restricted access Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883-1922 (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert J. Christopher. Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883–1922 McGill-Queen’s University Press. xxiv, 454. $44.95

Quite a curious volume, this. The majority of Flaherty cinema scholarship attends to his life and work after the making of Nanook of the North (1922). Thus it comes as something of a surprise to find a book that only in the final chapters arrives at the dawn of his career as one of the originators of actuality drama. The book asserts itself as an antidote to the standard Flaherty biographies, which not only tend to gloss over the nearly forty years before Nanook, but also to underrate Frances Hubbard Flaherty's contributions to his career. The bulk of the book is Flaherty's journals of his various expeditions in the North, augmented by Christopher's contextualizing narratives, and it is engrossing to an unexpected degree.

The first chapter, recounting Flaherty's childhood (part of an unfinished autobiographical narrative), speaks to Flaherty's skill in literary prose as he recalls his early outings with his father, a geologist and miner, with whom he went on his first trip when he was twelve. His recollections flow in continuous narrative (with novelistic renderings of conversations) and lyrical description, and his writing talent flows throughout the book, making it altogether a wonderful read. The sighting of the massive herd of stone deer decoys is thrilling.

The second journal is especially delightful. Two versions from this period exist, notes Christopher, one of Flaherty's workaday world, and the other written for Frances Hubbard in the year before they married. Here is a soupçon: 'The night is perfect. We are camped on a long narrow lake girded with magnificent hills ... The foliage of the birches and poplars already turned yellow russet or orange, contrasting perfectly and blending with the dark, velvety green of the firs and pine firs ... I think of the night we had in the sand at Obakamiga – this day has been just as hot as some we had together – do you remember them? It is getting too dark to write – good night.' This is a world of lyrical expression and erotic desires, as well as a portrait of a practised woodsman with transcendent aspirations.

The match with Hubbard seemed improbable, despite the happy meeting of the pianist with the violinist (Flaherty carried his fiddle with him and Hubbard asked if he was practising while he was away). A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Hubbard studied music in Paris, attended a poetry reading by W.B. Yeats and a lecture by Henry James, and, in her role as secretary of the local Suffragette Society, introduced Emmeline Pankhurst. Yet she saw her work as Flaherty's amanuensis as fulfilling her education. [End Page 509] Hubbard's diary (1914–16), covering the period when Flaherty made his first attempt at filmmaking (the non-extant Belcher Islands film), attests to her work as archivist, secretary, and copy editor, and her indefatigable efforts to market the films, photographs, and diaries. Her shrewd assessments of his weak speeches, excess weight, extravagance, and lack of business sense are buffered by her commitment to his (their) success. And passionate commitment was necessary, as she had to contend with Flaherty's other life in the North, where he had children with Inuit women. Well after his death, she was shepherding his legend in Odyssey of a Filmmaker (1960), her memoir of his career.

Although Christopher strives to ameliorate it, the portrait of Flaherty here adds ammunition to the critiques that predominate cinema scholarship now: the quotidian racism of his day (the happy and yet so skilled 'Eskimo'; '[t]hey are such children') and filmic strategies in the service of a Romantic salvage ethnography. His explorations followed well-charted Inuit maps and trails, meeting Native families and hunters along the way; at least he gave credit to his guide in his geographical publication.

This is a work of meticulous editing (of the handwritten and typescript journals) and great scholarship (the narratives that introduce each diary correct and augment previous biographies, and the endnotes are rich in explanatory detail). Flaherty's Port Harrison Diary (1920–21) will...