In most commercial motion pictures, cinematography tends to be esteemed only in terms of a means to an end, as a portal through which to communicate a story. Even when a given film imparts a mild degree of style and subjectivity to its visual design, as in, say, last year’s A Beautiful Mind (to pinpoint one in a million), the functional significance of the camerawork does not present itself for any lucidly defined purpose, at least any purpose other than contributing interest to the events transpiring onscreen.
On frequent enough occasion, however, a film will literally tackle audiences’ unwary expectations with the shock of its overt photographic elegance, compelling them to examine what they’re watching more critically and more intently, to probe deeper in hopes of exposing some especially rewarding truths concealed behind the movie’s stylish gloss. In some, though not all, such instances, these sorts of films, literally reeking of depth and connotation, end up in afterthought generally looking much better than they really are. Several weeks ago, I contended that this was in fact the case with the laboriously “profound” pseudo-tragedy Road to Perdition, and I’ll admit that even some of my recent favorites, like Patrice Leconte’s Girl on the Bridge, haven’t held up to be quite as interesting or consequential as they were once capable of making me believe. Such is the deceptive allure of artful cinematography, persistently toiling to imply and call attention to a moral, psychological, or philosophical weight that may or may not actually exist beneath the surface. Of course, part of the challenge of critical moviegoing lies in judging the legitimacy of a film’s various visual mannerisms, in an effort to determine whether this or that “metaphor” or this or that “architectural motif” is justly worth its weight in solid celluloid.
Now forgive me for posing such a blasphemous suggestion, but the conclusion I’ve landed in this consideration is that sometimes cinematography can be received a bit too seriously to mean something important, or, for that matter, to mean anything at all. In this claim, I honestly mean to blame the filmmakers rather than the audience, for people like Sam Mendes are the ones ultimately responsible for infusing in their films that sense of silly, ersatz portentousness to which viewers are naturally impelled to respond.
This summer, though, we’re presented with an instructive opportunity to compare the grim, measured craft of a film like Road to Perdition with the life-affirming spontaneity eager for discovery in the burgeoning sleeper hit Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first motion picture shot in the Inuktitut language of the Inuit people of northern Canada. On the one hand, we find the legendary Conrad Hall’s indisputably dazzling, primly controlled compositions of somber, noirish tones of dun, gray, and black, careful to escort our gazes to some strategically positioned religious imagery every now and then just to keep our attentions on target. On the other hand, standing in total contrast, we find the coarse, unrefined, handheld field photography of the previously unheard-of Norman Cohn, capturing only stark whites in a vast and featureless but immeasurably more beautiful Arctic landscape.
Examining Perdition’s visuals, I’m driven to admit that when viewers (myself by no means excluded) get too caught up intellectualizing the implications of specific shots, they can sometimes lose sight of the value of great cinematography for invoking nothing more than impressions of time and place. This is the quality in Atanarjuat that will send your perceptions reeling as you settle yourself into its nearly three-hour duration. For the record, I’d have to insist that absolutely nothing in The Fast Runner appears to convey anything at all beyond literal value, and yet its raw and lumbering camerawork remains among this year’s most extraordinary feats of the medium. In fact, no other motion picture I’ve ever laid eyes on has provided so compelling a sensation of envelopment in its filmic reality. While his “fly-on-the-wall” shooting style is by no means revolutionary or even unique, Cohn’s camera cranes so far forward into the action, in a virtual disregard for the objectivity of the long shot, that it achieves an intimacy of character and location that could almost be described as claustrophobic in its intensity. If Atanarjuat is to be prized wholly on superficial terms, exclusively for which the film could still be deemed a masterpiece, we can at least declare that it delivers a full-bodied depiction of the Inuit experience, coming as close as possible to transporting the viewer’s consciousness to an alternate dimension of existence. For what it’s worth, I’ll opt for this any day over the sanctimonious fakery of another Oscar-hopeful Hollywood crime saga.
But aside from its standing as the most convincing testament to the potential of DV technology since Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Atanarjuat faces the challenge of articulating a 2000-year-old Inuit legend for the consumption of overseas audiences – no task to bat an eye at. Steeped in the gravity of oral tradition, the film’s chronicle of a deadly family rivalry may take its time taking shape (the story’s capacity for easy exposition suffers somewhat from the hazy, disorienting nature of the cramped shooting style), but once all the motives and dynamics arrive in sharp enough focus, the conflict ascends to speak to our collective moviegoing consciousness through the familiarity of its character archetypes and the universality of the human failings it aims to dissect. As plain as day, the Seven Deadly Sins are showcased in full array within the context of the searing tribal feud at the story’s core, ramifying into an inevitable termination in adultery, rape, exile, patricide, and what could accurately be described as conspiratorial, calculated assassination – in short, that juicy brand of thematic baggage tailored for selling tickets.
But rather than caving in beneath the burden of what could’ve easily exploded into grandiose, generic myth-making, The Fast Runner sails past any issues of trite moral relevance and steers head-on for an utterly unpretentious exploration of its characters’ psychology, their psychology as individuals, not necessarily as skewed through the filter of any “universal truths” that would offer convenient confirmation of this picture as a work of art. In effect, Atanarjuat reminds us that cinematic “universality” should not be blindly regarded as an end in and of itself, as if filmmakers are supposed to concern themselves with what their characters’ fates mean for the rest of humanity more than with what their fates actually mean for the characters themselves. Though viewers will undoubtedly recognize in this yarn the ingredients for yet another stock Shakespearean ethical quandary, the film’s most lasting achievement lies in its capacity to drag an audience’s meditations outside the “safe zone” of timeless allegory and into the horrendous, blisteringly real human tragedy at the core of what amounts to quite a unique little parable, hardly confined by its almost incidental bearing on our history as a species.
Still, it’s suitable to interpret this picture in some ways as a visualization of mythology, as more than an inkling of the supernatural hovers over the story’s framework even before our lead players begin to lock horns. The Fast Runner opens with a dash of rather matter-of-fact poetic realism by introducing its Inuit ancestry ensnared in the throes of an evil spirit’s curse (the dubious image of a cackling old man may not register as an “evil spirit” until the film’s equally mystical denouement), prompting an envy-ridden domestic coup that leaves the former chief Kumaglak dead and the egomaniacal Sauri donning his ruler’s symbolic necklace. A generation later, these tribal tensions reverberate in the scantily disguised antagonism between the volatile Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), Sauri’s son, and the distinguished huntsman Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), an offspring of one of Sauri’s original rivals. When this inbred hostility finally draws to a point in their contest for the maiden Atuat’s (Sylvia Ivalu) hand in marriage, Atanarjuat is soon forced to flee for his life at the threat of Oki’s brutal despotism.
The chase sequence that ensues, even as delivered without a hint of cinematic “pulse-pounding” embellishment, marks one of the most exhilarating spectacles of its kind ever seen, the Fast Runner witnessed striding stark naked across a harsh frozen desert a mere dozen feet ahead of his fur-clad assailants, vying for his life in an awe-inspiring paroxysm of animalistic instinct. If honored with the wide audience it deserves, the scene will be certain to prevail in our national memory for its incomparably vivid, yet stunningly simple tribute to the depth of human resilience. And whether or not I’m summoning a perversion of the film’s themes by saying so, I can’t resist concluding in this that running, as epitomized by Atanarjuat’s victory over Oki’s henchmen, is certainly the paramount expression of biological Darwinism, a literal, physical encapsulation of our inborn will for survival. “Running can save your life” may sound like a bland truism outside of this context, but here that survival-of-the-fittest cliché takes on a compelling new life, not in the morally irresponsible tenor of Social Darwinism, but in the plain sense of exalting pure physicality for its own sake (which happens to come off as a valid point when reflected against the state of the lazy and complacent American lifestyle of the 21st century). Atanarjuat is vested with the capacity to eventually “save the day,” so to speak, not because he happens to possess some uncanny superpowers, but because he lives up to his local acclaim as a Fast Runner, an unexaggerated epithet that means nothing more than precisely what it indicates. In the end, then, sheer physiological prowess triumphs in the name of preservation of one’s ancestral values.
(Suffice it to say, however, that Atanarjuat finally exerts dominance over his tribe by means of some inventive deception and intimidation strategies rather than the same old cathartic bloodletting evidenced in revenge westerns like Road to Perdition. The Fast Runner’s peremptory last word in the conflict, “The killing ends here!” is probably a more telling proclamation than we initially perceive it to be, at least in light of our traditional expectations of an-eye-for-an-eye finality within the perspective of melodramatic stories like these. Whereas Michael Sullivan remains something of a posable action figure imprisoned in the old Greek-tragedy cliché of inexorable self-damnation, Atanarjuat registers as a noble, fascinating hero whose personal judgments and resolutions ignite a multitude of compelling questions and concerns for our national moral consciousness in this third millennium A.D. – I shouldn’t bother drawing any 9-11 parallels because, after all, most of them should be pretty self-evident anyway.)
Thanks in part to the photography and unhurried editing, most of Paul Apak Angilirq’s discursive screenplay unfolds at enough of a steady, naturalistic pace to lend it the weight of authenticity. Consequently, critics have been quick to warn the public that the picture’s formidable running time doesn’t exactly “race by,” according to the conventional denotation of the word “race,” but any reasonable moviegoer determined enough to pursue a screening of this film is likely to discover that these disclaimers are fairly unwarranted. Unlike 2001’s four-hour-long Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan, Atanarjuat isn’t exactly brimming with sensationalism from scene to scene, as if working up a sweat to assuage our impatience, but the realism with which its characters are so lovingly tempered ends up entrancing enough all on its own terms. Simply put, if reassurance should even be necessary, The Fast Runner seldom comes across as a subjectively prolonged film – in a way, it’s even somewhat hypnotic.
As it turns out, the modest performances generally prove crucial in sustaining all this unanticipated interest, partially bolstered by the sensation that we are not in fact watching a movie, but rather a miraculously, inexplicably incarnated “found art” document of the lives of real human beings. Ungalaaq, Ivalu, Arnatsiaq, and the rest of the mostly nonprofessional cast somehow manage to convey a dimensionality in their rather economically defined roles without the scantest trace of histrionic affectation or self-consciousness, bridging the gap between “performer” and “performance” simply through the force of their cultural affinity for the material. Without doubt, it is not simply the unfamiliarity of their faces that blinds us to their identity as actors: their work seems almost magically inspired toward an ideal, wholly natural and unassuming grace by their evidently very deep confidence in the resonance of this story, in terms of both its validation of Inuit history and its rich affirmation of the edifying grandeur of the cinematic art in general. These “actors” indeed achieve such an astonishing verisimilitude that I almost do them an injustice by calling so much attention to their success, as their success lies in their capacity to call so little attention to themselves in the first place.
Later, however, this illusion is at last undercut brilliantly by what may perhaps be the single most appropriate and perspicaciously implemented outtake sequence in movie history (second only to Abbas Kiarostami’s DV-photographed denouement for Taste of Cherry, to which it is surely comparable): as the credits roll by, we’re graced with a few jarring glimpses of the so-called “Atanarjuat” and company decked out in brand-label clothing, situated next to DV cams, cell phones, and other various and sundry 21st-century paraphernalia as if they were all indeed modern North American citizens just like the rest of us. Oddly, it takes a forcible effort of will to admit to oneself that they actually are. In effect, this benevolent bonus tidbit helps to engender a stronger intimacy between viewer and filmmaker (as Kiarostami has sought throughout his entire career) and even additionally underscores the contemporary consequence and urgency of what we’ve just seen. The psychological significance of these flimsy scraps of field footage may be easy to underestimate at first, but one can imagine Atanarjuat feeling vaguely incomplete without them available to bid us their generous farewell.
Also, these outtakes finally dispel from our minds once and for all any notion of this production as a utilitarian anthropological document in the tradition of Eric Valli’s Himalaya. Accordingly, Atanarjuat further proves admirable in that its story, as culturally immersive as it is, doesn’t really pander to the petty ethnographic fascination espoused by a few too many arthouse patrons of our day. This is by no means a Discovery-channel field trip meant to solicit our marvel and condescending admiration for “those interesting Eskimo people,” at least not in the sense in which, one month ago, My Big Fat Greek Wedding childishly admonished us to appreciate the virtues of foreign cultures, as if we’d be thunderstruck by the originality of the assertion (yes, ethnically diverse indie productions can indeed be just as trashy, facile and inane as the worst of modern Hollywood). Rather than distancing us from their humanity and fencing them off as inviolable “noble savages,” the filmmakers deliver a lucid and often unflattering portrait of what appears to be a real Inuit community, fraught with real personal foibles and real social predicaments that could potentially hurtle their very culture toward the threat of self-annihilation.
And speaking of noble savages, that dusty old literary idiom happens to call to mind an idea of Atanarjuat as an artwork on equal footing with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the comparison may not in fact be wholly unjustified. Like Golding’s novel, this production can be quite appropriately assessed in terms of a humanist “thought experiment,” an examination of a proposed scenario in which an almost completely isolated population of human beings is forced to rely on its own cohesiveness for survival (in this case, however, the circumstances exist in the dimension of severe reality rather than a contrived scholarly fantasy). Trapped in their inhospitable climes, hopelessly codependent on the family unit, relying on individual discipline as their vital structural backbone, these natives nonetheless prove touchingly vulnerable to human nature – even with their very lives hanging in the balance of their self-possession, they’re still no match for their own festering, overheated passions, which may even be amplified by the absence of an external overriding social order to keep their impulses in check. So if we approach the collision of egos underlying Oki and Atanarjuat’s opposition as a sort of microcosm of international warfare, what can we actually say about the stability of our own global community? To observe Atanarjuat and his family teetering on the brink of their secluded apocalypse is to confront a spine-chilling recognition of our nations’ multicultural codependence, coupled with the bleak realization that the extermination of a common enemy, however insidious, may only serve to uproot a population’s social unison rather than purify it. So it seems reasonable to assume that, in light of the year 2002’s tempestuous diplomatic climate, Atanarjuat is perhaps a more politically galvanized motion picture than it seems to consciously admit.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
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