Factual Lies: My Thoughts on Nanook of the North

We’re pleased to welcome a guest blog post from Nathaniel Sutton. He’s currently a film student at Cal State Northridge, an intern at Flicker Alley, and, not to mention, a film fanatic.

It is my senior year of college, and I am a film major, and immense film buff. This area of study mainly consists of production work, but occasionally I revel in the chance to study film theory. Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to enter Documentary Tradition 416, and learn about a genre that is somewhat foreign to me. My first day of class however, I looked upon the syllabus to discover our first film is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. I mean, how can you study film and not have at least heard of this movie? The first true documentary ever presented to the public. A film of wonder, heart, substance, adventure, and mystery. It really is a classic and I expected a class of thirty devoted film fanatics like myself to feel the same way. But then the professor asked the question that is normally asked before any screening, “Has anyone seen this?” I, of course, raise my hand, then foolishly look behind me to see that I was a man alone. Not one student had viewed this masterpiece of first achievements. Then the professor asked me a question that does not normally get asked before a screening, and one that still has me scratching my head: “Why?” Why have I seen this film? Really? We are sitting in a class about the history and art of the documentary film and you ask me why I’ve seen it? The only answer I could think of in a moment’s notice was, “I was interested?”


Nanook and his igloo

She plays the film, and surprisingly the class enjoys it, though they could feel the forced nature of some scenes, but that is to be expected. Technically, it’s what the film thrives on. But I still couldn’t get over the professor’s preposterous question. Or was it preposterous? What is it about this film that drew me in? And why would I revisit it again? These questions filter down to a single, simple conundrum: What is it about Nanook of the North that we enjoy? I think it has to do with its connection to our own lives and families. The family we witness on screen may be of a different continent, culture and way of life, but within that framework remain fundamentals that anyone can see reflected in their own experience. Stripped to its core, this family cares, loves, travels, feasts, entertains, and provides for one another. Hints of our more average existence are cleverly woven into the story-line, all thanks to the genius of Robert J. Flaherty. This is one of the main reasons the film is so successful. We see fascinating, foreign images, yet deep inside, Nanook’s family is not so different from my own. A father builds a house for his family, he provides them with food, he teaches and prepares his young. All the same stories of our lives, just set in the endless tundra of the far north.


Hunting in the Arctic

Yet this film provides us with as many lies as it does heart. We have all heard the stories, but for those who haven’t, here is a refresher: the original film Flaherty set out to make was destroyed in an accidental fire, forcing the filmmaker to practically start from scratch, but with the intent to persuade and entertain. Flaherty would do anything, even put his subjects in harm’s way, in order to tell his story. But Nanook would always go along with it, for he was equally as invested in the film. Many of the scenes and actions were staged including the notably famous igloo scene, which had to be built twice its normal size in order to secure the camera and equipment. These staged events and structural lies that the film presents us with, take away from the documentary feel, yet ultimately create the classic text we know today. The filmmaker is always at the helm when producing a product, whether it is fact or fiction, and therein lies the brilliance of Flaherty. He was one of the first to realize that so-called factual events could indeed be edited like the popular fiction films of the time. With that in mind, he created great moments of tenderness and suspense when perhaps, in reality, there were none.

This and many other reasons (the barter scene, the walrus hunt, etc.) are why I immensely enjoy this film. But, to pinpoint why I watched it in the first place? I would say my first answer would be just as good as any: I was interested. In fact I still am, with every new viewing, whether in front of a classroom of thirty, or sitting on my couch in the dark. I am always engaged by Flaherty’s beautiful lies.

Thanks so much, Nate! Nanook of the North (plus The Wedding of Palo & other films of Arctic life) is available in a 2-Disc Blu-ray Deluxe Edition.

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SILENT SALON – A Summer of Silent Comedies

linderOn a beautiful late July evening, Flicker Alley had the great privilege of attending Silent Salon, a showcase of silent comedies co-presented by Villa Aurora Los Angeles and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. All four screenings in the series are held at Villa Aurora, an artists residence in Pacific Palisades.

Nestled on top of a hill with charming Spanish-style architecture, it feels like you are stepping into a new world or a different era upon entering the Villa, thus, somehow rendering it a perfect spot to enjoy silent cinema.

Villa Aurora - Pacific Palisades, CA

Villa Aurora – Los Angeles, CA

The July 27 program featured films starring Max Linder, the French comedian who  influenced Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton.  He starred in numerous Pre-World War I comedies as ‘Max,’ a mustached, top-hatted dandy.  In 1912, Linder was the highest paid film star in the world, and it is not hard to see how he achieved this feat once you see him on the big screen. His charmistatic persona shone in the films we watched, including ‘Max Takes a Picture’ (1913), ‘Love’s Surprises’ (1915), ‘Troubles of a Glass Widower’ (1912), and ‘Max Sets the Style’ (1914). We especially enjoyed the excerpt from ‘Be My Wife’ (1921), in which Linder stages an elaborate, fake fight with himself to appear like a valient hero to his object of affection and her miserly aunt. To top it off, Dean Mora’s live accompaniment on the Villa’s newly restored pipe organ was a delightful treat.

Max Linder

Max Linder

Don’t fret if you missed this wonderful program of Linder films — there are two upcoming Silent Salon screenings. The program on August 10 will show four comedies starring Harold Lloyd. The final program of the summer is on August 24 and will feature four early Keystone comedies starring Charlie Chaplin. Don’t miss these very special events! And bring a blanket and picnic to enjoy in the gardens before the projector gets rolling!

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INSIDE THE VAULTS: A Tour of Los Angeles’ Leading Independent Film Archive

Last Monday Flicker Alley was lucky enough to be invited for the 10th anniversary of The Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study.  An archive so huge the house enough film to wrap around the world one-and-a-half times (about 250 million tons!).

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is investing $45 million over the next ten years to fund this historic endeavor.  They’ve even opened up rooms to store and protect historical film relics, such as Harpo Marx’s props, which are currently on display outside the Linwood Dunn Theatre, located in The Pickford Center.

The Academy demonstrated some of the latest technologies The Academy is developing, such as LED lights that mimic the warm color temperatures of the much coveted incandescent lights in order to reduce film productions’ energy consumption or a new system to catalog colors for digital video in order to replicate the colors correctly.

The tour was wrapped up with the screening of A NEW YORK HAT (directed by D.W. Griffith, starring Mary Pickford and Charles Hill Mailes, 1912) and THE MARK OF ZORRO (directed by Fred Niblo, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite de la Motte, 1920) the original Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler film that inspired the creation of Bob Kane’s Batman.  The very talented Michael Mortilla played the musical accompaniment, which enhanced this recently preserved film (courtesy of the Academy Film Archive and Film Preservation Associates).  After seeing this remarkable film fully restored you can see acting, action scenes and humor that separated Douglas Fairbanks from even the best of films of the time.

Interested in seeing more by Douglas Fairbanks?  We thought so ;-).  Click here for one of the greatest selections of Douglas Fairbanks films: DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS COLLECTION

One of the most exciting endeavors, at least according to us at Flicker Alley, is the construction of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.  The museum, which will be located in the iconic Wilshire May Company on the corner of Wilshire Blvd & Fairfax Ave in Los Angeles, will be the largest film museum in the world and dedicated to show the history of this most influential art form.  You can find more information in the Academy’s pdf booklet here.

Thanks to those at The Academy who made this happen, Randy Habercamp, Michael Pogorzelski, Robert Reneau, Joe Lindner, May Haduong, Melissa Levesque, Daniel Brantley, Johnathan Harris, Heather Linville, Brian Drischell, and everyone else at the Academy Film Archive who made this possible.

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Why So Serious? How Cinerama’s Smilebox

Why So Serious? How Cinerama’s Smilebox Came to Be http://wp.me/p1Nbsh-bj

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Why So Serious? How Cinerama’s Smilebox Came to Be

This Is Cinerama - Blu Ray CoverWith the upcoming release of THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER we’ve been having some interest about the process that mimics Cinerama’s famous curved screen called Smilebox.  Here’s a brief description of the process from Dave Strohmaier, the director of Cinerama Adventure:


By Dave Strohmaier, director of Cinerama Adventure

One of the things we wanted to do in these Cinerama releases was to show people how different/special the Cinerama experience was, as one would have to be about 45+years old to have seen it. Many young people would simply laugh at a letterboxed image of the three panels on the screen saying “what’s so special about this, where is this curve you keep talking about” and I would not blame them.

So we had award winning 3D graphics experts, digital engineers, Oscar winning cinematographers, film historians you name it get involve with creating a “look” that we could use for the Cinerama shots in our Cinerama remasterings. We wanted this effect/treatment to be what people saw back then, although admittedly not from the first 10 rows, as most people didn’t see it from those rows anyway, those were the $3.00+ seats. After about two months of testing, and trying several things, including projecting the original 3 panel Cinerama focus charts on the Seattle Cinerama 146 degree screen checking for horizontal and vertical distortions, we came up with the SmileBox process. We needed to take full advantage of the standard HD 16 x 9 frame and fill it edge to edge and yet have a 146 degree effect that would approximate what people saw in Cinerama theaters. Yes it has its limitations, but within these limitations we do feel we have succeeded. I believe that Smilebox will approximate a Cinerama effect on flat 16 x 9 screens.

Sure Smilebox may not be for everyone but due to the response we have gotten for the Cinerama Adventure documentary most all people will enjoy it.  I consider myself a bit of a perfectionist and believe me I have seen Cinerama from every seat in the house (front, side and back row) at all 3 existing Cinerama  theaters, Seattle, Bradford Media Museum,UK, and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and Smilebox will approximate a Cinerama effect on flat 16 x 9 screens.

SmileBox LogoDave Strohmaier

Producer, Director, Editor, Cinerama Adventure


In preparing these editions for home video, we here at Flicker Alley worked with the Smilebox footage extensively and can tell you that, without such a process, the experience of watching a Cinerama film at home would be lost.  You can find your copies of THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER at http://flickeralley.com

Cinerama LogoAlso, for those of you near Los Angeles don’t forget to check out Cinerama’s 60th Anniversary celebration where they’ll be screening THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER, along with other Cinerama titles at the Arclight Cinerama Dome from Sept 28th through Oct 4th.  More details can be found at http://www.in70mm.com/news/2012/cinerama_dome/index.htm

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Flicker Alley and Cinerama Inc. invite you to experience THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER in their world home video premieres!

Release Date: September 25, 2012 

Flicker Alley and Cinerama Inc. are pleased to announce the home video digital premieres of This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958). Both films will be released in 60th Anniversary Combo Blu-ray/DVD editions, each loaded with special bonus features, in conjunction with Cinerama’s 60th anniversary celebrations coming up in September. These two widescreen films will be presented in the “SmileBox” curved screen simulation and will have a S.R.P. of $39.95


This Is Cinerama / 1952 / 127 minutes / US / Directed by Robert L Bendick /

A Lowell Thomas and Merian C. Cooper Cinerama Presentation

UPC: 6-17311-67749-6  //  ISBN: 1-893967-74-3

On the evening of September 30, 1952, the shape and sound of movies changed forever with the introduction of Cinerama. This unique widescreen process was launched when television was deemed a major threat to US film exhibition. Fred Waller, Cinerama’s creator, had indeed labored that long on his dream of a motion picture experience that would recreate the full range of human vision. It used three cameras and three projectors on a curved screen 146° deep.

 In celebration of the 60th Anniversary of its premiere, Flicker Alley is proud to present THIS IS CINERAMA, exactly as seen by over 20,000,000 viewers in its original roadshow version. You will travel around the world with Cinerama, from Venice to Madrid, from Edinburgh Castle to the La Scala opera house in Milan, and concluding with a flight across America in the nose of a B-25 bomber.

Bonus Features:

Audio commentary track – With John Sittig (Cinerama, Inc.), Dave Strohmaier (Cinerama Historian), Randy Gitsch (Locations background), and Jim Morrison (original crew member).

Remastering A Widescreen Classic – 19 minutes / Before and after demonstrations on the film’s remastering process.

The THIS IS CINERAMA “Breakdown Reel” –  B&W / 9 minutes – Footage originally projected interstitially during the interruptions of any Cinerama performance.

Alternate Act II European Opening – Color / 2 minutes

Fred Waller Radio Interview – 15 minutes / A slideshow featuring an original 1952 radio interview with Fred Waller on the eve of opening night.

THIS IS CINERAMA Trailer – 3 minutes / A new recreation in HD of the film’s trailer.

TV Spots – THIS IS CINERAMA and 7 WONDERS OF THE WORLD – One minute each.

Tribute to New Neon Movies – 15 minutes / A short film celebrating the Cinerama revival in Dayton, OH from 1996 to1999, where a local projectionist set up Cinerama for special screenings to people from all over the country.

Tribute to New Cooper Theatre – 4 minutes / Remembering the first Super Cinerama in Denver, CO.

THIS IS CINERAMA Behind The Scenes Slideshow – 6 minutes / Featuring images from the production and original exhibition of the film.

Promotion and Publicity Image Gallery


Louis Rochemont’s Cinemiracle Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich / 1958 /

142 minutes / Norway/US / Directed by Louis de Rochemont III and Bill Colleran

UPC: 6-17311-67759-5  // ISBN: 1-893967-75-1

Come onboard the magnificent Norwegian square-rigger as it sails its spectacular 17,000 mile journey, manned by a crew of young sailors-in-training, all photographed in the widescreen splendor of Cinemiracle, Cinerama’s only true competitor to thrill 1950’s audiences by sheer size and clarity.

Now digitally remastered, the color, the music, the true artistry of this classic is reborn. Embarking from Oslo, Norway, the ship sets out across the Atlantic with storm-tossed stops in Madeira, where New Year’s festivities entice the young crewman to enjoy Portuguese musical celebrations and heart racing rides in basket sleds down steep cobblestone streets. After that, it is on to Willemstad, Curacao, where the boys take part in Dutch festivities. They catch a courtyard performance of Pablo Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, they’re greeted by native steel bands and Calypso singers. By the time they arrive in New York, the Cinemiracle cameras offer a kaleidoscopic treat of color and sound. An encounter with the U.S. Navy Task Force makes for a grand promenade of ships, including a gigantic aircraft carrier.   Underwater shots of frogmen and a submerged submarine are thrilling, and when the sub emerges from the depths to reveal the Windjammer, Cinemiracle becomes the star of this breathtaking story. Morton Gould’s top-notch score, along with a fine variety of music throughout the picture, sounds perfect in Cinemiracle’s 7-channel sound recording. Seen digitally, the film hasn’t looked and sounded as good since its original theatrical engagements, over 50 years ago.

Bonus Features:

The WINDJAMMER Voyage: A Cinemiracle Adventure  – 2012 / A new documentary on the film’s original production – 56 minutes.

WINDJAMMER Gets A “Facelift” featuring before and after demos on the film’s remastering – 14 minutes.

The WINDJAMMER Breakdown Reel – 14 minutes

The Christian Radich Today at the Aalbourg Denmark Tall Ships Festival 2010 – 7 minutes

WINDJAMMER Trailer – 3 minutes / New recreation from the original 1958 release trailer.

WINDJAMMER Behind The Scenes Slideshow – 9 minutes / Featuring images of the production, the original exhibition, and original publicity of the film.

Cinemiracle Booklet Image Gallery: Facsimile of an original WINDJAMMER  Cinemiracle booklet.

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Abel Gance Triumphs in 2012

Napoleon, Kevin Brownlow, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival have been prominent on the cultural radar during the last few weeks, from features in the NYTimes and Wall Street Journal to countless blog posts [The Daily Mirror; Smithsonian’s Reel Culture] and mentions on Twitter  [check out feeds from @SilentRobert; @LB_Society; @silenttoronto], and for very good reason. Kevin Brownlow’s latest and most complete restoration of Abel Gance’s 1926 film Napoleon will be playing four times (March 24, 25, 31 and April 1) presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The epic 5 1/2 hour film will be presented with a musical score by Carl Davis,  performed live by the Oakland East Bay Symphony at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. These presentations are being lauded as ‘a once in a lifetime cinematic event.’

The team here at Flicker Alley is based in Los Angeles, so we’re lucky that we only have to drive about 6 1/2 hours or fly for less than an hour to get to Oakland! We’re trying to contain our excitement and not gloat too much because this week Silent London reminded us that not everyone, of course, will be able to attend one of the performances. In their wonderful (and very consoling) blog post entitled “How to beat the Napoleon blues,” Silent London lists five alternative ways of celebrating the legacy of Abel Gance. Number 4  on their list is to beef up on Gance’s filmography and watch his earlier films, J’Accuse (1919) and La Roue (1922) – both available on DVD from Flicker Alley!  Both titles are also available for streaming through one of our digital distribution partners, Fandor.  Additionally, La Roue will be airing on TCM on Sunday March 25,  and J’Accuse aired last Sunday.

Filming "J'Accuse" on location. From left to right: Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

We think this suggestion is not only good for those who are beating the blues, but also for those who want to get pumped even more before making it to one of the screenings. In watching these two earlier works, viewers will be able to trace Gance’s thematic and stylistic characteristics that come full-circle in his masterpiece Napoleon. For example, the virtuoso, rapid cutting famous in Napoleon can be directly traced through J’Accuse and La Roue. In the booklet essay “Waste of War” published in Flicker Alley’s release of the J’Accuse, Kevin Brownlow writes:

“Viewing J’Accuse again, I can see that Gance had not quite perfected his technique. The first half of   the film is edited rather awkwardly – not helped by frequent pos-cuts (damaged film repaired in an arbitrary fashion which tends to look like a bad cut). But, in the second and third parts, he reveals some of the mastery he would display in La Roue and Napoléon. It is exciting to chart the progress of genius taking place before your eyes.”

Brownlow goes on to say that even though J’Accuse is not as masterful as his later work, it was technically and rhetorically more advanced than any other French film in 1919.

François (Séverin-Mars) and Edith (Marise Dauvray) in J'Accuse

After the success of J’Accuse, Gance spent three years making his next epic: La Roue, the story of a locomotive engineer who saves Norma, an infant girl, from a train wreck and raises her as his adopted daughter. Like Napoleon, both La Roue and J’Accuse became sourcebooks for cinematic invention. Flicker Alley’s publication of La Roue features an essay by film historian William M. Drew, in which he  describes how Gance’s use of rapid montage influenced scores of  silent filmmakers including Clair, l’Herbier, Epstein, Dulac, Bernard, Feyder, Duvivier, Renoir. Gance’s editing style even had influence beyond the silent era. Drew writes:

“The rhythmic editing of La Roue shaped Renoir’s La Bête humaine, a 1938 film about railway workers. In the 1950s, François Truffaut and other directors of the nouvelle vague developed their approaches to cinema through exposure to the revivals of silent films, including those of Abel Gance, at the Cinemathèque Française.”

Séverin-Mars as Sisif in "La Roue"

La Roue, much like Napoleon, is a lengthy film – clocking in at 4 1/2 hours. The full version of La Roue was first exhibited at the Gaumont-Palace in 1922 and then throughout France in 1923. When it came to showing the film outside of France, distributors requested a shorter version that could be shown in a single screening. Gance obliged them in 1924 by cutting La Roue from 32 to 12 reels, and it traveled the world in this truncated form. However, Gance had no control in the English-speaking world. In 1925, British distributors slashed La Roue down to 7, 500 feet – 7 0r 8 reels. Much of the film’s power was lost, and even the hero’s final death scene was omitted. Thus, British critics and audiences were not so enthusiastic about the film. According to Drew, this resulting crticial disaster perhaps explains why it never reached theaters in the United States. Napoleon faced similiar ‘shreddings.’ MGM drastically cut Napoleon in 1928 for its American release.

Thanks to the dedication of historians, archivists, and cinephiles J’Accuse, La Roue, and Napoleon are now reaching audiences, either on the big screen or on home video, in ways that emulate their original presentations and respect the artistry of Abel Gance.

For those of you attending one (or more) of these four historic performances, we wish you safe travels and enjoy the Polyvision! And for those who are unable to make the trek, we hope you can celebrate Abel Gance in your own way and take solace in knowing that in 2012 a silent film is the hottest ticket in the world!

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