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A Book and a Movie for These Cold Winter Nights

By Adhiraj Parthasarathy '14  |  february, 2013, Issue 1

As the full fury of winter finally descends upon Chicago, we review for winter reading Adam Gopnik's new book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season, and revisit a classic, forgotten documentary, Nanook of the North.

Gopnik's book, a series of five essays originally delivered as the CBC Massey Lectures creates a thing of great beauty by naming this new found modern love of winter, giving form and contour to the sensibility and, tracing its emergence through time. Densely packed with anecdotes, and drawing insights from fin-de-siècle art, politics and aesthetics it covers an enormous canvas, charting a new and unexplored dimension of Northern culture.

To be modern then, is to understand 'the season defined by absences of (warmth, leaf, blossoms) that can be imagined as stranger presences (of secrets, roots, hearths),' that in the bleakness and cruelty of the season is not only a sense of loss and death, but a fleeting glimpse of the sublime, an imagination tinged with awe and terror. It is to entertain the idea of winter as an act of witnessing.

A captivating and meditative celebration of the possibilities of winter though it is, the book, as Gopnik readily admits is but a homage to the idea, an ephemeral peek into the 'world of the safe window,' drenched in the warm comfort of a winter evening of 'intimate delights and fireside enjoyments.'

To move from the world of the modern witness to winter, to the world of the wanderer, that of the 'white wilderness outside [the window],' a world whose sheer sense of sublime terror, brutality and bleakness frames this new sensibility one needs to turn to a relic of another time Robert Flaherty's 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North.

An ethnographic documentary of the Inuit, that captures (unfaithfully) a dying nomadic existence in Arctic extremes, Nanook of the North brings alive the still, sad harshness and horror of winter, charting the never-ending struggle for survival of the Inuk hunter, Nanook played by Allakariallak and his family.

What follows is seventy-nine minutes of haunting black-and-white footage of lunar landscapes, walrus hunts, igloo-building and floating kayaks and a world whose desolation and bareness is beyond comprehension. Every second is a struggle against a cruel and tempestuous nature, which 'hurries us on with an irresistible force' that questions our place in its scheme.

To call the cinematography anything other than rudimentary and gritty, given the constraints of 1920s technology and a camera that literally froze in the cold, would be an overstatement. The movie is not helped by Flaherty's frequent digressions into slapstick humor, such as Nanook's interactions with the white man at a trading post or by its inability to overcome serious allegations that entire sequences were staged. What shine through though, despite obvious flaws and acres of floating ice, are its achingly beautiful evocation of winter, and the touching humanity of its subjects - wanderers in the wasteland of winter.

As we trudge through winter snows here in Chicago, it cannot but help to consider, as Gopnik suggests, that the special beauty is 'to imagine that the most soulful role is to be both wanderer and witness, and at the same time.'

Last Updated 2/10/13
Last Updated 2/10/13