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Truth and Inconsequences

In the August 9, 1922 issue of this magazine, Frances Taylor Patterson wrote: "In a day of emotional and artistic deliquescence on the screen, a picture with the fresh strength and pictorial promise of Nanook of the North is in the nature of Revelation." The screen has recurrently deliquesced since then, and once again comes a film from the north to remind us of that fact by its revelation of strength. Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook has reigned since 1922 as the best film about Inuit life: now it is joined and in some ways surpassed by Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Lot 47).

Kunuk was born in a sod house in the Arctic in 1957 and since the age of nine has lived in Igloolik on Baffin Island. Apparently it was in Canadian cities that he studied film-making. His cinematographer, Norman Cohn, has been living in Igloolik since 1985 and has worked with Kunuk on numerous documentaries. All the cast of The Fast Runner are Inuit. Some of them have had acting experience, most have not. This mixture is not a rarity in film-making: most of the cast in Laurent Cantet's Time Out were not professionals. But Cantet's pros did not have to come back, as Kunuk's pros did, to immerse themselves in a relatively primitive manner of life.

Nanook was and still is visually stunning because of its incredible expanses of snowy nothingness. The Fast Runner, as it begins, almost seems to be picking up this subject with a long shot of a fur-clad man and two dogs surrounded by white immensity. Cohn's cinematography is in color, done with a digital camera: the footage was later transferred to usual stock. Of course the color is a huge asset in itself--which of us, outside of Rockwell Kent, knew that there were so many degrees and tints of white?--but Cohn uses it with a fine sense of relevance. He wants to show us that northern light works wonders in sky and terrain. (In summer, the white is replaced by brown.) Most engaging is Cohn's sculptural use of light on the blunt yet varied Inuit faces.

Nanook is a documentary, and Flaherty was chided for some arrangements that he made. (He built an oversize igloo without a roof so that he could shoot interior scenes. I wondered about the igloo interiors in this new film.) The Fast Runner is a drama, based on an old Inuit legend, which, in brief, deals with the rivalry of two young men for a young woman. One of them, Atanarjuat (the fast runner), wins her hand. One spring night he and his brother are sleeping in their tent when they are attacked by the defeated rival and two other men from his tribe. The brother is killed. Atanarjuat then flees naked across the brown terrain, the ponds, the patches of ice and snow, pursued by the three who want to kill him. The chase is long, but Atanarjuat survives, and his survival leads to resolution of tribal troubles.

The performances of all the roles are better than we might have expected. Sincerity pulses throughout, the assurance from these people that they are enacting a legend that is significant to them. Characterizations are hardly complex, but probably anything more nuanced would have been inconsistent with the general level of conversation, action, decision, all of which are portrayed in figurative primary colors. Family feeling, that most precious of universals, is yet again the foundation of being.

With the stratospheric difference between Inuit lives and ours, it is inevitable that we view this film in some aspects as a travelogue: the way the Inuit fill their seal oil lamps; the way they cook (or don't cook) their food--has any Inuit ever eaten a vegetable?; their comfort as members of small groups, six or eight, in the middle of cosmic space. Kunuk concentrates so wholeheartedly on the story, he is so smitten with love for his people and for their legend, that we are affected as much by his feelings as by the film. He convinces us that, for an Inuit, an Inuit life is complete, even to mime and song and dance. (Their culture includes the tattooing of women's faces.) Kunuk's prime accomplishment is that he actually made this film, that it now exists. It is one hundred seventy-two minutes long, and possibly the early section could be a bit condensed, but it is a not-too-modest epic.

Years ago I showed Nanook of the North in a film course, and after this account of courage against natural obstacles had concluded, one young woman in the class said appreciatively, "Nobody ever sends care packages to the Inuit. No one needs to. They're OK." Wherever that young woman is now, I hope that she gets a chance to see The Fast Runner.

Well, back to civilization--and nuclear threats. When political thrillers began to be plotted on a global scale--was there ever a James Bond villain who didn't want to capture the whole world?--they generally eluded the destruction of "life as we know it" at the last shaved second. With Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, both in 1964, the stories spilled over the edge of doom, but that's where they ended. Now comes The Sum of All Fears (Paramount), in which the story continues after catastrophe. Oh, it's not complete catastrophe: only Baltimore is destroyed by a nuclear explosion, and a U.S. aircraft is blown up in the North Sea, and some ICBMs hit Moscow. Still, the picture ends with the American president and the Russian president sitting down in the Rose Garden to sign a peace pact. The camera then descends just outside the garden to find the hero and the heroine celebrating their engagement.

The film is based on a Tom Clancy novel, with the usual hero, Jack Ryan, a CIA operative who is also a learned historian. Clancy and his chief are trying to track an Israeli atomic bomb that has been missing since 1967. It was a dud and is now exhumed in a Middle Eastern desert by black marketeers, then makes its way through nefarious hands to a persistent Nazi who will use it against the United States. The CIA fumbles the trail of the bomb. Some comment on this film has deplored it as ill-advised in these edgy days because of the way the CIA is treated, but the whole plot is so ridiculous that it has to make the real-life CIA look better.

Ryan is played by Ben Affleck, that amiable young man who seems to have bet his friends that he could play a part in a movie, and, by golly, he is doing it. Morgan Freeman, as his chief, has one more in a long line of parts that are straitjackets for his formerly infectious talent. Liev Schreiber, recently a Hamlet in New York, plays a CIA hit man, a role that could have used any one of ten thousand inferior actors.

In this Bush-Ashcroft age, we do not especially need more strictures on civil liberties, but after this despicable film perhaps the great minds of Movieland could be persuaded to agree on a ground rule: films about nuclear terror must not be risible, and they must show the results of a nuclear bombing as something more than a couple's engagement kiss.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.