Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Atanarjuat

Atanarjuat is the first feature-length film to be written by, directed, and star Inuit people (1911's The Way of the Eskimo, which was written by and starred Inuit, is a lost film, but had a running time of only about ten minutes). It was literally years in the making, as director Zacharias Kunuk of Igloolik and co-writer Pauloosie Qulitalik sought to develop the idea. Backing was hard to find, as was a cast talented enough and experienced enough to make the film he'd dreamed of. Filming got underway at last in 1999, only to have the man cast in the lead role quit the film (apparently he didn't fancy running naked for miles over the ice, which is the film's most dramatic scene). Happily, Natar Ungalaaq, who replaced him, was both a more capable and a more handsome leading man, and the magnetism between his character and Atuat (a brilliant performance by Sylvia Ivalu) is palpable.

The story is based on an old legend from the Igloolik area (though similar tales are recorded in other Inuit groups), and has all the basic elements of romance and epic. Two brothers, whose father has never had much success in hunting, grow to adulthood and become great hunters. One of them is known as a fast runner; he can catch up with a dogsled going full tilt. This is Atanarjuat, and he loves Atuat, despite the fact that she's been pledged by her father, a powerful shaman, to his own son Oki. Atanarjuat and Oki engage in ritual combat, taunting each other with drum-dance songs and exchanging blows to the head. Atanarjuat triumphs, but Oki, not one to take defeat lightly, plans revenge. Peter-Henry Arnatsuaq, who plays Oki, has the perfect braggart's swagger, as well as a mouthful of villainous teeth; it's hard to take your eyes off him, even when you want to. The drama that unfolds would be compelling in any world, but in the treeless wilderness of snow and ice, where the dead as well as the living may be waiting for you at the end of your journey, it's especially stark and compelling.

P.S.: For those having difficulty keeping track of the characters, families, and relationships depicted in the film, I've scanned a chart; there's also a collection of stills with character and actor names, online.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He
even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact. As Inuit writer Alootook Ipellie pointed out, it would be as though someone came to modern Toronto to ask the locals to show how everyone lived in the 1800's!

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon had a falling out. Flaherty next moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one. You may also be interested to see "Flaherty and Film," a brief feature which includes a lengthy interview with Flaherty's widow.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Minik

The story of Minik Wallace (shown here second from the right, next to his father Qisuk) is a stranger and sadder one than that of any other Inuk person brought from his home to the "civilized" world. That he was brought in the name of "science," and repeatedly lied to and deceived by men who claimed its mantle, makes his story all the more horrific. And, unlike London's Egyptian Hall or Barnum's American Musuem, the American Museum of Natural History still stands in New York City, and the bones of some of Minik's people are even today still stored somewhere among its basements and warehouses.

My friend Kenn Harper was the one to uncover Minik's story, and eventually tell it to the world. Kenn was a schoolteacher in the Canadian Arctic, who learned Inuktitut and later married an Inuk woman who was a distant relative of Minik. He heard stories among his relatives in Greenland that got him thinking; they had all heard about Minik, the boy who had been taken south by Peary, come back as a young man, and then left again. What had happened to him? Kenn's researches led him to the American Museum of Natural History, but archivists there said that they were sorry, no records relating to Minik or his adoptive father, Mr. Wallace -- who had been forced to resign his post at the museum due to charges of embezzlement -- survived. On the chance that something might be found in Mr. Wallace's personnel file, Kenn requested it, and was amazed to find that it was here that the directors and scholars at the museum -- including Maurice Jessup, Franz Boaz, and Theodore Kroeber -- had buried all the documents of Minik's life. These documents enabled Kenn to write the book that became Minik: The New York Eskimo.

These documents tell a sad tale of scientific exploitation, full of the kinds of trickery and lies we hate to associate with such esteemed anthropologists as Boas (who would later direct the research of Zora Neale Hurston) and Kroeber (who later had his own Minik-like issues with a California Indian named "Ishi," and whose daughter is Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, the distinguished science fiction writer). Yet quite beside the deception, which -- in his stepfather's words -- led Minik to "lose faith in the people he had come among," there is the issue of whether, even in a kinder and gentler world, it is any more fitting for a human being to become a "specimen" than it is to be a circus sideshow. In the end, we're not talking about individual motivation, but the entire scientific worldview of the early 1900's, and its legacies today.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Searching for Franklin

It might be said of Sir John Franklin, as of the unlucky Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, that "nothing became his life like the leaving of it." Had Franklin succeeded in finding a navigable Northwest Passage, he would have gone down in history as a notable dullard; instead, by vanishing, he has ascended to the firmament of Arctic mythology, as much a fixture of that sky as the Aurora Borealis. His death, and the mystery surrounding it, has inspired dozens of poems and novels, attracting writers from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Margaret Atwood; any number of poignant ballads (among them Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage,' which has become almost a second Canadian national anthem), and (to date) four plays, six documentary films, and an Australian musical. A feature film, based on the Canadian novelist Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, is in the works from the director of The Young Victoria.

The search to rescue, and then to discern the fate of, Sir John Franklin and his men was the very first mass-media disaster. For more than a decade, it dominated the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic; writers such as Dickens, Collins, Swinburne, Thoreau, Eliot, Verne, and Conrad were enthralled by its dark mysteries; clairvoyants from Scotland to India had visions of Franklin's ships, and more than thirty vessels were dispatched, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in today's money, to seek him out. Stage plays, moving panoramas, and lantern shows depicted the wild loneliness of the "Frozen Zone"; lecturers equipped with maps, charts, and Esquimaux artifacts opined on his likely location, and his wife/widow Lady Jane Franklin became a dominating figure of the day, lauded by The Times of London as "Our English Penelope." Alas, for her, there would be no returning Odysseus! But loss and death draw down to deeper springs of human feeling, perhaps, than happy returns and loving embraces. And when, finally, the specter of the "last dread alternative" -- cannibalism -- was cast over the affair, it drove its tincture of admiration and revulsion deep down into the British psyche.

Even after the recovery of the "Victory Point Record" by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, there was continued interest in discovering anything further about his final fate. The American eccentric and erstwhile newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall led two search expeditions in the 1860's; in the 1870's, the U.S. Army dispatched Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on a new seach for paper records or artifacts that might help clarify the last days of the Franklin exedition. Individual searchers returned to the area periodically from the 1880's through to the 1980's, among them the great explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1902's heard stories of Franklin's ships from the grandsons of the men who had seen them perish, stories almost exactly the same as those collected by Hall more than half a century earlier. Forensic expeditions -- Owen Beattie in the mid-1980's, and Anne Keenleyside in the early 1990's -- collected the bones, and analyzed the bodies, of known Franklin remains, finding evidence of lead poisoning, scurvy, and tuberculosis. Most significantly, historians such as David C. Woodman and Dorothy Harlan Eber have collected and gathered Inuit testimony, comparing numerous accounts with the hope that a common narrative thread could be found. Woodman has traveled to the Arctic numerous times, searching for the ships in the places the Inuit described.

In the summer of 2010, Parks Canada archaeologists re-located HMS Investigator, the ship commanded by Captain Robert McClure during the early years of the Franklin search. McClure and his men had steered their vessel into a sheltered cove, "Mercy Bay," which came very close to being their tomb. It was only after a second, terrible winter, when his men were dying of scurvy and McClure was preparing to leave his ship on a blind search for help which would surely have ended in disaster, when one Lieutenant Pim, of the ship HMS "Resolute," found him and led his men to rescue. The Resolute herself was later frozen in and ordered abandoned, although the ship miraculously freed herself from the ice a season later, and drifted down the Davis Straits to where she was spotted by an American whaler. Restored to pristine condition at public expense, she was sailed back to England and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when it was slated to be broken up at a shipyard, Queen Victoria returned the favor, ordering a large panel desk -- the 'Resolute Desk' -- and three smaller ones to be made from its timbers. The first desk she gave to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes; it sits today in the Oval Office of the White House. The second she gave to the widow of Henry Grinnell, patron of several Franklin searches; it's now on display at the New Bedford Whaling museum.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

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 granite 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, crashing on couches, and working -- 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, August 2, 2017

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the course blog for our Fall 2017 course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. 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. 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.

There are few places left on earth where simply going there seems extraordinary – but but a trip north of the Arctic Circle still seems to signify the experience of something astonishing. This course takes up the history of human exploration and interaction in the Arctic, from the early days of the nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on contact between European and American explorers and the Eskimo, or Inuit as they are more properly known today. We'll read first-hand accounts and view documentaries that recount these histories, both from the Western and the Inuit side of the story. It's a region of the world that's growing in significance, as global warming heats up more than ice; in recent years, Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all staked out new claims to the frozen zone. The future of climate change, human cultural change, and increasingly scarce natural resources may lie, not in the West or the East -- but in the North.

PLEASE NOTE: This fall, I'll be away in the Arctic on a lecture and research trip, and won't be on campus until the second week of classes (I will have limited e-mail contact) There will still be readings, and you'll be able to get the updated syllabus and everything you need here on our class blog. I look forward to seeing all of you in September!