a factual document of Allakariallak’s lived life, it at least tangibly captures an evocation of a people group and a heritage that had already been permanently altered and about to be displaced. Such documentation, even in this compromised state, thus contains an aura of preciousness. But overall a tremendous achievement, and a work of great visual accomplishment made despite some of the most punishing circumstances imaginable and working with the most primitive of film technology. I was expecting an Important Film, more historically interesting than compelling: how very wrong I was.

[Watch Nanook of the North on Fandor here.]
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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 16: ARAYA (1959)

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Day 16: ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)

This lyrical documentary, directed by Venezuelan feminist filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. But while Resnais’s film would be immediately hailed as cinematic landmark that changed the course of cinema, Benacerraf’s film never received widespread distribution, and was subsequently forgotten. Happily, a gorgeous restoration appeared in 2009 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and today we can properly appreciate this mesmerizing examination of a way of life that was disappearing even at the very moment of the film being made. The film depicts the grueling lives of people who extract salt from the ocean off of the Araya peninsula of Venezuela, documenting the backbreaking traditional labor methods that were passed from one generation to the next, over the course of 400+ years. And it would be one thing if only the labor itself was punishing; what Benacerraf’s camera documents, however, is that every facet of life for these people involves gargantuan effort—water must be shipped in each morning to the village, brought bucket-to-bucket to each house, fish caught daily (hopefully providing enough to feed the local population) as no vegetation grows in the region, etc, etc. The families are enormous—one specifically mentioned is 16 and counting—because even the most basic aspects of daily life require a manual task that has to be undertaken, day after day after day.

The toil and strain on display is in direct tension with the sheer beauty of the film’s images, the arid desert and salt mountains immaculately framed like proto-Antonionian landscapes, throwing into sharp, rather noble relief the people themselves. But rather disquietingly they never speak, silent (or silenced by?) a poetic voiceover emphasizing the sheer repetitiousness of this way of life, from the gestures of work to the strict scheduling of each day. Which leads directly to the underlying, rather disquieting ambivalence of the film, the crux that each viewer must contend with: despite the great splendor evoked by the images and commentary, IS it a way of life that should be glorified, let alone maintained? Or is this the rare situation where modernity’s displacement of an indigenous culture might actually be a genuine improvement for everyone involved? The film itself refuses to provide any answers. Indeed, Benacerraf has claimed she wasn’t attempting a documentary at all, but rather intended to make a cinematic “tone poem” as a testament to this particular place and the people who daily contend with it. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with such a neat evasion, for just as it is with Hiroshima mon amour, it would be easy—too easy—to simply get carried away by the magisterial aura evoked by the sensuous interplay of image and sound, and ignore the complex dissonance of ideas and implications churning just beneath the surface. But however one feels, this is an unjustly neglected landmark, and it deserves to finally find an appreciative audience after all these years.

[Watch Araya on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (1966)

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Day 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (Albert Maysles & David Maysles, USA, 1966)

A fascinating look into the chirpy artificiality of “candid” celebrity encounters: we watch as Brando bridles under the expectation to don a smile and purr innocuous platitudes into the Maysles’s watchful camera. At times his actions might be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic—“have you actually seen it??” he pointedly queries anyone who begins gushing about the “terrific” film he is supposed to promote, which ended up being a major flop—but there are obviously more intricate dynamics at play here as well. Brando displays a great knack for pivoting conversations away from himself at a moment’s notice through witty adlibbing, often asking the interviewer a direct question about her/himself. A certain tension and nervous energy is generated as each of the various interviewers manage these maneuvers, and while some simply counter with tight-smiled deflections (“oh, but really Mr. Brando, our viewers would just love to hear your thoughts!”), just as many take the bait and enter into the riskier zone of genuine exchange—or at least a closer approximation to it. The highlights of the film tend to be anytime Brando successfully derails a reporter’s agenda: one discusses his hobby of playing classical guitar, one woman’s face lights up after Brando compliments her sonorous speaking voice, and another young woman suddenly finds herself being cross-examined when it’s revealed she’s a former Miss USA, and they begin discussing her specialty topic of juvenile education. But even these moments are complicated, as nearly all interactions with women immediately turn into flirtatious exchanges which read today as casual sexual harassment, adding an additional layer of uneasiness to the interactions (even—or especially—when with the women appear flattered by the sudden turn of events). Brando’s eagerness to take on and hold forth with great eloquence on controversial social issues—racism, and most particularly the plight of Native Americans—might also be read as part of the source of the great actor’s impatience with superficial chitchat. Marlon Brando playing “Marlon Brando” as performance art, and it’s a rather impressive performance indeed.

[Watch Meet Marlon Brando on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 8: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (2009)

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Day 8: L’ENFER D’HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
(Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009)

A documentary resurrecting an abandoned film project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, originally envisioned as a stylistic tour-de-force to catapult the “French Hitchcock” back to the forefront of 1960’s French cinema which was then in the throes of all things Nouvelle vague. During his frequent bouts of insomnia Clouzot formulated a story that charts a man’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia over his beautiful wife’s perceived infidelity; the sad irony is that the process of undertaking such an ambitious film ultimately led the director down a similar path, and, already prone to depression, he collapsed on set and filming never resumed. Bromberg and Medrea’s film thus navigates two linked trajectories, reconstructing the unfinished film through surviving footage and script reenactments while simultaneously piecing together the filmmaking process through interviews with original participants as well as the numerous visual experiments that took place before shooting began. To my mind, the footage that Clouzot actually managed to capture is mesmerizing: an extended scene involving Romy Schneider crisscrossing a lake on water skis while in the distance her husband (Serge Reggiani) madly sprints the walled circumference of the lake is a thrilling orchestration of physical space and oppositional movement, but admittedly the real showstoppers are the endless “screen tests” that were undertaken, encompassing everything from costume and makeup evaluations (that blue lipstick!), color checks, lingering closeups of faces and body parts, and an impressive amount of psychedelic optical experiments. But as tantalizing as all this visual material is, the inevitable question must be asked: are all of these image fragments and individual sequences more impressive on their own than they ever could have been when contextualized into an overall narrative structure? The answer, in the end, seems to be an implicit yes, the surviving artifacts evoking a magnificence that reality could not possibly have managed to ever live up to.

[Watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Fandor here.]

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