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Table of contents

They had warmed my feet when they were cold, lit my cigarettes when my hands were too numb to do it myself; they had taken care of me on three or four expeditions over a period of eight years. My work had been built up along with them; I couldn't have done anything without them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships. Flaherty has for some time enjoyed a reputation as the prototypical independent film artist.

Robert J. Flaherty

The importance of the word "independent" cannot be overly stressed when one compares film to other media. The technology and cost of producing most films cause the filmmaker to have to effect some sort of working relationship with commerce in a way that marks and separates him from other artists except video makers who are even more tied to the commercial broadcast industry.

Until the recent years of foundation and government support, the filmmaker had only three places to go: the commercial film industry; wealthy patrons who seldom saw film as an "art" worth supporting ; and companies which might be cajoled into thinking that backing a film could be both profitable and good public relations. When Flaherty convinced Revillon Freres that producing Nanook would be worthwhile, he started the tradition of companies supporting the independent film artist. As a consequence of the confluence of circumstances and his ability to be an excellent advertisement for himself, Flaherty is regarded as a paragon of artistic virtue and integrity-admired for his unswerving commitment to his own artistic values-someone unseducible by the money sirens of Hollywood.


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Flaherty was the object of awe and reverence among the Hollywood and New York commercial, intellectual, and artistic circles. Actor-director John Houseman whose own career spans from Citizen Kane to The Paper Chase once wrote about Flaherty: "It is the measure of his greatness that after a quarter of a century Flaherty's myth is today more valid, more universal, and more significant than ever before. And it is no wonder. For it is rooted in love. And what it tells is a story of the innate decency and fortitude and invincibility of the human spirit. It could be argued that if Flaherty didn't exist, Hollywood and New York would have had to invent him, They needed a figure to point to as someone who had sufficient artistic integrity to resist the financial temptations of the commercial film establishment.

In his. New Yorker profile of Flaherty written in , Robert Lewis Taylor introduced Flaherty to that magazine's sophisticated readership:. His life to date has been a brilliant demonstration of the axiom Thai art doesn't pay From time to time he has been mixed up briefly in the production of a few other films, withdrawing in most cases after some truly memorable wrangles over commercialism vs.

Though unopposed to earning an honest dollar, Flaherty was, and is today repelled by the gross taint of commercialism; ignoring the Hollywood moneypots, he searched for a private patron.

Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty. – Sigla Books

Flaherty's case, with its slights, rebuffs, hardships. And general lack of rewards, illustrates the depressing battle that faces an artist relentlessly dedicated to raising the standard of a new cultural medium [emphasis added]. Flaherty was accepted among the East Coast artistic and intellectual circles and in Hollywood as America's native son in a world of art film dominated by Italian Neo-Realism and the newly discovered Russians like Eisenstein.

It must have made it easier for these people, who were convinced that all culture and art came across the Atlantic, to accept the vulgar American Flaherty as their own home-grown genius when they discovered that Serge Eisenstein, the Russian producer, said, "We Russians learned more from 'Nanook of the North' than from any other foreign film. We wore it out studying it.

That was, in a way, our beginning. There is, of course, some substance to the image. In virtually every case the relationship was mutually unsatisfying.

1922: How Robert Flaherty Invented the modern documentary.

He went over budget almost every time. He even walked out of several productions due to disputes with the management. Now, depending upon one's point of view, either these were the actions of an artist who could not and should not have been burdened by the limitations of a commercial industry, or they were the unjustifiable actions of an unreasonable and undisciplined prima donna. The eye of the beholder is undoubtedly the crucial factor in this case. In addition, there are the problems faced by the filmmaker who wishes to make a living from his films but who needs or wishes to remain outside of the commercial industry.

Ail of these tensions and problems are to be found within the career of Robert Flaherty. His solution is instructive. In order to understand Flaherty's choices in these matters, one has first to contextualize them in the world of film during the formative period of Flaherty's career There were virtually no non-theatrical film outlets of any consequence.

A handful of people made a living making travelogues. There were a smattering of screenings in schools, churches, union halls, and a few nascent film societies. However, ninety-nine percent of the funds and activities were to be found in the commercial theatrical world. This situation remained virtually unchanged until the s, when film societies such as Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 and The Museum of Modern Art in New York began to create alternative outlets for films.

It is quite clear that Flaherty was torn between his need to make a living, the attraction of big money and its promise of future projects, his desire to have his work seen, and other less commercial interests. Let me illustrate the ambivalence with some excerpts from Frances's diary from the period when they were trying to sell the first footage and finance additional film expeditions.

I cite the quotations in chronological order, since they speak quite well for themselves. December 21, It was Mr. Currely sic , curator of the Royal Ontario Museum. He has come in through a dark passage into a most interesting high studded room all wood paneled with a great open fire.

The Innocent Eye- The Life of Robert J. Flaherty

After introducing his wife he immediately launched on the subject of the moving pictures and his plan to show them at Convocation Hall under the auspices of the University Archaeological Institute of America and with wide circulation of invitations and advertising something that would give them a good send off. Currelly did arrange a screening of the film. They are much the best I have ever seen I have never known anything received with greater enthusiasm.

February 7 The real intrinsic value of the pictures is of course scientific ethnological and geographical and the real place is with the schools and universities and scientific societies. I am not at all sure but that they should be exploited from that point of view alone. Someone might well make it a life work. Why not we? Grosvenor brother of the head of the National Geographic for possible light on the moving picture game.

Finally reached him by telephone: How would we get our film before the marker for open competitive bids? Suggested making arrangements with some.

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Suggested also writing to Sir Douglas Mavson who was in "touch" with the N. This was far under R's own calculations and much figuring did we do. Sir William MacKenzie was willing to fund another expedition, this time with an emphasis upon filming more than exploring. At the time of this next entry, Robert is apparently not certain of MacKenzie's support.

May 16, Toronto-R. Wired to N.

William MacKenzie gave R. He seems keen about the moving pictures, holding onto them like a leech. I have given up the fight for the pictures on R's account: I was for basing his whole future on them, wrenching them free of Sir Bill somehow, and developing them by and for ourselves, gradually weaning ourselves away from this slavery to salary, MacKenzie and Mann, or anybody else; make the pictures pay for future expeditions of our own.

But Sir Wm.

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Judge of his appreciation of R's work when he didn't even know it was R. McCord, Sec'y. Priest, Esq. Our old acquaintance, Mr. Hendricks has nothing to do with it: he fell down as Mr. I had a talk with him yesterday morning in Boston at his office-a neat and unpretentious affair, the office. His talk was straight forward and straight out, and I couldn't help admiring the stick-to-it-tivness that after four months fooling with the picture corporations, and four more months wasted over Hendricks, kept him at it until he had formed a company of his own to handle his film and others like it on lines entirely outside the main movie system.

With the movies it's all drama this year. Was much interested in that notice for the reason that Mr. I found Mr. B on that occasion in the act of getting on his overcoat to catch a train to Phila and our whole interview look place in the. Then Mr. It is no use bothering him again until the film comes anyway.