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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 24: THE GENERAL (1926)

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Day 24: THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)

One doesn’t have to search very far for declarations that Keaton’s feature-length film remains, nearly a century after the fact, cinema’s greatest comedic achievement; it is certainly astonishing (and was until now one of the most embarrassing gaps in my film viewing). I’ve seen enough of Keaton’s work to recognize what makes it rather singular in his oeuvre and thus somewhat divisive—instead of a quick-paced series of exciting individual gags and physical stunts, The General is more deliberately paced, tightly weaving Keaton’s physical comedy into the overall fabric of the narrative. Based on an actual Civil War event that became known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” Keaton plays a train engineer who is prevented from enlisting in the army and subsequently rejected by his suitor (Marion Mack) as an unpatriotic coward; the dejected Keaton eventually, wonderfully, blunders his way into the middle of an unfolding enemy plot and seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his beloved.

It all takes a bit too long to get going, but like the slow initial ascent of a rollercoaster, once momentum tips toward mayhem all unwinds breathlessly, thrillingly, careening toward a resolution that always seems just around the corner but is constantly delayed. The handling of scale is immaculate, with moments of startling visual grandeur (the use of actual trains, full scale army camp recreations, actual derailments and destruction) counterbalanced with beautiful moments of emotional intimacy (the cigarette-burn iris effect, Keaton’s slumped shoulders and turned back in wide shot of the deserted road) that are all linked together by a camera constantly on the go, trying to keep up with the forward motion of the titular train. The film unfortunately places the viewer in the rather uncomfortable position of rooting for Confederate success which is all the more annoying because the actual historical entailed the opposite situation, but in the end the War Between the States is treated more like a generic battle milieu than a specific period of time with much deeper issues at stake. It’s a sad fact of history that this, of all films, is the one that effectively ended Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker, its inflated budget combined with a lackluster box office performance necessitating a contract with MGM that quickly proved disastrous. I now eagerly await the opportunity to see it in its full glory on a big screen.

[Watch The General on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 17: GRANDMA’S BOY (1922)

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Day 17: GRANDMA’S BOY (Fred C. Newmeyer, USA, 1922)

Though I often wish I was better versed in silent comedy than I am, I’ve definitely seen more than a few films by both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; this, however, serves as my introduction to the work of Harold Lloyd, often considered the “third genius” of the silent film era. And I have to say I found Lloyd’s so-called “Glasses Character” tremendously likable—quite unlike Keaton’s almost otherworldly gravity and Chaplin’s intense need to ingratiate, Lloyd’s presence feels more immediately accessible, and somehow more contemporary too (the distinctive round eyeglasses undoubtedly help, as they’re currently in fashion; when his suit shrinks during a gag, the results look oddly fashionable). Grandma’s Boy doesn’t seem to be considered one of Lloyd’s top-tier films, but its commercial success helped extend the length of comedy films toward the feature length mark, making it historically important. What’ I inevitably found most interesting is the film’s representation of masculinity: the title character begins as a hopeless sissy, not only unable to stick up for himself but hapless to a fault. A final humiliation by his romantic rival sends him into a crisis, and his doting grandmother bequeaths to him the “magic charm” that transformed his cowardly grandfather, also played by Lloyd in an extended flashback, into a war hero. Of course, the talisman turns out to be nothing of the sort, and the brash virility and masculine swagger is revealed to be an attitude, a state of mind—a performance, if you will. Of course this type of character trajectory is painfully commonplace, and I tend not to respond to valorizations of masculinity at the expense of male femininity, but there’s a certain something about Lloyd’s specific take of machismo that remains appealing; even at his most cocky he can’t fully suppress a certain sensitivity, almost like his first impulse after he knocks you down is to immediately apologize and help you back up. He’s very much the boy you’d be willing to take home to mom—or grandma, for that matter.

[Watch Grandma’s Boy on Fandor here.]