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March 1996, Week 4


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Evan Cameron <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 26 Mar 1996 17:51:25 -0500
text/plain (118 lines)
Professor Langer seems to have difficulty rendering coherent not only
Flaherty's work, but his own conjectures about it.  What Langer said, and
I contested, was that Flaherty had been "professionally trained by Kodak",
bearing the full implication that the skills Flaherty brought to bear in
the making of NANOOK and his later films were - contrary to his own
testimony and those who knew best of his work - the result of prior
"professional training" by others.  A 3-week crash course from Kodak,
taken in 1913 at the suggestion of William McKenzie, amounts to being
"professionally trained by Kodak" by no standard known to me nor to any
one who later worked with Flaherty.
As for the coherence of the earlier work on NANOOK with the latter,
perhaps Professor Langer will someday inform us why his standard of
identity (whatever that may be) should supercede Flaherty's own and those
who knew him.  The negatives culled from four expeditions beginning in
1913 were indeed burnt while being cut in Toronto in 1917; Flaherty then
convinced Revillon Freres to back the 1920 expedition which culminated in
the successful revision of the project - and indeed, by 1920(!), Flaherty
had lots of first-hand experience under his belt.
To claim, however, that the northern projects which culminated in NANOOK
were "distinct ventures" to Flaherty, because he took the opportunity to
reconstrue and restructure the film between his initial and final attempts
at it, simply begs the question at issue.  The 1913 venture is related to
the one of 1920 as neither are related to MOANA, MAN OF ARAN or LOUISIANA
STORY.  The latter were "distinct ventures", as the phrase is commonly
understood, though I doubt that the nuances of our language will stand in
the way of Professor Langer's quest for deconstruction.  (As Bernard
Herrmann once said to me about CITIZEN KANE, with reference to Ms. Kael's
similar anti-authorial project generated without consultation with him
or any other of Welles's coworkers, "yeah - the shoeshine boy did it!")
The fascination of Flaherty to so many who worked with him, of course, is
that the glorified stories he (and his wife, Frances) later concocted
around his production methods rested almost without exception upon a hard
core of truth, as every coworker from Goldman to van Dongen and Leacock
has attested.  (Dispite his disregard of them, I trust their testimonies
are known to Professor Langer, or at least where to find them!) Surfaces
aside, the Flaherty myth matched the reality, in their judgment, to a
degree altogether exceptional among filmmakers.  To careful historians,
that doesn't mean you trust the myth; but it assuredly forbids one from
junking it in the interest of an anti-authorial agenda.
Evan William Cameron                            Telephone: 416-736-5149
York University - CFT 216 (Film)                Fax:       416-736-5710
4700 Keele Street                               E-mail:    [log in to unmask]
North York, Ontario
Canada  M3J 1P3
On Mon, 25 Mar 1996, Mark Langer wrote:
> >
> >
> > Evan Cameron ([log in to unmask]) disputes the claim that Flaherty had
> extensive professional experience as a photographer and filmmaker before
> embarking on NANOOK OF THE NORTH and claims that production of the film
> began in 1913, not 1920.  He cites as partial proof of Flaherty's
> inexperience the difficulties of processing film.  I don't really see how
> a lack of prior knowledge about how to filter caribou hair out of water
> determines Flaherty's experience as a cinematographer.  I respectfully
> suggest that James Wong Howe, Stanley Cortez or even Gregg Toland would
> have come up short in this regard.
> As far as Cameron's allegation that the filming of NANOOK began in 1913, he
> appear to be jumbling together two different film productions -- the one
> shot in Baffin Island and the one shot at Port Harrison.
> I'm not sure that I understand how a film project shot in an entirely
>  different area of the north, using a completely different cast, which was
>  edited and exhibited in major Canadian cities as a complete film could be
>  considered to be the same movie as the later NANOOK.  The so-called "first
>  Nanook" was made to promote Sir Wm. Mackenzie's mining and railroad empire.
>  Mackenzie claimed ownership of the film, which had as much to do with
>  the fact that Flaherty could not use it commercially after he left
>  Mackenzie's employ as the somewhat disputed "fact" that the negative was
>  destroyed in a fire.
>  The later 1920 venture was sponsored by Revillon Freres to compete with the
>  earlier Hudsons Bay Company pageant films and ADVENTURES IN THE FAR FUR
>  COUNTRY.  How could this be coherent as a single project with the earlier
>  film?  Flaherty's late teens correspondence with his wife Frances deals at
>  length with their plans to make the next Eskimo film different than the
>  first, adapting strategies used by Curtis and Mawson, among others.  In
>  Flaherty's mind, these were distinct ventures.  To my knowledge, they
>  projects share not a frame of common material.  From an extreme auteurist
>  standpoint, it might be possible to conceive of a director's entire body of
>  work to be just one film, released in ninety-minute chunks over a period of
>  years.  But, speaking other than in this sense, does Cameron have some
> evidence of which I am not aware that these were one coherent project?
> My earlier statement stands.  Flaherty had extensive experience as a still
> photographer and as a cinematographer by the time he proposed making
> NANOOK to Revillon Freres in 1920.  He not only received instruction in
> filmmaking at Kodak, but had met with representatives of Kinemacolour,
> Paramount and several other companies long before embarking on the
> Revillon project.  He also received advice from Edward Curtis and Alfred
> Stieglitz.  He knew the film business reasonably well, and was able to
> negotiate an advantageous contract with Revillon.  I would be happy to provide
> Evan Cameron with citations of specific documents in the Flaherty papers that
> demonstrate this.  I would call upon him to provide similar primary
> documentation to contest anything that I state here.
>  ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> Mark Langer
> Email address: [log in to unmask]
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
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