The 1922 silent film and arguable genesis of modern documentary filmmaking Nanook of the North makes me think about—what else—Nicolas Cage. Specifically, I am reminded of words he said in a recent interview with Time:
I think that there was a period in film commentary where it was like the gold standard—I would cite someone like Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or Paul Schrader—where they were really determining based on the work itself, the film itself, the performance itself. And now, with the advent of this kind of TMZ culture, it sadly seems to have infiltrated the vanguard of film commentary… [P]ersonal issues don’t have a place in film commentary.
This line of thought has a certain superficial appeal: let the work stand for itself! Of course, his comments are aimed specifically in the context of critics who attribute to his alleged tax troubles his choice of roles. Nevertheless, I think of his comment because the legacy of Nanook of the North has been forged entirely in the context of its creation. It is a work that can no longer stand on its own; to view it in a void, for good or ill, would strip it of much of its drawing power. From the beginning, this documentary has been plagued with suggestions that it is fabricated.
My understanding is that filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty has confessed to at least some of the alleged falsehoods. I’ve heard alternately that some scenes were staged or that the entire movie was. To my knowledge, it is undisputed at least that the titular “Nanook” was actually named Allakariallak, and that the wife and children he has in the movie are unrelated to him. In a number of scenes, “Nanook” uses tools more primitive than those he would in real life, e.g. spears alone instead of guns. In one famous scene, “Nanook” is perplexed by a record player and attempts to take a bite from the disc; in reality, Allakariallak was familiar with gramophones and the shot was a light-hearted fabrication (and, in retrospect, an uncomfortable xenophobic dehumanization of the man).
Getting back to Cage’s reference to Roger Ebert, above, he was one critic who was content to look past the falsifications. In his review, he contends: “The movie is an authentic documentary showing the creation of itself. What happens on the screen is real, no matter what happened behind it.” He goes on to explain that the conditions of filming were real enough, even if the specific incidents that occurred did not. Flaherty and company really were in the cold, unforgiving Arctic. Allakariallak really did hunt and trap a walrus and seal, even if the kill may have ultimately come as a result of a gunshot wound edited out of the final film. Heck, I guess you could say that he really did bite into a record, even if he was mugging for the camera.
But is that enough? Would the physical challenges of “Survivor” be worthwhile even if the contestants were allowed to return to five-star hotels after the cameras stopped rolling? I don’t mean to claim that Allakariallak and others were living in opulent splendor outside the view of the cameras, but that the mere fact that the “events” portrayed on-screen are real seems to me a bit of a stretch to save the film’s reputation. No doubt the hunting of walruses and seals, if truly portrayed and even with the aid of modern machinery, is an exciting occurrence. One might be able to say that, on a scene-by-scene basis, the movie is compelling despite the skepticism one holds about the “reality” of its images. But does that make it a good movie, as a whole? More specifically, does a scene-by-scene appreciation make it a good documentary?
I think the answer is probably not. Admittedly, the walrus hunt in particular is beautifully staged. “Nanook” crawls up behind the creatures lying on the beach, him just out of focus while the blubbery beasts are in focus—one, a lookout, repeatedly raising its head to eye the intruder suspiciously before the group as a whole makes a mad dash for the water. Beyond these moments, though, the bulk of the movie alleges to be about the life of “Nanook”, including his relationships, desires, and plans. If “Nanook” is in fact Allakariallak, the rich inner life of the documentary subject is lost, or at least weakened considerably. The day-to-day experiences he has, if purposely made primitive to match the othering expectations of early 20th century audiences, come to feel cynically calculated rather than expressive.
There are, by virtue of filming in black-and-white, a number of lovely images throughout the movie (see the still I’ve selected for the thumbnail as an example). Yet, to me, that seems insufficient to overcome the fatal deception at is center. Perhaps if I had not gone into the movie with this awareness at top of mind, I could have found more to enjoy. If I had taken it for granted that “Nanook” did in fact exist and that everything on-screen was a faithful representation of life as it happened, perhaps I would find little to criticize aside from its slow pace. That seems to be, to some degree, the view that Cage espouses in his comments: don’t get mired in external “context”, especially where it does nothing to enrich the experience. The revelation that “Nanook” is not Nanook certainly does not enrich the experience of viewing Nanook of the North. Nonetheless, as I mentioned before, the controversy surrounding it feels as if it cannot be divorced from the thing itself. To ignore that component of the film would be to misunderstand the movie.
The reality of Nanook of the North does not make it a better movie; one is forced to excuse its artifice in order to enjoy it. Nevertheless, as one of the first attempts at documentary filmmaking and indisputably one of the first movies to struggle with what it means to be constrained by the form, it is both historic and thought-provoking. It may not have the same effect that it had on those first audiences, who saw it with fresh eyes, but it continues to have an impact to this day. For those reasons alone, it cannot be written off entirely.