Monday, December 13, 2010

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

File:The Journals of Knud rasmussen.jpg
Poster of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
             The viewer of this film should not be lulled by the sense of extreme cold, or by the long silences that occur, into thinking that there is very little going on in The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, 2006, Canada).  Just the opposite is the case. The film is a rich and layered exploration of one of the key ideological thematics of the biopic: the shape and production of collective memory. For The Journals captures a shifting moment when two cultures clash, one of them making adjustments to ensure its survival.
            The first question to answer is whose biopic is this anyway?  The title of the film, in giving us the name of Knud Rasmussen, might suggest that he is the subject of the film.   Professionally, Knud Rasmussen (Jens Jorn Spottag) was an actor, an opera singer and finally an ethnographer, writing several books and lecturing about the Arctic as well as traversing it from coast to coast over six times. Significantly, he was himself the product of two cultures: his father was Danish and his mother, half Inuit:
Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland among the Inuit where he learned from an early age to speak the language, ... hunt, drive dog sleds and live in harsh Arctic conditions. ‘My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with hunters. Hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.’ (Knud Rasmussen, Wikipedia).

            While one might expect the film to foreground Rasmussen himself, those expectations go unfulfilled.  The focus is more obviously on various Inuit characters Rasmussen encountered in his journeys. A significant amount of screen time is devoted rather to the stories of three other great lives: the Inuit Shaman Aua (Pakak Innuksuk), his spirit-seeing daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and his wife Orulu (Neeve Irngaut). And indeed, in its opening sequence, the film offers a title of the film that is (significantly) different from the one on the box. Rather than saying The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, it says, A Series of Extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It is this series of extracts that is off-putting to some reviewers who feel this movie is more about the Inuit and less about Rasmussen.
            And yet, while the film certainly is built around these extracts, they are extracts that do come from Rasmussen’s journals.  It is thus his mind that remembers which of the details of the story will be written, his point of view that colours the words which were captured in writing. Though the extracts are reproduced as though told from the Inuit side of the accounts, they are also the accounts that had been captured and transcribed through the voice of the Danish/Inuit explorer, albeit in fragmentary form.
            The film is bookend with still photographs of the Inuit.  The film opens in 1912 with a group of Inuit characters gathering for a picture – as they hold still for the pose, the movement gradually freezes and the colour bleeds into the sepia tones of an old photograph.  The closing sequence of the film is also composed of a series of photographs, shots of the actors and shots of the real people whose stories we have heard.
            Rasmussen is recording the details and nuances of a way of life he is already familiar with.  In that way, he is deeply embedded in the film, even where he is not always visible. He will eat with the people, dance with them, enjoy their stories and be warmed by one of their women’s beds (Apak has more than two of his sewing thimbles).
He records their stories in a first hand way.  They directly face the camera, and tell about their lives, as Orulu does when she describes “the life of an old woman, bitter and sweet”—her biopic.  The shaman, Aua, also looks directly into the camera, his eyes looking through the lens, and gazing at someone I feel is just over my right shoulder. I am tempted to turn my head and see if it is Rasmussen behind me.  What I am hearing is a biopic inside of a biopic. 
In an early scene in the film, Rasmussen tells Aua that he has come to hear their songs, and learn of their stories and beliefs. Aua replies by telling him, “We believe happy people should not worry about hidden things. Our spirits are offended if we think too much.” Rasmussen says, “Yes, I understand”, and the group go on to share songs.  But as the film continues, and the people share food, play, and work, the shaman does indeed speak to Rasmussen of his beliefs.  He tells about the myths, the taboos, and the tribal customs that surrounded his own birth: if your wife is pregnant do not kill cut open a female walrus who is carrying her young;  the fur on a baby’s clothing must run sideways; only males can eat the harpooned catch of a young man’s first kill.  He introduces us to his shark spirit as well as other spirits, who have come from the land and the sea, spirits who are integral to how his tale will wind down.  Aua is one of the gravitational points in this film.
            Does that means I feel as though this is not Rasmussen’s story?  No.  It is his pen that writes, his mind that decides which of the details will be written, his point of view that colours the words that are spoken.  His journals suggest to us the risks of the ethnographer’s gaze, and yet attempt to share understanding between groups.  It is his voice that suggest the paths towards understanding.  He speaks Inuit, has grown up with the Inuit, and has hunted with the Inuit.  And in the film, both he and I are about to bear witness to one of his greatest moments: capturing the stories of a culture in transition.  The cost of that transition is seen powerfully in the lives of Aua, Apak and Orulo, but we know of that cost only through the extracts in Rasmussen’s journals, extracts written in his voice.
            Leslie Felperin says in that "[the] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished ‘Atanarjuat,’ prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore.” I do not agree with her .  In this film, I see rich, human drama in the ordinary lives of women.  I am mesmerized by Apak’s story, a female shaman with spirits of her own.  She has sex with her dead husband at nights.  She is warned to be “warmer to [her] second husband who was a gift to her because of the murder of her first husband. Her marriage represents a peaceful solution to a murder, but it is not a solution that works sexually for her.  When she asks if her husband has complained to her father the retort is, “No, everyone sees,” as everyone does when many people sleep in one igloo.  When confronted with sexuality gone wrong, she articulates her displeasure: “I [have] to do all the work with you myself.”  Others say about her, “That one is too beautiful for any man.”
            While the camera often remains lovingly on the face of the beautiful Apak, and while it certainly attends to women’s sexuality, that is not the only way in which women are visible in this film.  The film gives us snapshots of many women:  sewing, cooking, feeding babies who are packed on their backs with bits of food, parenting the children and being shamed into thinking that kind of work is not adult work.  I rest my case.  For me, this is a story rich in human drama, drama in a site that is usually seen as one that needs containment.  Women’s work and lives are woven into the fabric of this film, into the fabric of this collective memory.
            A film’s closure should frame the film’s biographical subject and it does so in a touching way.  To begin the closing sequence, Aua, the last shaman, walks toward us.  He then gazes past us but with downcast eyes and speaks to the three spirits who are standing in front of him.  He says, “I am grateful for all the help you have given me in my life.  But now I have to send my spirits away.  Now I need to follow the road of Jesus and you have to leave me.” Aua’s small community is starving to death.  One by one, they have left to accept food from the Jesus-believers.  But the Jesus-believers will not feed the people without their conversion to Christianity.  We have already learned of the taboos, and know that eating certain organ meats from prohibited animals will disassociate the shama Aua from his spirits. But in joining the Jesus believers to get nourishment, he will be required to eat the body of Christ (which will take the form not of bread and wine, but of those prohibited organ meats) and thus break that taboo.  So, of his own accord, Aua sends his spirits away, rather than join them in the spirit world (through starvation and death).
            Aua again tells them to leave.  But it is only at this moment in the film, in seeing the three characters before him, that we realize we have been blind.  The three characters have been visible to us the entire time, but we have not understood them to be spirits, presuming them simply to be other members of the community without speaking roles.  Even when they were described to us by Aua, we did not understand what we were seeing.  But now, we can see.
We can also see that they do not immediately leave.  He must send them away.  He tells them again, “So now, go away”.   They begin to turn from him to walk away.  They also begin to wail with sorrow.  There is over one minute of the wailing of the grief stricken spirits as they walk away from him, them looking back, him remaining firm, saying more loudly and angrily, “So now, go away.”  He is resigned to what must be done. The ground is undulating with wisps of drifting of snow between them and the three figures disappear toward a hill in the distance.  Finally they are only a speck of black, and the credits roll, alongside pictures of the Inuit, past and present.
            The last shot, a long shot showing a dog sled traveling over the snow has the voice over of the film’s ethnographer, Knud, singing a European operatic melody again as he did to them in the middle of an early party, one of Caruso’s famous love airas. The shot pulls back to an long shot and the camera tilts down with an extreme long shot, giving us a view from the heavens.  The sled is travelling toward home, to a people who have lost their former shamanic practice. Rasmussen’s operatic voice is heard crooning his last message:
[The Inuit] appeared to me, purest of love,
I discovered with my eyes this vision of delight.
Lovely [were they], that my hungry heart, in a snap, to [them] did fly.
I was hurt, I was charmed by that beauty from above.
Love is etched in my heart, and cannot now be erased.

Rasmussen’s biopic will continue to be mined for its attention to collective Inuit memory of the days when the Inuit practised shamanism.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Journal Entry #8: Who is Rembrandt

Who is Rembrandt according to the director and the actor?

If I were to look at who Rembrandt is by looking at the actor’s acting style, I would see a complicated individual, one of desire, flamboyance, passion, politics and commitment. The acting style communicated Rembrandt’s desire for his way of viewing the world, especially in the scene where he unveils the commissioned painting and people find they are in the shadows or their faces are not seen at all. Though the a theatrical soliloquy in a movie is now outdated, there was a passion, either about religion or love when we listened to long clips of dialogue. Just a look from the actor, a twitch of the face, a fish hanging by its tail, ready to enter his mouth was enough to flesh out the richness of the painter’s persona. This is also true of the repartee between Rembrandt and the beggar, when Rembrandt is looking for someone to sit for a painting of an Old Testament King. The spirit with which it was delivered fleshed out a Rembrandt who was living for us as a man, apart from his paintings.

Who is Rembrandt and how do we know that? In the twenty-first century we know Rembrandt was a painter of masterpieces that have endured for four centuries. But the mise-en-scene gave us an idea of who Rembrandt was as he painted. We saw the arch shaped bridges that go over the canals, and the tall thin houses that lined them. I am one of the people in the class who is lucky enough to have visited the Rembrandt house and museum in Amsterdam. Should you be lucky enough to go into that house, the guide will probably point to the walls in the entry and says something to the effect of, “Rembrandt had his painting hanging all over this wall, a gallery of his own, where he displayed pictures he had for sale. His shop was always open for commerce.” The film showed us similar walls in Rembrandt’s house, and people coming to buy from him. We know a small piece of who Rembrandt is, just by looking at his surroundings, how he lived in them, and how he painted them.

Assignment I: Opening Sequence - Jackie and Hilary

Key metaphoric, stylistic and technical devices are evident in the opening sequence of Arnand Tucker’s film, Hilary and Jackie (1998), a narrative about the Du Prė sisters, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson). Bingham reminds us that biographical films need subjects with extraordinary lives. Jackie is famous for her musical talent; Hilary, for her keen writer’s eye. The movie is a critical investigation, a feminist appropriation of the classical biographical genre.

The key metaphoric device of the opening sequence is the conch shell, an image about women’s sexuality. A submerged shell is drawn out of a pool of water by a small hand. Then camera swoops away from two girls beside a small pool and circles with dizzying speed to a high-angled extreme long shot to image the girls as the two vulva folds on either side of the pool of water. Then we see the young Jackie using the conch shell as a telephone, taking a message which she whispers to her sister, making visible us to the the second metaphor of the opening sequence: the whisper.

The sequence initially begins with a whisper of sound: the whisper of waves, then the whisper of an orchestra tuning up, then the whisper of a single ascending melodic line played on the cello. Later, Jackie whispers a message she received from a mysterious silhouetted woman at the edge of the sand. Also, the sequence is framed as a mysterious whisper as the girls run over the sand dunes speaking W.J. Turner’s poem, “Romance”. Hilary has Jackie’s hand and they are about to enter the “golden land” (of sound for them) that Turner refers to in his poem.

A key stylistic device in this movie is the use of classical music: Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Jackie’s signature piece. As well, original music by Barrington Pheloung mixes the flute and the cello, bring to the foreground the instrument that each of them plays when the focus is on their story.

A key stylistic device is Tucker’s use of the swooping camera. In the opening sequence the girls run through the golden wet sand, slide down sand dunes on their knees, run through high golden grasses, move toward the horizon, run away from the viewer, and finally hug each other in a long, tight embrace. At this moment Tucker makes use again of an “excessively mobile camera ... to dramatise visually static material” a device he will also use again during the body of the film (Bruzzi 32). But for now Hilary and Jackie stand still, clinging to each other, the camera spinning the horizon around the girls at a dizzying pace.

A second of Tucker’s technical devices is the long dissolve, a technique he uses to bind the women together. In shot 4, Hilary and Jackie leave the pool of water to run toward the edge of the ocean. At the same time, there is a 7-second shot of the two girls with their own arms cross at the wrist and clasping each other’s hands. They are spinning in a circle. The two shots are mixed for 3 seconds, an overlay of both images underscoring their separateness and their inseparability.

I go to see biography because I am interested in the knowability of the subjects. The deep love the young sisters have for each other is dramatized in the opening sequence, the nature of their love revealed through the metaphors of a conch shell, a whisper and a golden land.

Works Cited

Bruzzi, Stella. “Butterfly on the Wall: Is the New Jacqueline De Prė Biopic Typical of British Documentary Fiction, Asks Stella Bruzzi”. Sight and Sound 9:1 (January 1999) 23-34.

Is "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" a bio pic or not?

Rebecca Johnson says...
Here is my question. Is The Journals of Knud Rasmussen a bio pic or not? If it IS, then what kind of biopic IS it? The open scene gives the film a slightly different title from the one on the box. Rather than saying "The Journal of Knud Rasmussen", it says, "A series of extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen". Does that make a difference?
The thing that is fascinating to me is that it is indigenous... and though the title suggests the film is about Knud, all the encounters, even the ones involving him, are presented from the viewpoint of the Inuit people rather than from the view point Knud. maybe this is obserational realism, but it has a very distinctive feel, and I am not sure what to call it.
Leslie Felperin says in the article quoted below,  "[The] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished "Atanarjuat," prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore. By contrast, Rasmussen feels more like a conventional anthropological pic with a docudrama veneer."
Film Reviews: Toronto: "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen"
Variety 404:8 (9 October 2006-15 October 2006), p. 73
I am not saying that you couldn't make an argument for this being a biopic, especially given the title, but Rasmussen disappears quickly from the film.  Usually, we watch biopic protagonists become the heroic figure in the film and this doesn't happen here. 

Even the fact that Rasmussen is of mixed heritage, and so the stories he chronicles are the stories of his own people, wouldn't be enough, I think, to make this a biopic.

The term observational realism is something that happens between the viewer and what is happening on screen.  So I don't think this term would apply in this context.


Journal Entry #5: The Classical Biopic Used Against Itself in Malcolm X

Can the classical biopic be used against itself? Can it mythologize radical, revolutionary, marginal figures?

Bingham tells us to look for the hero as an “the Idol of Production (or Consumption), ... the man who made things great for society...[the] visionaries who made the world better.” (Bingham, 6) But in Malcolm X, I see so many shades of a complex human being: a small boy wanting an education, a teen-ager performing in his zoot suits, a criminal, a figure promoting radical change, a pacifist. Even his name changes: Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, Malik Al-Shabazz? In any of these cases, he is not the classical biopic hero.

I have never really thought of the conventions of the biopic as prescribed by white Hollywood’s standard of who is a major figure and who is not. Nor have I paid close attention to Bingham’s title, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? and why or why not or they filmed. In the case of the usually mythologized hero I look for someone who made things great for society. In this film, I am uncomfortable, for the film jars me again and again with its 400 years of memories of racial discrimination. What is always in the viewers face is who has made life miserable for people transported against their will to America.

This is Spike Lee’s most conventional film. He uses it to document the way black people have been taught to hate themselves.

Malcolm X, is at the very least, an inversion of the goal of a classical biopic in the sense that the life of its hero could have been written into only the margins of history books.

Some pieces in the film stood out for me: the stylization of Malcolm’s mother, finally institutionalized, hiding in the corner of a snow white room; the parody of Malcolm and his friend walking down the streets, decked out, their arms swinging together in rhythm; the spiritual nature of the love interest with Betty Shabazz, the image of Shorty at the door / the faces of policemen behind him / and the phrase “the jigs up”.

Journal Entry #4: Ed Wood, a post modern biopic

How is Ed Wood a post modern biopic?

First of all, what is it that post-modern biopics do? What do they give us? Their goal is to make the viewer rethink conventions.

Post modern biopics parody the genre, are playful, full of pastiche and self-reflexivity. There is deconstruction going on, attention to performativity, subjectivity, stylization and intertexuality (ie the appearance of Vampira in the case of this film).

Specifically, in Ed Wood, the post modern biopic takes up the subject of the genre, that hero, that idol of consumption (or production) that we love to watch.

But Ed Wood has no talent. He is kind and good but always struggling. The last scene in the film where he gets an award is probably a dream-like revision of his life. Did he make a great film and then go out in the rain and propose to his wife? Probably not. For the film ends with a quote, multiple quotes, playfully tacked on to the movie to let us know how everyone ended up: Wood, specifically, in a descent into alcoholism.

How does Burton’s film mise-en scene parody the genre?

Parody, strictly speaking, is a mocking imitation of the genre and parody focuses on exposing tropes, ideologies, codes and conventions of the genre.
One of the ways the mise-en-scene parodies the genre is in scenes where Ed Wood is shooting his films. The sets are stylized, the whole set is exposed, and the place outside of the set where the rain is being created and that falls on the characters before they enter the door is also shown. In another scene one of the heavier characters falls into the wall and the whole set reverberates. As well, in the grave yard scene, one of the granite headstones falls over, apparently made of cardboard and not granite. When I was looking at the above parodies I was having to remind myself that there is another director outside of Ed Wood whose name is Tim Burton. I cannot see him. It is he who is making all of this hilarity for the viewer.

Another of the wonderful parodies on directing is Ed Wood telling people that the first cut is great and he presses on to the next scene. We have seen everything go wrong in creating the shoot, but those details seem unimportant as he claims to have a larger, over-reaching vision at work.

Journal Entry #3: Historical Reality of Biopic Subjects

Question: What is the central difference between the historical reality of Randolph Hurst’s life and the fiction of the life of Citizen Kane?

To answer this question is to first gather questions about Hurst, to discover the facts of his life: how he grew up, how he made his money, what kind of family life he had with his wife and children, what kind of social and political power he wielded. The curious should consider his social power. The elite came to dine at his table and waltz on his dance floor. The inquisitive would consider his political power. He was an elected official who did not tend his meetings. He controlled how news was written and what was considered news. The reality is that his power to control the media made him a force over which there were few other controls.

Powers ascribed to Kane are only those powers that can be ascribed to a piece of celluloid running past some white light. Kane was only an fleeting image on a screen. Light and darkness that was there and then gone. But the fear of that image being burned into the minds of theatre going Americans arrested Hurst in his tracks. The fiction and facts were interwoven, sometimes around Hurst’s mistress, and even Orson Welles agreed that the portrayal of Marion was unfair.

So there is the interesting paradox, the difference between the historical reality of Hurst and the fictional life of Kane. Hurst fought against the unfairness of the portrayal of Marion by using the media tools which he had used unfairly on others. And that essentially had been used by a director creating a fiction about Hurst.