Two words:  Inuit porn.

That’s not a knock on Nanook of the North.  Or pornography, for that matter.  I’m admittedly a  conflicted admirer of porn — with the caveats that it be consensual and non-exploitative.  (Also, it helps when the performers actually look as if they’re enjoying themselves.  Nanook, for instance, stares directly into the camera, grinning as he chomps down on raw walrus meat.)

But let me explain my analogy of Nanook and porn:  long before the short-attention-span-friendly fragments of disembodied body parts littering the Internet, full-length ‘adult’ videos oftentimes were preceded with the ridiculous disclaimer that the film was for education purposes.  And while I’ve learned certain things from porn (for instance:  how to react when the pool boy approaches, the proper way to tip the pizza delivery man, what really happens in automotive garages), the educational gloss is merely an excuse to make entertainment seem respectable.

And so, one could approach Nanook of the North as an ethnographic examination — look at how much I’ve learned about igloo construction — or as entertainment.  Or even both simultaneously.  Whereas most porn producers know their work is only nominally educational, Robert Flaherty did intend Nanook to be instructive.  The fact it’s also entertaining speaks to its value beyond the appearance of two sets of Eskimo boobs.

My Nanook-porn association continues into Flaherty’s method.  Though he’s acknowledged as a progenitor of documentary film, Flaherty filmed Nanook in a way that doesn’t necessarily fall under the category as we understand it today.  Flaherty, after a previous failed attempt to make a movie of Eskimos in their natural habitat, returned to Hudson Bay to re-stage the film.  So while it has the appearance of ‘real life,’ there’s an admitted artificiality to Nanook.  (Its subtitle, A story of life and love in the actual Arctic, emphasizes the constructed, narrative dimension.)  Compare this to subcategory of “gonzo” pornography — a form that purports to be ‘real life’ but is as artificial as, uh, the other kind.

One aspect of the film bothered me, however (and this reveals a personal squeamishness more than an inherent flaw in the film):  the butchering of animals on-screen.  And this comes from someone who’s watched both Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust (albeit with my fingers laced in front of my eyes during the animal-death scenes).  With Nanook, the animals are pre-deceased when they’re flayed, though that doesn’t make it easier to watch.  This is why I’m not a hunter.  This is also why I’d classify the two Cannibal films exploitative, and Nanook not.

I admit, analogizing Nanook to the North to pornography probably reaches too far, so here, I reformulate my critique in a more family-friendly way:  Nanook of the North shows man’s indomitable spirit against the forces of nature.  (This, of course, could also describe my attempts to watch a midnight showing of Birdemic:  Shock and Terror, as I wandered the streets of Center City Philadelphia, dodging the ladies in short skirts and knee-high boots — blubbery seals waiting to be harpooned.)