Monthly Archives: January 2013

More TMA 114: stories that move fast, and stories that dig deep…

Week 4: Yarns

Read: Andersen, The Shadow; Grimm, How Six Made Their Way in the World; Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Red Dog; Stevenson, The Body Snatcher, The Bottle Imp

Listen: Chuck Berry, “No Particular Place to Go,”  “Memphis”

Discuss: plot in the hierarchy of dramatic elements, story as a craft, popular poetry, stasis and kinesis as they pertain to reflection and wisdom, nuance and ideology, escapism and wholesome recreation

View: Porter, Life of an American Fireman, Fedorenko/Newlove, Village of Idiots; Kubrick, The Killing

Supplementary, books: Alexander, The Black Cauldron, etc., Bloor, Tangerine, Buchan, Greenmantle/Witch Wood, Calvino, Italian Folk Tales, Card, Ender’s Game, Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Conan-Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, Conrad, Lord Jim, Cooper, The Boggart, Dahl, The Witches, Dickens, Bleak House, Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines/She, Hilton, Lost Horizon, Hughes, In Hazard, James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Keary, The Heroes of Asgard, Le Fanu, Carmilla, Leonard, Hombre, London, White Fang, Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Matheson, I Am Legend, Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, Paulsen, Hatchet, Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Scott, Old Mortality, Stevenson, Kidnapped/The Ebb-Tide, Twain, Tom Sawyer, Wells, The Invisible Man, Winterfield, Detectives in Togas, Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

Supplementary, films: Abrams, Star Trek, Affleck, Argo, Aldrich, Attack!, Argento, Suspiria, Audiard, Read My Lips, Bayona, The Orphanage, Bennett/Marton, King Solomon’s Mines, Berger/Powell/ Whelan, The Thief of Baghdad, Bird, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Boetticher, Ride Lonesome, Bogdanovich, Targets, Browning, The Unknown, Buñuel, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Campbell, Casino Royale, Cavalcanti, Went the Day Well?, Chaplin, The Pilgrim, Clement, Purple Noon, Clouzot, Diabolique, Coen, Raising Arizona, Corman, House of Usher/The Pit and the Pendulum, Curtiz, Doctor X., Davis, Holes, Favreau, Iron Man, Feuillade, Les Vampires, Fisher, The Curse of Dracula, Fleischer, The Vikings, Freund, The Mummy, Fuller, Forty Guns, Griffith, Orphans of the Storm, Guest, The Quatermass Experiment, Guitry, The Story of a Cheat, Hathaway, True Grit, Hawks, To Have and Have Not/Red River/The Land of the Pharaohs, Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes/ Rebecca/Rear Window, Ingram, The Prisoner of Zenda, Jackson, The Hobbit, Johnson, Looper, Jones, Source Code, Kastle, The Honeymoon Killers, Kazan, On the Waterfront, Keaton, The Navigator, King, Jesse James/The Gunfighter, Kon, Tokyo Godfathers, Korda, That Hamilton Woman, Kurosawa, Sanjuro, Lang, Spies/The Return of Frank James/The Tiger of Eshnapur/The Indian Tomb, Lester, The Three Musketeers, Levin, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Linklater, School of Rock, Lisberger, Tron, Lord/Miller, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Lupino, The Hitchiker, Mann, Collateral, Miyazaki, The Castle of Cagliostro, Niblo, The Mark of Zorro, Nyby, The Thing from Another World, Pabst, The Love of Jeanne Ney, Peckinpah, Ride the High Country, Preminger, Laura/Advise and Consent, Raimi, Drag Me to Hell, Ray, Macao, Russell, The Billion Dollar Brain, Sayles, Eight Men Out, Shyamalan, Signs, Siegel, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Singleton, Boyz in the Hood, Spielberg, Duel/Minority Report, J. Sturges, The Great Escape, Tavernier, The Clockmaker, Tourneur, Leopard Man/The Flame and the Arrow, Walsh, High Sierra, Wellman, Wings, Werker, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder, Sunset Boulevard, Wise, The Body Snatcher, Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Yates, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Young, From Russia With Love


Week 5: Psychological Narrative

Read: Trollope, Plumstead Episcopi,” (ch. 8 fromTrollope’s The Warden); Chekhov, The Lady with the Pet Dog; de Maupassant, Boule de Suif

Listen: Adrian Belew, “The War in the Gulf Between Us”

Discuss: character in the hierarchy of dramatic elements, macro and micro (Jung and race memory/Freud and the subconscious), Chaucer and God’s plenty, Shakespeare and “the invention of the human”, the 19th century novelists and the complexity of the human subject

View: Fellini, 8 ½, de Mille, The Ten Commandments (1923); Dardennes, The Kid with a Bike

Supplementary, books: Balzac, Eugenie Grandet, Beckett, Molloy, Bergman, Scenes from a Marriage, Camus, The Stranger, Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country, Conrad, Secret Agent, Dante, Inferno, Dickens, David Copperfield, Dostoievsky, Notes from the Underground, Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Greene, Brighton Rock, Hunter, The Sound of Trumpets, Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, James, The Turn of the Screw, Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, di Lampedusa, The Leopard, Laurence, A Jest of God, Leonard, Hombre, S. Lewis, Elmer Gantry, Miller, Death of a Salesman, “Moses,” “Genesis,” Murakami, Norwegian Wood, Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Sayers, Whose Body?, Shakespeare, Hamlet, Shields, The Stone Diaries, Stevenson, Weir of Hermiston, Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Thompson Seton, Wild Animals I Have Known, Whipple, The Giant Joshua

Supplementary, films: Aldrich, The Big Knife, Antonioni, Red Desert, Bergman, Wild Strawberries/Persona, Boetticher, Seven Men from Now/The Tall T, Borzage, Moonrise, Cahill, Another Earth, Campion, Sweetie/Angel at My Table, Chabrol, Un Femme Infidel, Clayton, The Innocents, Crowe, Say Anything, Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike, Dreyer, Michael, Farrow, The Big Clock, Fellini, Nights of Cabiria, Forbes, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Gries, Will Penny, Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt/Spellbound/Vertigo, Hytner, The Madness of King George, Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are, King, Twelve O’Clock High, Kirsanoff, Menilmontant, Leconte, Man on the Train, Lewis, The Big Mouth, Lubitsch, Lady Windermere’s Fan/The Shop Around the Corner, Lumet, The Verdict, Maddin, Careful/Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Mann, Bend of the River, Melville, Army of Shadows, Murnau, The Last Laugh, Newman, Rachel, Rachel, Ophuls, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Polanski, Repulsion, Preminger, Where the Sidewalk Ends/Angel Face, N. Ray, In a Lonely Place, S. Ray, Charulata, Room, Bed and Sofa, Sayles,  Passion Fish, Shimizu, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, Shindo, Mother, Spieberg, Schindler’s List, Tarkovsky, Ivan’s Childhood, Tourneur, Cat People, Walsh, Pursued, Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


An abridged version of this essay appears in the Criterion Collection’s 1999 dvd release of Nanook of the North.

The entire essay can also be found in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.

Nanook of the North, by Robert Flaherty (US, 1922)

Nanook of the North, by Robert Flaherty, is the seminal work in the field of documentary film, and one of the most important productions in motion picture history. Hailed upon its 1922 release as an aesthetic (and anthropological) triumph, as well as being a considerable box office success, its success opened up a whole range of new cinematic possibilities.  Since then it has continued to be a touchstone and an inspiration for film pioneers and plain practitioners alike.  It may be said withjustice that “Nanook” changed permanently the way that we look at the world.

“Nanook’s” importance is undeniable, but its influence is not universally appreciated.  As time has passed and the film’s stature and influence have increased, so too have the controversies attached to it.  Concerns about its non-fiction status, doubts regarding Flaherty’s method, questions about its sensitivity to indigenous realities; all are subjects of hot debate.  “Nanook” continues to be set about by advocates and detractors both, and it is had for good or ill across the entire cultural spectrum.

This furor underlines the subject’s abiding importance: the film and its maker, in both strength and shortcoming, embodied their time.  And the subject’s relevance and even urgency remain, because discussions on Flaherty and “Nanook” continue to inform and be emblematic of our own time as well.

Flaherty was born in Michigan in 1884.  During his youth his family lived a nomadic existence, much of it in Canada, where they passed from mining camp to mining camp with their engineer father.  Flaherty frequently went along on lengthy prospecting expeditions, learning by example the outdoor arts and observing the conditions of northern life.

Much of Flaherty’s practical education was received from native teachers, expeditionary guides whose wisdom and facility he came to admire.  He also came to realize that this cultural wisdom was being encroached upon and endangered by incursions of European culture and commerce.  Flaherty came of age, and became a mining engineer in his own right.  He also grew more and more aware of his paradoxical position.  As an explorer in the north he represented a vanguard, bringing advantages of trade and technology to needy and isolated communities.  Simultaneously, he was also the agent for irreversible change, as pressures of integration and modernization forced out old ways that were, for all the disregard of white sensibilities, frequently artful and abundant.

This conflict eventually led Flaherty, an agent of destruction, to become the chronicler of that which he destroyed.  In 1910 he was hired by Sir William Mackenzie to prospect the vast area east of the Hudson Bay for its railway and mineral potential.  Over the course of several years and through four lengthy expeditions Flaherty had frequent contact with the region’s Inuit people.  As before, Flaherty found himself to be an appreciative beneficiary of native craft.  He was taken by the Inuit’s traditional survival skills, so striking and artful as to reveal a positive abundance in the Arctic’s apparent bare subsistence.  He knew these things to be vulnerable.  With a vague inclination to preserve and somehow to share, on one of his expeditions he brought a motion picture camera along.

In tracing his transition from engineer to ethnographer, it has proven easy to exaggerate the uniqueness of Flaherty’s aims and accomplishments, as well as the seriousness of his shortcomings.  A more human sized appreciation of the man and his work comes in considering the contexts out of which he emerged, and the long cultural process at the end of which a fine, flawed man, as well as his great film stand as both embodiment and culmination.

Far from emerging out of the nothing, Nanook of the North was in fact a very long time coming.  Its rejection of the corrupt artifices of man-made culture, its idealized portrayal of noble natural states as repositories of truth and goodness have many influential precedents.  The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are full, literarily and in fact, of mingled disgust with and flights from cultural corruption, full of a yearning for something better.  Robinson Crusoe, Lemuel Gulliver, Rousseau’s Emile (together with his powerful discourses on inequality, and on the moral effects of the arts and sciences), Voltaire’s Candide, are some of the most noted of many, and all reflect these common sentiments.

Of course the problem with some of these conceptual flights was the way that ideals collided with the real.  High-flown prescriptions were often difficult to fill in any practical way; “the noble savage” clashed uncomfortably with the actual facts of indigenous lives.  More tellingly, the search for a reconciliation with things natural was laid over a more prevalent pattern of conquest and colonization.  Where there was nobility in “savage” lives, this colonial influence seemed by definition to eliminate it, or at best to so change conditions that a kind of nostalgic shadow was all that remained.

Still, though for years colonizers carried native trophies home as symbols of conquest, while deaths like Captain Cook’s insured a degree of take-no-prisoners antagonism between old and new worlds, there were also gentler meetings.  The improvement was due partly to a sensitizing in Europe and the Americas.  Rousseau (again) and early Romanticism, the American and French revolutions, the writings of Burns and Wordsworth, of Mill, Ruskin and Morris, and many other things besides alerted people to the importance of craftsmanship, small forms, everyday experience, and of mutual appreciation between common folk.

And these were precisely the things that some sensitive people started to find in native societies, and in native communities.  In many places, and by various means, painters like George Catlin, Paul Kane, Paul Gauguin, writers ranging from Herman Melville (Typee) to Robert Louis Stevenson (Ebb Tide, The Beach at Falésa) and Rudyard Kipling (Kim), even the odd colonial citizen, all began to paint and see more accurate, nuanced representations of native lives, filled with documentary details that revealed not just romantic generalizations, but the pace and processes of their existence.  From such details came increased understanding and appreciation, and the enlightening idea that natives were not just exotic products of a colonial age, but that native life could be a source of insight, beauty and humanity.

Given the remoteness of his upbringing, it is quite likely that Flaherty was not much aware of these precedents.  But conscious or not, Flaherty’s work reveals him to be a locus for the age’s aspirations and complications.

Flaherty inherited the sensibilities and interests of his age, and his work is a key point in the cultural continuum tracing the interaction of Europeans and natives of colour.  At one end of that continuum there is suspicion and ignorance and exploitation.  At the time “Nanook” was released, the other end had not been so fully contemplated, and certainly not in films.  In this context, the exalted reputation of Nanook of the North, much disputed and denied in more recent years, is complicatedly but indubitably justified.

“Nanook” was not intended as a documentary, a genre which not even been defined at the time of the film’s production.  As Flaherty’s wife Frances would later affirm, the film was made with an eye to commercial distribution and exhibition, and it was made for audiences that were accustomed to narrative fiction films.  Flaherty was not an ethnographer, but he was building his story out of the materials of real life.  In this he was breaking cinematic trails, and even though the tenets of anthropological filmmaking were not nearly in place, in retrospect it is remarkable how much he still managed to get right.

Flaherty had spent a good part of the last ten years with the Inuit, and so had more than a dabbler’s stake in their lives.  And yet he did not only depend on his own experience alone.  In “Nanook” Flaherty developed each day’s footage and screened it for the film’s participants, who were encouraged to make suggestions.  Since the Inuit were the authorities on their own lives, many of these suggestions were incorporated into the film.  This practice would later become a fundamental part of ethnographic etiquette.

Consistent with this substantial artistic collaboration, and contrary to a narrative and stylistic impulse that would prevail elsewhere for many more years, Flaherty does not intrude on his subject.  He is not the star of his film, and though his effaced presence causes a few unsightly wrinkles (unfortunate contrivances—like Nanook’s biting of the phonograph record—are perceived as actual and natural), for the most part it means that the credit for the film’s feats of courage and grace go precisely where they belong: to the Inuit.  If “Nanook” is Flaherty’s film, then it is his in collaboration with its subjects, who emerge as almost wholly admirable.

In ethnographic matters “Nanook” began a trend that has pushed and enhanced documentary ever since.  Its progress is seen in the Griersonian documentary, in the National Film Board of Canada’s Faces of Canada series, in films like Jean Rouch’s Moi, un Noir, in the NFB’s Challenge for Change series, and in the work of all the ethnic filmmakers who eventually managed to wrest the means of production and distribution away from power.  That trend would eventually enable the indigenous to tell his own story, to his own community as well as to the outsider, leading to a greater hope for mutual comprehension, cinematically and in unmediated social interaction.

Commentary has keyed on the film’s place in a trajectory of ethnic relations and representations, but Nanook of the North is also important for a contribution that crosses borders and reduces divisions.  In its earliest years (1895-1902) film production was dominated by actualities, short pictures of actual people in actual places.  These films favoured a largely unmediated view of the world over arranged spectacle, and though they gave place in popularity to the narrative fictions of the likes of Georges Melies and Edwin Porter, they continued to be produced in great number.

However, there was a reason for their commercial eclipse.  The early actuality basically evolved into two types of film production, both valuable and yet both somewhat lacking.  The first category, the travelogue, took the viewer to faraway places with strange sounding names.  There was an inherent appeal in the journey, but the spectator’s visit seldom provided more than a superficial glimpse of the picturesque.

A second type of actuality film flourished, for the most part, in Britain.  These were more substantial portraits of industrial processes—also valuable for the way they revealed the rhythms of workers’ lives, the conditions of their labour, and the superb skill that in some ways shone through the difficult conditions.  However, given the escapist impulses that already held audiences in thrall, the commercial appeal of these industrial films was limited.

Robert Flaherty’s great innovation, probably most clearly and successfully articulated in Nanook of the North, was simply to combine the two forms of actuality, infusing the exotic journey with the details of indigenous work and play and life.  By so doing Flaherty transcended the travelogue, as now the picturesque became a real and respectful portrait.

That portrait contained two things that remain, even today, at the very core of the documentary idea.  These are process and duration, or the detailed representation of how our everyday things are done (burning moss for fuel, covering a kayak, negotiating ice floes, hunting, caring for our children, etc.), and how long the doing takes.  In “Nanook” this combination leads to a number of lovely moments, most particularly in its stunning igloo sequence.  Here labour is not only revealed in its social context, but emerges, through Nanook’s skill and Flaherty’s cinematic sensitivity, as an ideal of beauty and even spirituality.  First there is shelter, then warmth, and finally light (the window!); here and elsewhere, by giving real processes a human dimension, craftsmanship and artistry, life and enactment and representation, become one.

Nanook of the North pioneered these ideas, and it remains exemplary in the way it executes them.  The profundity of process and duration in the documentary film is in the way that they can replace alienating fantasy (as in much Hollywood melodrama) with empowering reality.  If cinematic escape, or rather escapism, which makes an occasional respite into a life’s strategy, can take the spectator from and make her despise her own realities, then these documentary ideas can reveal the banal everyday as being full of drama and beauty.

“Nanook” is a film of great beauty and accomplishment, but it contains difficulties as well.  Many of these relate to its perceived documentary claims.  Flaherty’s film is full of faking and fudging, in one form or another.

The family at the film’s centre was not really a family.  These were photogenic Inuit, cast and paid to play these roles.  The characters’ seemingly authentic clothing was actually a nostalgic hybrid; the Inuit had started to integrate western wear some time previously.  This integration was in fact quite general: igloos were giving way to southern building materials, many harpoons had been replaced by rifles, many kayak paddles by motors.

Given that all this was true, observers (starting with John Grierson) would come to accuse Flaherty of ignoring contemporary realities and real crises (cultural integration, unemployment, various modern social ills), in favour of romances which were, for all their documentary value, irrelevant.  (This complaint would be applied even more vigourously to some of Flaherty’s later films—i.e., Moana, 1926, Man of Aran, 1934.)

Other fabrications have caused more serious concern on social and even ethical grounds.  The seal that appears to be engaging Nanook in a delightful tug of war is actually dead; Nanook is in fact being pulled around by some friends who are at the other end of the rope, standing just off camera.  During the famous walrus hunt the hunters desperately asked Flaherty to stop shooting the camera and start shooting the rifle.  For his part, Flaherty pretended not to hear, and kept filming until the prey was taken in the old way.  (It might be added that this celebrated sequence is rendered in fragments, and not quite coherently.  On the other hand, this affirms that, however contrived the preparations, the event itself, to use a perilous word, is real.)  A failed bear hunt (not appearing in the film, but related in Flaherty’s northern memoir, My Eskimo Friends) left its participants, Flaherty included, stranded and nearly starving for weeks.

What, then, given all of these contradictions, do we make of the man, and of this work?  Flaherty’s shortcomings, as well as those of his films, are certain, and they should be acknowledged.  However, it is fair to point out that, with regard to endangerments for the film’s sake, Flaherty exposes the Inuit to difficulties that are well within the realm of their traditional experience.  As for stereotyping, if “Nanook” is not quite the perfect ideal of cultural comprehension, it still stands as a remarkable plateau, especially given the surrounding contemporary landscape.

Coming after Flaherty, the quasi-ethnographic documentaries of future King Kong producers Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack either emphasize the intrepidity of their American participants (Grass, 1925), or skimp on process and duration in favour of ornamental indigenousness and Hollywood razzle dazzle (cf. Chang [1927]).  Or, compare these delightful sort-of documentaries with the contemporaneous productions of Martin and Osa Johnson (Simba, 1928, Congorilla, 1929; also featured in Ken Jacobs’ 2004 compilation, Star Spangled to Death), whose expeditionary films patronized their native subjects as they extolled the wisdom of their makers.

Given all of this, Flaherty emerges as a pretty admirable figure.  He appears even more admirable when we consider his own motivations and proclaimed goals.  Firstly, it may be repeated that partial inaccuracies and manipulations were, at least in “Nanook,” the result of a scramble against time.  Ancient traditions were jeopardized, and Flaherty’s sincere desire was to preserve a sense of them before it was too late.

A second point provides a small indemnification in the face of the mixed or even hostile feelings that Nanook of the North has engendered.  When confronted with the documentary shortcomings of his last film, Flaherty would emphasize its title, which was of course Louisiana Story.  Similarly, “Nanook’s” original subtitle is: “A story of life and love in the actual arctic.”  In making this film, Flaherty was celebrating his friends’ culture, selling a product, and telling a story.  From first to last he never claimed differently.

With and because of all of its rich contradictions, Nanook of the North holds a central place in the history of documentary film.  It has become a healthily skeptical truism that fiction documents while documentaries invent and frequently manipulate, for all, or in contrast to their truth claims.  “Nanook,” uniquely, complicatedly, wonderfully, does both.  Its strong documentary elements are set in a fine romantic story, and its romance is made profound by the loving detail which decorates and humanizes it.

Flaherty’s great film has the pretty simplicity of a children’s story, with all of that form’s virtues and dangers and reassurances.  It is stunningly photographed, with Flaherty’s compositions evoking the mystery and harmony of Inuit art and sculpture.  It reflects profoundly not only upon colonial impulse, but also upon our mortality and our humanity.  Mortality and humanity are affectingly considered; the contingency and vulnerability of northern life make the human interactions in this film—“to be a great hunter like his father”—all the more tender and poignant.  Nanook of the North is a product of its time, a set of cautions for our own, and in the final account, a document for all time.

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.  Revised 1983, 1993.

Barsam, Richard, The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988.

Berton, Pierre, The Mysterious North: Encounters with the Canadian Frontier, 1947-54. Toronto, McLelland and Stewart, 1989.

Brownlow, Kevin, The War, the West and the Wilderness. New York, Knopf, 1979.

Calder-Marshall, Arthur, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty. London, W.H. Allen, 1963.

Carpenter, Edmund, Eskimo. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1959.

Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie (ed.), Robert Flaherty, Photographer/Filmmaker, The Inuit, 1910-1922. Vancouver, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1979.

Flaherty, Frances Hubbard, The Odyssey of a Film-Maker: Robert Flaherty’s Story. Putney, VT, Threshold Books, 1984.

Flaherty, Robert, My Eskimo Friends. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1924.

Griffith, Richard, The World of Robert Flaherty. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.

Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, ed. Jay Ruby. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Here are two kinds of story, again from our TMA 114/Narrative Structures class.

Week 2: Archetypal Narrative

Read: Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”;  (; Chekhov, Surgery, Gusev (; Ovid/Hughes, The Golden Age; Perreault, Tom Thumb

Listen: Bing Crosby, “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” 

View: Kroitor/Low/O’Connor/Daly, In the Labyrinth; Kinoshita, The Ballad of Narayama

Discuss: youth and age, idiot/savants, auteurism and structuralism, genre, myth and truth, magnitude, narratology and the big ideas, avoiding stereotype

Supplementary, books: Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Alexander, The Book of Three, etc., Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bhagavad-Gita, Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting, Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks, Bronte, Jane Eyre, Colum, The Children’s Homer/The Children of Odin, Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, Hammett, Red Harvest, Hess, Siddhartha, Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, Kingsley, The Water Babies, Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Laurence, The Stone Angel, Le Guin, The Wizard of Earthsea, Lewis, Perelandra, London, The Sea Wolf, Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha, McKay Brown, Magnus, McLeod, Island, Melville, Billy Budd, Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, Rulfo, Pedro Paramo, Saramago, Blindness, Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet/A Midsummernight’s Dream, Sophocles, Oedipus, Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet, Tolkein, The Hobbit, Traven, The Bridge in the Jungle, West, The Day of the Locust, Wharton, Icefields, Wiesel, Night, Williams, The Three Toymakers, Yeats, Celtic Twilight

Supplementary, films: Angelopolous, Landscapes in the Mist, Bergman, The Naked Night/The Seventh Seal/The Magic Flute, Blomkamp, District 9, Boetticher, Seven Men From Now, Boorman, Deliverance, Bresson, Pickpocket, Browning, Freaks, Campion, The Piano, Chaplin, The Kid/Modern Times, Chabrol, Le Boucher, Chomet, The Illusionist, Cocteau, Beauty and the Beast/Orpheus, Coen, Fargo, Cronenberg, A History of Violence, Cuaron, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, DeMille, The Cheat, Dieterle, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby, Ford, The Iron Horse/Young Mr. Lincoln/My Darling Clementine/Wagonmaster, Gance, La Roue, Haro, Mother of Mine, Hawks, His Girl Friday/ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Herzog, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain, Jansco, The Red and the White, Jordan, In the Company of Wolves, Keaton, Our Hospitality, Khan, Mother India, Kim, Treeless Mountain, King, Tol’able David/Stella Dallas, Kozintsev, King Lear, Lang, Die Niebelungen/ Rancho Notorious, Lean, Oliver Twist, Mann, The Man from Laramie, Melies, Blue Beard, Moore/ Twomey, The Secret of Kells, Murnau, Nosferatu/Sunrise/Tabu, Paradjanov, Legends of Forgotten Ancestors, Pastrone, Cabiria, Polanski, Oliver Twist, Powell, A Matter of Life and Death, Ray, Devi, Renoir, La Bete Humaine/The River, Roeg, Walkabout, Rohmer, Perceval le Gallois, Romero, Night of the Living Dead, Sayles, The Secret of Roan Inish/Lone Star, Scorcese, The Aviator, Spielberg, AI/War Horse, Tarkovsky, Solaris, Vidor, The Crowd, Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel, Walsh, White Heat, Welles, The Trial, Wellman, Track of the Cat, Whale, Frankenstein, Wyler, Wuthering Heights, Zvyagintsev, The Return


Week 3: Elemental Narrative

Read: Grimm, The Juniper Tree; London, Love of Life, To Build a Fire, The House of Mapuhi; Poe, MS, found in a bottle, The Black Cat

Listen: Mendelssohn, Hebrides Overture

View: Disney, Pinocchio, Algar, White Wilderness, Flaherty, Man of Aran; Ballard, Never Cry Wolf

Discuss: setting in the hierarchy of dramatic elements, story/syntagm vs. paradigm/ symbol, the sublime, psychology and the unequivocal/imponderable/unfathomable

Supplementary books: Adams, Watership Down, Anand, Untouchable, Atwood, Surfacing, Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Clarke, 2001: a Space Odyssey, Conrad, Youth, Euripides, Medea/Bacchai, Golding, The Inheritors, Grove, Over Prairie Trails, Gunn, Highland River, Hardy, The Return of the Native, Heaney (trans.), Beowulf, Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Hogg, Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica, Ibsen, Brand, King, Stig of the Dump, London, The Call of the Wild, Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, McKay Brown, Beside the Ocean of Time, Melville, Typee, Mowat, Lost in the Barrens/Never Cry Wolf, Ovid, “Tereus and Procne,” Plath, Ariel, Reid-Banks, Angela and Diabola, Shakespeare, King Lear/The Tempest, Simenon, The Train, St. Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars, Stevenson, Treasure Island, Strindberg, The Father, Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Supplementary, films: Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Antonioni, L’Aventura/L’Eclisse, Bava, Black Sunday, Beresford, Black Robe, Bergman, The Virgin Spring, Cameron, Avatar, Chaplin, The Gold Rush, Cooper/Schoedsack, Grass, Davaa/Falorni, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Denis, White Material, Dovzhenko, Earth, Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Flaherty, Man of Aran, Franju, Eyes Without a Face, Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, Godard, Contempt, Griffith, Broken Blossoms/Way Down East, Haneke, The White Ribbon, Haskin, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Herzog, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Kaige, The Emperor and the Assassin, Keaton, The General, Kubrick, 2001, A Space Odyssey/The Shining, Kuleshov, By the Law, Kunuk, Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, Kurosawa, Ran, Lamorisse, White Mane, Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, Low, Universe, Lynch, Eraserhead, Malick, Days of Heaven, Mann, The Far Country/Man of the West, Miller, Happy Feet, Nakata, Dark Water, Noyce, Rabbit-proof Fence, Nyby, The Thing from Another World, Olmi, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, Paradjanov, The Legend of Suram Fortress, Pasolini, Teorema, Powell, Split Second, Powell, I Know Where I’m Going/Black Narcissus, Pudovkin, Mother, Romero, Day of the Dead, Rossellini, Stromboli, Schepisi, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Sharpsteen, Pinocchio, Shindo, Onibaba, Sjostrom, The Outlaw and His Wife/The Wind, Takahata, Pom Poko, Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie, Visconti, La Terra Trema, Von Stroheim, Greed, Wajda, Man of Iron, Weir, The Last Wave, Wilder, Nahanni

Another class schedule, this time for our genre class.  Read along!


TMA 492, Winter, 2013

Class Objective: to survey the history of the Western film, as well as to touch upon the history of the West that Western films so feelingly and complicatedly portray; to trace the historical evolution of the genre, and also a number of its many theoretical elaborations; to become Western-literate—we will screen twenty-eight feature films, including both celebrated milestones and a number of less well-known treasures—able both to read and express the concept and landscape and realities of the West.

To this end we will read a number of seminal essays that explore and illuminate Western-related issues: culture and nature, the raw and the cooked, individuality and the collective, cultivation and the free range, poetry and positivism, liberty and duty.  Writing assignments will address and elaborate upon these same ideas.  By the end we not only intend to have become super-familiar with Western films, but also to have become more conscious, careful and contributing Westerners, whether by adoption, or born in the covenant.

Class schedule:


Screen: The Tourists (1912), Wild and Wooly (1916); The Mark of Zorro (1920), Mantrap (1926)

Listen:    “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande),” Bing Crosby (1936)

Read:    Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

Painful loss:    3 Bad Men (1926), The Wind (1928)


Screen:    Native Americans in Newsreels (1921-1938), Horse’s Collars (1935); Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Listen:    “Back in the Saddle Again,” Gene Autry (1939)

Read:    Trollope, “The Aboriginals,” Lodge, “Colonialism in the United States”

Painful loss:    The Return of Frank James (1940)


Screen:    My Darling Clementine (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946)

Listen:    “Don’t Fence Me In,” Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (1944)

Read:    Coleridge, “On Poesy or Art,” Morris, “The Lesser Arts”

Painful loss:    Yellow Sky (1948)


Screen    Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948); Stars in My Crown (1950), The Gunfighter (1950)

Listen:    “Cool Water,” Vaughn Monroe and the Sons of the Pioneers (1948)

Read:    Mill, introduction to On Liberty

Painful loss:    Pursued (1948), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)


Screen:    Drip-Along Daffy (1951); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Silver Lode (1954)

Listen:    The Ballad of High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me Oh, My Darlin’),” Tex Ritter, 1952

Read:     Fielding, “The Poor and their Betters,” Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Painful loss:    Wagonmaster (1950), Son of Paleface (1952), Track of the Cat (1954)


Screen:    Corral (1954); The Far Country (1954), Man of the West (1958)

Listen:    “Happy Trails,” Roy Rogers (1952)

Read:    Emerson, “Beauty”

Painful loss:    Red River (1948), The Big Sky (1952), the entire Mann/Stewart cycle


Screen    The Searchers (1956), Comanche Station (1960)

Listen:    “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “I’m an Indian Too,” “Anything You Can Do,” from Annie Get Your Gun, by Irving Berlin (1950)

Read:    Hume, “Of the Dignity and Meanness of Human Nature”

Painful loss:    The rest of the Ranown cycle


Screen    Forty Guns (1957), Johnny Guitar (1954)

Listen:    “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Johnny Cash (1958)

Read:    Shklovski, “Art as Technique”

Painful loss:    River of No Return (1954)


Screen    The Tall T (1956), Rio Bravo (1959)

Listen:    “El Paso,” Marty Robbins (1959)

Read:    Macaulay, “Minute on Indian Education,” Emerson, “Friendship”

Painful Loss:    Yojimbo (1961)


Screen    Ride the High Country (1962), Hud (1963)

Listen:    “Nothing Was Delivered,” “Old Blue,” The Byrds (1968/1969)

Read:    Roosevelt, “Dante and the Bowery”

Painful loss:    One-Eyed Jacks (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)


Screen    The Professionals (1966), Will Penny (1968)

Listen:    “John Wesley Harding,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Weight,” Bob Dylan/Ennio Morricone/The Band (1967/1968)

Read:    Reynolds, “The Idea of Beauty,” Miller, “The Tragedy of the Common Man”

Painful loss:    Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Little Big Man (1970)


Screen:    McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Heartland (1979)

Listen:    “Man in Black,” “In My Hour of Darkness,” Johnny Cash/Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris (1971/1973)

Read:    Stevenson, “Truth and Intercourse,” Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences”

Painful loss:    The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)


Screen:    The Shootist (1976), Wild Life (2011); My Brilliant Career (1979), The Grey Fox (1982)

Listen:    “Hotel California,” “Four Strong Winds,” The Eagles/Neil Young (1976/1977)

Read:    Swift, “A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding,” Cicero, “On Old Age”

Painful loss:    The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1979)


Screen:    Unforgiven (1992), Open Range (2003)

Listen:    “Eldorado,” “I Saw the Light,” “Your Long Journey,” Neil Young/Hank Williams/ Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (1989/1948/2007)

Read:    Stevenson, “Called South”

Painful loss:    Dead Man (1995)



Course objective (which, you will notice, is not a mission statement, nor a list of assessment measures): to watch and enjoy a lot of non-fiction films.  To consider the idea of the nonfiction film from its beginning to the present day; to explore a range of approaches, styles, institutions and individuals associated with the documentary idea; to consider some of the social, political and ethical issues that have informed the documentary, and that emerge out of the making and viewing of documentary films; finally, to consider how our own lives (as film makers, film critics, and simple citizens) are or ought to be informed and shaped by documentary sensibilities.


Required Texts:

Documentary, by Erik Barnouw, 2nd revised ed.; Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols, 2nd ed.


Class schedule:


Jan. 8     Microcosmos (1996), A Christmas Carol (1984), Smoke (1995); Life in a Day (2011)

Jan. 10    The Ax Fight (1975); Cannibal Tours (1988)



Jan. 15    Creature Comforts (2003), Ryan (2004); Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Jan 17      Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011)



Jan. 22    Edison films: Sandow, Caicedo with Pole, Bucking Broncho, ‪Annie Oakley, Fire       Rescue, ‪Mess Call, ‪Black Diamond Express, ‪American Falls from Above, American Side, ‪Fifth Avenue, New York, ‪Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike, ‪A Storm at Sea, 1901,High Diving Scene, ‪Pan American  Exposition by Night, ‪Electrocuting an Elephant; The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films (1895-1903; 1996)

Jan. 24    Man of Aran (1934); How the Myth Was Made (1978)



Jan. 29    Stride, Soviet (1926); Here and Elsewhere (1976)

Jan. 31    The Plow That Broke the Plains (1935); Remembrance of Things to Come (2003)



Feb. 5    Housing Problems (1935); Neapolitan Diary (1992)

Feb. 7     Seal Island (1948); Les Enfants du Silence (1962); Fishing With John (1991)



Feb. 12    Warclouds in the Pacific (1941); Point of Order (1964)

Feb. 14    City of Gold (1957); The War Game (1965)



Feb. 2     Chasing Ice (2012)



Feb. 26     Bronx Morning (1931), Les Racquetteurs (1958); High School (1968)

Feb. 28    Lonely Boy (1961), Railway Station (1980); The Act of Seeing with One’s Eyes (1971)



Mar. 5     Blacktop (1952), Ted Baryluk’s Grocery (1982); Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010); final paper proposals due

Mar. 7     Pina (2011)



Mar. 12    Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

Mar. 14    Restrepo (2010)



Mar. 19     Toute la Memoire du Monde (1956); A State of Mind (2006)

Mar. 21    The Dust Bowl (2012)



Mar. 26    The Bridge (1928), H20 (1929); The Debussy Film (1965)

Mar. 28     Animated Motion #1 (1976); Close-Up (1990)



Apr. 2     The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Apr. 4     Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011); This Is It (2009)



Apr. 9     The Back-Breaking Leaf (1959), The Hutterites (1964), Mighty River (1994)

Apr. 11    Called to Serve (1987), Family Scriptures (2003), Birdie (2008); New York Doll (2005)



Apr. 16    A cool film…



Charles and Ray Eames, US, 1969
At first glance this is just a film about people playing with tops, but with a little concentration you can almost hear the heavens proclaiming the glory of God.  The apparatus itself works as a result of balanced centripetal and centrifugal forces. The strong outward forces are focused and contained by the pin or post that balances them.  Parables anyone?  After a dizzying display of mechanical, cultural, and emotional diversity you come back to the fact that each top operates, each player benefits, because of the exactly identical physical principle. All for one, one for all.
The Eames’ usual methods and virtues are here, in spades. What would it be like to have Elmer Bernstein as your personal composer?  Note the little musical elaboration when that silver top starts spinning. Note also the shot in which the camera pushes forward into focus, then arcs to an overhead shot. Exact execution, on a practically microscopic scale. The heart catches.
Available on volume 5 of The Films of Charles and Ray Eames (Image Entertainment)
The Mummy
Karl Freund, US, 1932

The opening of this movie is terrific.  Patient, quiet, atmospheric, with a rising tension and thickening atmosphere.  It’s Mr. Freund, of course, here and through the duration of the piece.  Nice how a range of western/modern attitudes are embodied by the attending white guys.  One is a devoted scientist, one a scientist unto careerism or exploitation, one ridiculously credulous about the power of the occult.  It’s also interesting how those British Museum debates—are they preserving the world’s antiquities, or plain plundering?—are clearly and sort of complicatedly articulated. The indirectness of the Mummy’s awakening—a young expedition member barely whispers the portentous words as he tries to make them out—is superb, leading to a contrast in volume and a real frisson when the young expedition member actually cracks up.  Also, amazing make-up!


The ten-years-later thing causes a deflation of sorts, but it’s nowhere near as bad as what happens when Browning’s Dracula goes back to civilization.  That’s one crazy looking dame!  The romance is awful, of course: arbitrary, gratuitous, unconvincing.  A lot like what happens in L&H, or the Marx brothers films.  You find yourself hoping that Imhotep will prevail (though homogenized 1930’s audiences might not have seen it that way).  Maybe that’s why he starts to pull our heroine him-ward; it’s not just monster power, but their kindred relationship.  She’s his countrywoman!  Plus he has those really cool glowing eyes.
I love the flashback, and the kind of chilling, kind of thrilling explication of the blasphemy that caused this curse in the first place. It’s terrible, at the same time that it makes a lot of sense.  With regard to colonialism, or the presumptuous Western habit of demonizing anything that isn’t it, the film’s conclusion constitutes a pretty cool compromise. The parallel montage between the imperiled damsel and her erstwhile saviours only leads to the realization that these cowboys are out of their depth.  In the end it’s the Egyptian deity that dispatches the Egyptian baddie.