Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Flaherty's Indifferent Universe; Herzog's Malevolent Universe

Considered the first documentary, Robert Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North was also among the first cinematic depictions of man living in an inhospitable natural setting. In Nanook, the natural environment, in this case Canada's frigid Hudson Bay, presents an intense challenge to the subsistence of its inhabitants, a family of Inuits seemingly well equipped to deal with the harsh conditions, but who still find daily survival to be a task of great difficulty. Ultimately, Flaherty's portrait is one of indifferent nature and one that would serve as a model for subsequent "natural" documentaries, a cycle culminating some eighty years later in Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man, a work that modifies Flaherty's view of nature's indifference by assigning a hostile agency to the universe and that takes depictions of nature to new levels of brutality.

In Nanook, the titular character is well adapted to his natural surroundings: skilled in hunting, capable of building canoes and igloos, and knowledgeable about the terrain. Yet, Flaherty repeatedly undermines the viewer's confidence in Nanook's ability to survive, furthering the director's vision of a foreboding and inhospitable environment. In the film's introductory note we are told that two years after filming, Nanook starved to death when he was unable to secure an adequate food supply. Thus when we watch the film, we know that for all the Inuit's struggles for survival, he was ultimately unsuccessful. The picture's glorious hunting sequences, as Nanook kills a walrus and a seal, are thrilling, especially because we know his continued existence depends on these hunts, but they also convey a sense of futility, since we also realize that he is only prolonging his inevitable death.

The film's final sequence finds Flaherty's clearest exposition of a menacing natural world. Following a successful seal hunt, Nanook is forced to expend extra effort in quieting down his dogs who are excited by the fresh meat. When he finally does, he finds it is later than he had expected and he is imperiled by an encroaching storm. As Nanook leads his family home, knowing they will not be able to make it all the way back to their igloo, Flaherty's camera emphasizes the barrenness of the surroundings, a stark terrain of frozen snow threatened by windy gusts and snow squalls. Nanook is finally forced to take refuge in an abandoned igloo and only through this accidental discovery are he and his family permitted to survive. In actuality, Flaherty distorted the reality of the situation to achieve his dramatic and thematic effects. It is unlikely that Nanook and his family were truly faced with impending death, as there were several French and Inuit settlements nearby, but Flaherty altered the facts to fit his conception of the harsh impassivity of the natural surroundings. As the Inuits pass an unquiet night in the found igloo, Flaherty inserts an intertitle emphasizing the "melancholy" nature of the scene: the family in a deserted lodging, the wind blowing furiously outside, the howling of the hunting dogs. Even someone so well equipped for the world of the arctic north as Nanook has the greatest difficulty surviving in the face of an indifferent nature.

In Werner Herzog's world, nature is no longer merely indifferent, but actively malignant. In Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, which details Herzog's filming of Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, the German filmmaker famously characterizes the surrounding environment as "a land which God, if he exists, has created in anger". In 2005's Grizzly Man the sinister environment is transported to the remote reaches of Alaska, where half-mad Timothy Treadwell attempts to live in a state of peaceful co-existence with a group of grizzly bears. The film consists of a running dialogue between two differing viewpoints, both of which Herzog allows to be fully articulated. Treadwell, mostly glimpsed through the series of videos he created during his time in the wilderness, expresses a benign view of nature, in which it is possible for man to achieve true communion with wild animals. Herzog, who delivers a series of voiceovers and appears briefly in the picture, offers a contrasting interpretation. In all Treadwell's footage that he viewed, Herzog explains, there was not one moment where he saw any recognition or sign of mercy in the bears' faces, just a "half-bored interest in food", a sign of the "overwhelming indifference of nature". Herzog's interpretation of nature, however, goes beyond mere indifference. The individual bears may not be themselves evil, but the universe as a whole, according to Herzog, finds its common character, not in harmony (as Treadwell believes), but "hostility, chaos, and murder" and the bears become agents of these malignant forces. In this case, his viewpoint seems to be borne out, since Treadwell eventually succumbs to the wild creatures, eaten by a grizzly bear, a species with which he claimed a special kinship, but who ultimately showed no hesitation in turning against him with the utmost brutality.

Treadwell, Flaherty, and Herzog represent three differing views of nature: benign, indifferent and malevolent. Since Treadwell himself can be considered a director (he left behind many hours of video footage, including deliberately staged sequences), his recordings can be taken as an expression of his own worldview. However, since we only see Treadwell's work as filtered through Herzog's sensibility and since we know that Treadwell's fate contradicted his belief in the communal possibilities of living in the wild, Grizzly Man ultimately gives greater weight to Herzog's point of view, even while acknowledging Treadwell's. Flaherty stands somwhere in between the two, but his perspective is, in the final analysis, closer to Herzog's since both portray a harsh, destructive natural world. They differ primarily in their willingness or refusal to assign an active agency to the universe. While Flaherty is content to view nature as a neutral conception, Herzog, by ascribing a sinister design to the universe, portrays nature as an active instrument of destruction.


KaterinaO said...

Great essay. I really enjoyed reading it. Interesting note--Eisenstein talks about how nature in his silent films is *non*indifferent, but in a different sense of 'indifferent' than what you talk about. You discuss the indifference of nature to the fate of humans, while Eisenstein talks about the 'emotionality' of nature and how it expressive it is portraying moods (particularly in silent film). This ability of nature/scenes of landscapes/seascapes to convey emotions to the viewer is what he calls nonindifferent. (He wrote a whole book about it). Interesting topic!

Montag said...

I enjoyed this, and I intend to read it again, because the topic is of interest. Have you now (at Feb. 2012) changed your opinion on the matter? Or extended it?

I was happy to see the shot from Solaris, which is one of my favorite films. I have watched the original and the George Clooney version a number of times.

I was trying to remember where this shot came in the film: it was not his arrival at the space station since he is in civilian clothes. It may be when he has sent the first wife-simulacrum back into space...
as I thought of it, the image of the "False Maria" from Metropolis popped into mind, and I was left to ponder that, too...