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March 1996, Week 4


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 22 Mar 1996 13:56:50 CST
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Subject: Re: Shooting of Flaherty's Nanook
Author:  [log in to unmask] (Mark Langer)
Date:    3/22/96 12:22 PM
Mike Pounds ([log in to unmask]) wrote:
> But his approach to filmmaking was decidedly
> primative. His background was engineering, not filmmaking so his
> expedition was not well equipped.
I'm not sure that one could say that Flaherty's background was engineering
-- flunking out of the Michigan School of Mines after less than a year
doesn't make you an engineer.  By the time he began NANOOK, Flaherty had
worked as a photographer for at least fifteen years and had been working as
a cinematographer since 1912 (all the while continuing his career as a
prospector and surveyor), so he had been familiar with the film business
for some time.  He was professionally trained as a cinematographer by
Kodak in Rochester.  As his correspondence with his wife indicates, both
were well acquainted with the film industry and with the work of their
competitors in documentary film making.  Flaherty's equipment was state of
the art for 1920.  After making NANOOK, he continued to show a keen
interest in developments in technology and in approaches to the medium.
He was an early adopter of panchromatic film, made reference to the work
of Eisenstein and Vertov in correspondence, etc.  The idea of Flaherty as
a primitive really isn't sustainable.
> The trajectory of his film
> career took his to Eskimo, Pacific Islanders and he only back out of
> films when the commerical interests of Hollywood threatened to twist the
> film portrayals of indigeous people out of all shape.
I don't think that the evidence in the Flaherty papers supports this.
Remember, this is the guy who died while directing THIS IS CINERAMA.
Flaherty was a consumate story-teller who was not above crafting
fictional stories onto his examinations of native peoples.  Many of his
films were carefully scripted and had the characters doing things that
they were unlikely to have ever attempted in their lives -- think of the
shark hunt in MAN OF ARAN,  the tattooing in MOANA or the Inuit use of the
long-discarded harpoon for the walrus hunt in NANOOK.  I won't even
begin to address ELEPHANT BOY or Flaherty's sequence of ITS ALL TRUE.
Whether or not you wish to call some instances of this "salvage
ethnography," even his straightest documentaries certainly play with the
facts about the societies portrayed at the time of filming.  Much of what many
Flahertyophiles have condemned as Murnau-imposed fiction in TABU was
actually a story adapted from an earlier, unfinished Flaherty film called
ACOMA.   Other unfinished or never-realized Flaherty projects were even
more dependent on fiction -- eg. the musical projects THE MAD MUSICIAN and
The Flaherty vs. Hollywood conflict distorts the actual historical record
of the trajectory of Flaherty's career and does a disservice to his
talents as a story-teller.  It may be convenient to blame the failure of
several Flaherty projects on allegations that vulgar Hollywood producers
tried to force him to incorporate crass narrative elements into his
documentaries (I'm not saying that this is exactly your position, but it
is a common traditional approach to Fl.).  The failure of many of his
projects is more easily accountable by Flaherty's inability or
unwillingness to conform to standard production practices.
A  "Flaherty vs. business" historical construct overlooks one constant in
Flaherty's career -- his preference for being a venture capitalist
over being a contract employee.  This certainly was at the heart of his
split with Sir William Mackenzie after the so-called "first Nanook" and
was a primary motivating factor for the creation of Flaherty-Murnau
Hope this makes sense.  Where is Brian Winston when you really need him!
Mark Langer
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