Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Arctic Passage

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but as we'll see in a couple of weeks, he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2015. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” which aired in the UK, and in the US under the title “Arctic Passage.” I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go these days. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting off this plane and "heading" to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 10-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 15 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew used to the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes. and cautions against conjectures.

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a hundred hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a great deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette of the UK version in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And yet were still further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies -- and vagaries -- of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. When it aired in French in Québec, one of its viewers, Dominique Fortier, was so struck by the story that she was inspired to write a novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, which is now being made into a film by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of The Young Victoria. All of which goes to show you can never tell where a story may go next, once it's passed through your hands.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a brass plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashed on couches, and worked -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the blog site for our Summer Session II course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. Since this is a hybrid course, with roughly half of our activities taking place online, this  page will serve as the central stepping-off point for our virtual excursions into the Frozen North -- there are links here to all our class readings, viewings, and listenings, along with other academic resources.  But the most important part of this site, though, is the blog itself. Twice each week, I'll post an item about the readings or viewings for the class, and everyone will have an opportunity to respond and post their own views. I encourage an informal style here -- no need to niggle over grammar, spelling, or formalities -- this should be the place for wide-ranging discussions, open exchange of ideas, and questions of all kinds. It's fine to respond to other students' postings as well -- I encourage you to think of these postings as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than isolated islands of thought.

Reminder: Our first class meetings this week will be Tuesday and Thursday, 4-7, in Craig-Lee 049