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Nanook of the North, The Wedding of Palo and other Films of Arctic Life Blu-ray Review

Nanook of the North, The Wedding of Palo and other Films of Arctic Life Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Nanook of the North

Theatrical Release: June 11, 1922 / Running Time: 79 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director/Producer: Robert J. Flaherty

Cast: Allakariallak (Nanook), Nyla (Nanook's Wife, the Smiling One), Allee (Nanook's Son), Cunayou (Nanook's Wife), Allegoo (Nanook's Son), Camock (Nanook's Cat)

The Wedding of Palo

US Theatrical Release: March 1, 1937 / Running Time: 72 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Friedrich Dalsheim / Writer: Knud Rasmussen

Six Bonus Films Originally Released Between 1913 and 1988 / Overall Runtime: 5 Hours and 9 Minutes
1.22:1-1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio / Dolby Digital 2.0 / Subtitles: None / Not Closed Captioned
Blu-ray Release Date: March 19, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $41.95
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50) / Clear Keepcase

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Most people have traced the feature film back to 1939, the year that gave us the enduring gold standards of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
Those who journey back further than that have probably seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They might check out some early Hitchcock and Frank Capra, the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton or a couple of Fritz Lang or Universal Monster films. They may even try to endure a D.W. Griffith epic.

Not far from all of those in cultural relevance is Nanook of the North, a 1922 film by Robert J. Flaherty. Considered the first feature-length documentary, this portrait of an Inuit man and his family living in the Canadian Arctic was part of 1989's first crop of 25 films selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry. It was the 33rd DVD issued in the Criterion Collection all the way back in the late-1990s. More recently, it made its Blu-ray debut from Flicker Alley joined by the 1934 survey of East Greenland culture The Wedding of Palo and six bonus shorts constituting the "and other Films of Arctic Life" part of this two-disc "Deluxe Edition" set's title.


Subtitled A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, Nanook opens with a series of text screens from writer/director/producer Flaherty explaining his travails in getting the film made, overcoming fires and unsatisfactory footage. He also prefaces the film by mentioning that its hero starved to death shortly after being documented, adding sadness to this otherwise uplifting look at a "fearless, loveable, happy-go-lucky" people.

The chief of a small Itivimuit tribe, Nanook (which means "The Bear") is responsible for the survival of his family. With no plant life, the Inuits rely entirely on hunting animals, a diet that produces stretches of hunger and hardship in the trying climate. To see Nanook in action is to enjoy a fascinating view of a lifestyle distant from ours. He sneakily crawls up on walruses. He makes a hole for seals to take their tri-hourly breath. He wrangles with a seal on his harpoon line through the ice.

Nanook (Allakariallak) enjoys a taste of his hunting spoils in "Nanook of the North." Nanook goes hunting for seal.

An entire film of hunting could grow tedious,
something Flaherty seems aware of despite the lack of a precedent. Wisely, he complements the profile of Nanook the provider with looks at Nanook the father and man. Lighter-hearted scenes show Nanook captivated by the gramophone that a white trader shows him, teaching his young son how to use a bow and arrow, and sharing a bed with his family. Some of the smaller details are the most striking ones. Nanook licks his knife to form ice that will make it sharper. His wife Nyla ("The Smiley One") starts the day chewing on his boots to keep them pliable. Bucking that old saying about things to avoid in filmmaking, scenes of Nanook's playful children and adorable huskies give the film some of its most appealing images.

A tiny bit of the film feels staged and some have criticized it for its distortions (which include character names and relationships, hunting methods and attire, that gramophone gag, and even "Nanook"'s location and cause of death), but that doesn't undo what Nanook achieves, bringing you this accessible documentary of living in the Arctic extremes.


Far less well-known, The Wedding of Palo pitches itself as a documentary born out of Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen's last trip to East Greenland. In fact, it is quite transparently fictional. In a strange way, it resembles contemporary cable reality television, only even more staged and scripted. Nonetheless, Nanook's influence is clear in the film's tone and content.

Palo focuses on a love triangle. Two young men, Samo and Palo, are both interested in the hand of a woman named Navarana. To determine who gets it, they engage in a drum dance song duel, an activity that seems like a direct ancestor to rap battles. Musical insults are slung in each direction, and then a knife is drawn as emotions flare.

That love story claims the foreground, giving a secondary role to the presumably more genuine culture -- polar bear hunting, seasonal preparations, tribal customs. The Mickey Moused score and seemingly imprecisely looped, then translated dialogue cannot generate much interest. Yet, it's tough to argue its inclusion here, as a distinct descendant of Nanook unlikely to draw much attention on its own.

Samo and Palo settle their romantic quarrel in the manner of the day: song-duel. The English translation of the Inuit song-duel reveals that their freestyle rap battle keeps things fairly polite.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Flicker Alley's Blu-ray presentation of Nanook is not quite up to Criterion's standards, although my experiences with Criterion have largely been of films far younger and better preserved. The case gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, but the film measures closer to 1.37:1. Though scratchy and jumpy on all but its title card, the visuals are still plenty impressive for a film that's over 90 years old. (Screenshots of Criterion's Nanook DVD show the same problem areas.) Text screens are sometimes off-centered. Interestingly, these require faster reading than many an old silent film in order to keep up with the long descriptions. The film is suitably scored courtesy of 1998 compositions by Timothy Brock. They are only presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, rather than an uncompressed format, but sound just fine anyway. No subtitles are provided, not that there would be any reason for them. (Non-silent bonus features, however, are also unsubtitled.)

Windowboxed to 1.22:1, The Wedding of Palo looks a little better than Nanook, but it too cannot hide its age. Its element is rough, prone to an understandable amount of wear and tear as well as missing frames here and there. Its sound, apparently synchronized in post-production, is aged too. Since English dialogue is again limited to text screens, its lack of subtitles is also perfectly understandable.

In the 1988 French television documentary "Nanook Revisited", Inuit people watch "Nanook of the North" The igloo-building sequence from "Nanook" becomes the 1928 educational short "Houses of the Arctic and Tropics: Dwellings of the Far North."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Though they factor into the title, the other films are designated as bonus features by the menu and thus I'll treat them as such here. All are encoded at high definition resolution, though each is limited by its source and age. The first two extras appear alongside Nanook on Disc 1.

The 1988 film Nanook Revisited (Saumialuk) (1:05:39) returns us to the region Flaherty documented sixty-eight years later. We find a more populated and more developed community, for whom Flaherty's film is screened.
Residents reflect on its enduring popularity and significance, while we tag along on a modern hunt. A fitting counterpart and semi-sequel, this is both celebratory and critical of Nanook, revealing some of the numerous things evidently staged for the film.

Houses of the Arctic and the Tropics (10:56; called Dwellings of the Far North on the package) is an educational short released in 1928. It re-edits the igloo-building sequence from Nanook, casting it in new light as a reflection of people making use of nature's gifts as part of their adaptation to their environment. The opening and text cards are new, giving unique intrigue to footage you've already seen.

The four remaining short films join The Wedding of Palo on Disc 2.

Walruses feature in the tinted short "Captain Kleinschmidt's Arctic Hunt." The Earth and Its People short "Eskimo Hunters" profiles an Alaskan family. "The Face of the High Arctic" pays notice to the Arctic's landscape.

The oldest thing on this set, 1913's Captain Kleinschmidt's Arctic Hunt (15:51) is accurately described as a "filmed notebook." This short surveys the sights of Alaska: glaciers breaking apart, walruses, seals, sea lions, murre, giant moose, and whales. The piece unsettlingly concludes with hunters catching and dissecting a polar bear. The tint-varying picture's fluctuating colors produce trippy results.

Primitive Love (32:24) is formed out of two substantial excerpts from Kleinschmidt's 1927 feature film of the same name.
The clips show us how Eskimos brave dark winters and go hunting for meat. As the last thing on this set I watched, this felt like more of the same without a compelling angle to distinguish it.

Comparable to Nanook and enjoyable in a similar way is Eskimo Hunters (Northwestern Alaska) (20:27), a 1949 entry to "The Earth and Its People" series. In voiceover narration, an Alaskan boy describes his family's existence. Among the activities he touches upon: shooting at seals, eating fish, finding wood, recreational nights at a school, and frequenting the only store in town.

Finally, The Face of the High Arctic (12:50) dully surveys the geography of the region, paying notice to the glaciers, desert, water, and rock that define the land.

Extras from Criterion's Nanook DVD are not licensed by Flicker Alley. They included interviews with Flaherty's widow and co-editor Frances, photos from the director's arctic trips, and excerpts from the TV documentary Flaherty and Film.

Each disc's main menu simply plays a montage of clips from that platter's feature film. The discs do not support bookmarks, but unfinished playback resumes and the feature films are kindly given chapter submenus.

The similarities to Criterion continue in the packaging. Flicker Alley also opts for a clear keepcase of Blu-ray height and DVD width. The inside displays original poster artwork for the two main attractions. Across from the discs, we get a sturdy 32-page illustrated booklet of essays and reprinted articles. First, we get an excerpt of My Esikmo Friends, Robert J. Flaherty's 1924 book about his Northern journeys. It provides notable behind-the-scenes on the film, explaining some of the deceptions.

Then, in an easier read, author and expeditioner Lawrence Millman writes about Knud Rasmussen and The Wedding of Palo. Millman reflects on screenwriter/ethnographer Rasmussen's methods and gives us a franker description of East Greenland than the film does (e.g. mentioning survival cannibalism), emphasizing its people's remoteness and limited resources, giving meaning to their contact from the outside world, and commenting on the area today.

The booklet's final four pages discuss the bonus films and the restoration work performed for this Blu-ray. It's an excellent and valuable companion to the discs.

Nanook of the North teaches his young son how to use a bow and arrow. Samo, Palo, and Navarana find themselves in an old-fashioned East Greenland love triangle in "The Wedding of Palo."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While it may not be as authentic as it seems, Nanook of the North is a landmark film essential to the establishment of the documentary feature that also remains fun to watch. The Wedding of Palo would be tough to recommend on its own, but its inclusion here is fitting and a testament to Nanook's influence. The additional six short films of varying interest complement the two primary attractions nicely and add up to a fine, strongly-themed collection. One wishes the films looked and sounded better than they did, but their considerable age makes that easy to forgive. While the steep list price makes this a difficult sell, Flicker Alley shows evident regard for this vintage content and anyone sharing it should be satisfied by this set.

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Reviewed March 30, 2013.



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