DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Nanook of the North, The Wedding of Palo & 6 other Arctic films, Blu-ray [2 discs] (1922-2013)

One of the earliest ethnographic films, and other fascinating period views of life in the Arctic.

Published on April 1, 2013

Nanook of the North, The Wedding of Palo & 6 other Arctic films, Blu-ray [2 discs] (1922-2013)

Cast: Nanook the Bear and other Inuit natives
Director: Robert J. Flaherty  (The Wedding of Palo: Knud Rasmussen)
Studio: Blackhawk Films/ Flicker Alley FA0028 [3/19/13]
Video: 4:3 (varies: one is 1.19:1) B&W 1080p HD (some tinted)
Audio: PCM mono & stereo (some silent)
Subtitles: English
Extras: Nanook Revisited (1988), Dwellings of the Far North (1928), Arctic Hunt (1913), Primitive Love excerpt (1927), Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska (1949), Face of the High Arctic (Canadian Film Board, 1959)
Total Length: 281 minutes
Rating: ****

Nanook has also been issued by The Criterion Collection; I didn’t compare the two, but it is a pleasure to see this important early ethnographic film in decent B&W quality instead of murky, contrasty, and filled with scratches and splices. Flaherty was not a filmmaker to start with, but during six years in the Arctic exploring for the Canadian Northern Railway he created this engaging film having the eskimos recreate incidents from their lives. It was carefully restored and remastered and has a new (although rather dated-sounding) musical score by Timothy Brock in stereo. The speed is about 21 frames per second – faster than silent speed but slower than sound at 24 frames.

It was fascinating learning whatever happened to Nanook, who had tried to get Flaherty to stay an additional year to film more. Turns out he went into the interior (this is in the northern area of the eastern peninsula around Hudson Bay) hunting for bear or deer, was unsuccessful, and starved to death. It was a shock to learn that the Inuits have to keep the temperature inside their igloos below zero at all times or the snow walls will melt. (Flaherty later did Louisiana Story, with music score by Virgil Thomson, for Standard Oil.)

The second main film takes us to Eastern Greenland, made by a Danish explorer and anthropologist, Dr. Knud Rasmussen. His Inuit cast illustrate a vanished lifestyle, and the story he used concerns two young men fighting over the same woman for a wife. They take part in a Greenlander ritual of a “song-duel,” in which the two sing and dance satirical critical songs about the faults of the other, and the surrounding relatives and neighbors rate who wins the duel. (Sounds like a fine idea that some anthropologist suggested be brought into Western life to replace judges and juries.) The film was restored from an original nitrate print at the George Eastman House.

It was not easy navigating to the six additional bonus films of Arctic life. Like many poorly-programmed DVDs and Blu-rays, it was quite a struggle, but some of the short films are worth it. The one made in 1988 shows how life for Nanook’s people has radically changed in the intervening decades. Dwellings of the Far North explains exactly how igloos are made, and the Canadian Film Board short has no people in it, depicting only the unusual ecology of the Arctic region. Some of these have had only minimal restoration work on them, unlike the two main films. There is also a 32-page booklet of excerpts from “My Eskimo Friends” by Robert Flaherty, and an essay by Lawrence Millman on The Wedding of Palo.

—John Sunier




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