Sunday, July 23, 2006

Mysteries of the Human Condition: Nanook of the North and Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life

Preferring factual to fictional storytelling, I enjoyed viewing these two titles identified as some of the first documentaries filmed. When the double feature concluded, rather than coming away with a pure documentary experience, I had many questions about the differences between fiction and non-fiction and the meanings of ‘documentary’ and ‘feature’.

Nanook of the North (1922) is a noteworthy film. Witnessing the lives of an Eskimo tribe firsthand is fascinating, disturbing, perplexing, disgusting and at times, funny. It is a poignant portrayal of life.

Robert J. Flaherty, the explorer turned filmmaker, explains in an introductory text that Nanook was not his first attempt to film the Eskimo tribe. He filmed during a previous expedition, capturing random events while he lived with them. Returning home, he developed and edited together this first collection of film. When the editing was near completion, the film caught fire and “all was lost.” Whether this destruction was intentional or accidental is not clear, as Flaherty says that he felt the completed film was not good due to the lack of narrative.

Reconsidering his objective, he decided to focus his attention on one family of Eskimos, and so he returned to film once more. His aim was to bring an emotional and personal aspect to the new film that the first attempt lacked.

Although the ‘story’ of Nanook’s family is unscripted, Flaherty approached them with a preconceived idea of what he would film. Accounting for decisions about what would and would not be filmed, the notion that he has captured ‘real life’ becomes vague. The Eskimos look directly at the camera, aware that they are being filmed. Flaherty even brought film processing equipment with him, so he could develop and view the reels as he shot them. The Eskimos viewed the reels as well and understood what was going on.

Furthermore, Flaherty intended to create a ‘feature’ film, as ‘features’ were popular in theaters at the time. He included aspects of features in his work such as dramatic narrative, characters with personalities, conflicts and resolutions. At 79 minutes, it was considered ‘feature length’ at the time. Flaherty simply chose to use unscripted, uncostumed non-actors in a natural setting. Long after its completion, others labeled Nanook as a documentary.

The difference between feature and documentary is even more blurred in Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. The film shows thousands of animals and ‘Forgotten People’ traversing vast deserts and towering mountains, migrating to greener pastures. The first characters shown in the film are the filmmakers, themselves, because during the film, they were behind the camera. It was thoughtful of them to feature themselves at the beginning.

Merian Cooper, the explorer who conceived the idea (not long after Nanook was created) to film the migration, is dressed in safari hat and smokes a pipe as he peers into the camera with a stern, thoughtful expression. Seated next to him is the boyishly handsome Ernest B. Schoedsack who, instead of looking into the camera, never takes his eyes off Merian. They silently banter in a masculine way that raises the eyebrows of those of us who know certain things. A third person is presented, separate from the two men. Marguerite Harrison, an ‘author and traveler’ is ‘shown here in her role’ of wearing dark lipstick and head scarf and tipping her head in a coy, tartish manner. One can only guess at what sorts of reasons Marguerite was included with the two men in the expedition. All of them come off as posers.

As in Nanook, witnessing the tribulations of native people living primitive lives is horrifying, enthralling, but really not at all humorous unless one is a person who would find amusement in seeing animals whipped and forced into incredibly harsh terrains. Referred to as the ‘Forgotten People’ of the East, the beduoin tribe is the focus of the film.

The titles throughout Grass provide more insights about the filmmakers’ attitudes rather than the film’s subjects. The migrants are regarded as objects of study, presented by the filmmakers to an audience like themselves, an audience that would be able to complete the phrase: “Everywhere that Mary went...” Joking remarks such as this appear between scenes of terrific hardship and make light of the agonizing journey, turning it into an awe-inspiring spectacle. It is the Victorian attitude about discovering, naming and classifying all of the oddments of the world for the entertainment of the well-to-do. King Kong. After viewing barelegged women and small children treading through swift moving rapids, we are reminded that “BRRRR! This water’s COLD!”

As the tribe is named ‘Forgotten People’, they are not attributed with any nationality or ethnicity. Only the tribe’s leader and his son are named, leaving the rest of the people in an ambiguous herd very much like the goats. Flaherty’s focus on Nanook’s family evokes a personal sympathy with the native people, which Cooper’s Grass lacks. Unfortunately, it helps this viewer understand how First World people can view Third World people as less than human. They live with and like animals.

The overreaching question, however, is: How in the hell can people live like this? The author, residing in rural Oklahoma, fully comprehends the paradoxical irony of this question. Regardless of the fiction/factual axiom in these films and despite the rough treatment of animals, they ultimately serve as a testament to the endurance and resourcefulness of mankind.


Steve said...

Ain't film a funny thing?
Given that documentarians purport to be "objective" and are often attempting to let the subjects of the film speak for themselves
(or give themselves enough rope in some cases... Erroll Morris' "Mister Death" comes to mind...), I get a bit irritated when people try to hold the documentary format above the storytelling format as the "true" or "real" purpose of film. The intent of the filmmaker is always going to leak through, especially if they are attempting to portray events over a sequence of time outside the runtime of the final film.

After reading Arijon's "Grammar of the film language" which left me with the idea that much of the impact of the film comes not from what is lensed, but how that is assembled after the fact, I've become convinced that the only truly "objective" piece of cinema ever created is Warhol's "Empire State".
A locked-off, single shot of the empire state building that runs for like, 6 hours. It's by no means an interesting piece (unless you have a fetish of building watching), and to me is the pinnacle of pretention, which says a lot as I feel that a lot of Warhol's stuff is a more interesting idea than finally executed... but on the converse, I really dig Paul Morrissey's movies done with Andy as the executive producer. "To know life, you must fuck death in the gallbladder!"

Aside: Hrmmm... but then again, since it is part of Warhol's "oevure" I guess the objectivity is reduced since it is (in my mind) indelibly associated with said painter of soupcans and whatnot.

Empire State defies the conventions of film grammar (editing and such) in that there is no camera motion or placement, outside of the initial setup, and the only real "edits" are when the film needed to be replaced when shooting, and therefore the subsequent splicing together during post production. You don't get much of an idea of Warhol's "intent" other than "Hey, it might be neat to put a camera in front of the Empire State building for a few hours..."

Werner Herzog once pointed out that there is a difference between "fact" and "truth". I can't remember (or find on the internetotrons) the exact quote, but the implication that truth often rests outside of "facts" is both intriguing and bothersome.

At least Cooper and Schoedsack realized they were better storytellers than documentarians, and let young Willis O'Brien play with his model gorillas & dinosaurs later on.

Jeffrey said...

Six hours of one shot seems a little excessive - and to think that was the audience friendly version, not the 10 director's cut!

Steve's right about objectivity. However, most documentaries acknowledge a purpose or at least construct the film as an argument - yet that doesn't strip the film of value. Some of my favorite documentaries are straight propaganda - hardly objective. And while objectivity is unattainable, fairness isn't (don't ask me to draw that line).

I can't help thinking there are levels of authenticity to Grass. The first is its age. Being such an old documentary automatically makes it a historic document - because of the very attitudes that produced the title cards that Parsley mentions. And the subject matter may be staged, but is nevertheless educational. One of the most striking scenes in the movie was the river crossing. Now I'm not sure if that particular tribe was going to cross that river at that time with or without the documentarians - but seeing it does give me an idea of what it must be like for those herders to engage in such an endeavor. And I'll forever remember goat skin inner-tubes. Such innovation must be real-life.

I think both of these films are pretty extraordinary - not only for location, but for establishing that very documentary language that is puzzling Parsley.

That said, I, too, am glad that Cooper later went the storyteller route and did King Kong.

Steve: This is off-topic, but what did you think of the remake of King Kong?

Steve said...

Jeff, I would agree that when a documentary stays true to it's "mission statement" that I enjoy them immensely... I guess I was snarking more on what seems to me to be an artificial division genres of film.
Some of my favorite documentaries include "Hell House", "The Filth and the Fury" and Herzog's "My Best Fiend".
A recent addition is "We Jam Econo" about the punk band The Minutemen.

As far as "King Kong" ~ Honestly, I loved it. Like the proverbial fat kid loves the proverbial cake. (Until he slips into the diabetic coma because his never-there parents have such a hands-off method of child rearing)

Many different levels as to why... For one, being an avowed Peter Jackson fanboy (pre LotR, I might add) (It all started with Dead ALive for me) it's a rare thing (imho) for him to goof something up.

I felt that there was more emotional depth in Kong than in all the LotR movies added together, and admit freely to tearing-up-but-not-quite-bawling at the scene between Ann & Kong before Kong climbs up to the top of the Empire State bldg.

On the Meta-level, I liked the integration of little touches from the original Kong into Jackson's version - from Denham's comment about Fay Wraye (sp?) going over to "That picture with Cooper and Schoedsack", to the costumes of the islanders from the original film being used in the stageshow when Kong is put on display.

The dinosaur stampede was a little disappointing, but the spider valley sequence made up for it. Ick.

As far as preferring one over the other, I can't. To make comparisons and say that "this one is better than that one" is missing the point. I think Jackson was doing a love-letter/homage to Kong, as well as a remake. Much like Lucas was doing for the old Flash Gordon serials with Star Wars. (well, the original trilogy anyway)

I guess I like the movies where the monster is man more than where it's some big flaming eyeball that needs magical visine.

Jeffrey said...

I liked it too, overall, though I felt like the New York scenes before and after the island made it bloated (I was starting to slip into my coma towards the end). It had lots of fun details and certainly came across as a love letter for the original - but went overboard in backstory for the actress. I felt that if Jackson had started the movie about 5 minutes before they got on the boat and ended it with Kong's capture on the island, it would have been a perfect nugget of the movie with room for a sequel ending up on the Empire State Bldg. That said, I regret that I did not see it on the bigscreen since it was so visually packed.

Incidentally, about last 1/3 of LOTR could have been trimmed as well. Too many hobbit tears for my taste - though that trilogy is still a marvelous achievement.

Charlie Parsley said...

Steve's mention of Warhol commands further thoughts...

Empire is perhaps the best example of a 'pure' filmed document. Lacking camera movement, editing or any 'effects', it presents the subject/situation as it is.

However, this simplification itself is indeed a tool Warhol used. I believe a part of what he intended, or, what happened anyway, is that even when trying to completely remove all types of 'authoring', the presence of the creator is still there.

An artist created his own 'Empire', which was also a tribute/love-letter/homage in its presentation. A standard sized flat screen, floating on a vast white gallery wall, displayed a real-time feed of the Empire State Building. I visited the exhibit often, and noticed that if I arrived at teh right time, I could watch nightfall in New York from California, with a spectacular transformation occurring as the lights came on in the building.

Time is both meaningful and insignificant in artworks. Or, six hours is not a long time for a static film.

Another documentary/feature paradox comes to mind with the films of the Maysles (sp?) Brothers, Grey Gardens.

Isn't it in the editing that intentions are manipulated?

Charlie Parsley said...


Makes me think of The News.

How can we think of the News as being Documentary when so many aspects of the story are edited out to create a simplified story that can be broadcast in twenty five seconds?

Definitely a lot of questions with the documentary/feature film thing.

Steve said...

Charlie: 100% agreement.
If anything, The news (as it is today) is the prime example of the fallacy of "objective" representation in the medium of moving images.

Back in the day of Gulf War I "Die for oil, sucker!" (working title), I roadtripped with some friends out to Artesia, New Mexico (it was Easter Break and we needed something to do) to visit a classmate's parents. Since Artesia is on the far side of B.F.E. the best way to get television reception was to have Satellite. (May still be the case, dunno)This was back in the days of the big 6 ~ 10 foot analog dishes that people would have, who, if they were so inclined, could find out through mailing lists and such the plotted positions of the uplink satellites used by the News Companies. This was exactly what my friend's Dad loved to do with his Dish when there wasn't anything good on the 800 something channels he had access to. Find a "newsbird" lockon the signal, and sit there and see what "we weren't seeing when they go tthrough with it"

So, there we were, early on a Saturday morning, drinking coffee to chase away a hangover (having gone to a party after a football game in Artesisa the night before) and watrching uninterrupted feeds of the strikes on Baghdad.
It was eerie to hear the inane small talk made by semi-recognizable CNN field reporters, as opposed to the important, weighty things they would say when "on air", as well as the single static shot of the missiles flying in or jets flying overhead.

Compared the memory of this relatively calm, almost sedate looking footage peppered with muttered "holy shit"s and "that was close" to the infamous "Is it war?" Montage recently broadcast on CNN with the Super-RAWK guitars and all the edits going to the drumbeat of the hairmetal wanna-be song, it's downright disturbing the unspoken level of manipulation that exists in the non-literate version of the 4th estate.

In a more general sense, it's kind of weird to think of how when you view things that are by nature dynamic and active (like watching a sporting event live)the way that your mind's eye has been somewhat trained to expect actions to follow an editing rhythm, including changes in point-of-view camera motions.

Or maybe that's just me.

Charlie Parsley said...


sheesh yes indeed, well there is a wealth of discussion here.

I am familiar with the sattellite feed you describe - I saw footage from it put on public access tv - I used to watch lots of that. I remember watchihg long uncut minutes of Billy Graham getting makeup put on him.

The art group Ant Farm, in the 1970's, proposed a plan for a 'Political Arena' which would be a huge space outfitten with dozens of television cameras to continually broadcast all events twenty four hours. Could that be done today?

Broadcasting unedited footage. of anything. can it be done.

even in the quick-cut fast moving editing of televeision, even the TEXT is moving and jumping and grabbing your attention. it is odd to see old tv commercials where the words don't move around.