The Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is sparsely populated. Its climate and land are inhospitable for agriculture, and the winters are long, cold, and snowy. After the Civil War, the region was heavily logged and mined. Since the decline of both of those industries in the 1920s, the major boon to the region was the construction in 1957 of the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge that connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. This structure made the UP accessible to a mobile, post-World War II middle class with leisure time and expendable incomes. Aside from tourism, however, and from some types of niche farming and logging, the UP is economically stranded. In short, the UP is really not on the road to anywhere.
Nick Bentgen’s thoughtful documentary, Northern Light (2013), reveals the brightness that nevertheless emanates from the UP. He studies the region through the lens of two competitors in the annual Sault Ste. Marie International 500 Snowmobile Race, Walt Komarnizki and Isaac Wolfgang. The snowmobile was invented at just about the time when mining and logging were giving out in the UP. The winter vehicle’s modern version with a light engine and open-cockpit for a single driver was developed in the 1950s and 1960s, which proved perfect for the over-logged, swampy, rural terrain of the UP. In 1968, local businessmen in Sault Ste. Marie came up with the idea of a five-hundred-mile snowmobile race, modeling it on the Indianapolis 500. The I-500 draws several thousand fans each February to witness the grueling eight-hour race over a single-mile track made of ice and snow.
Bentgen works in the direct cinema mode. He provides no voiceovers, and captions rarely specify locations. In the opening shot, Bentgen puts his camera in the cab of a moving truck during a snow squall; there is a lined road in front, but viewers cannot see where the vehicle is going. The truck might be in Hudson Bay, or Kamkatcha, headed north or south or east or west. This whiteout is an image for the two protagonists: they are going somewhere, but it is not always clear to them where.
Komarnizki is a trucker with a large, extended family living under his roof. He has an eye tic that constantly makes him look startled; stripped to the waist, he is muscled and scarred like an Ernest Hemingway character. Bentgen often films Walt while eating, with huge hunks of pie or cake poised on a fork, as if he is consuming life itself. Walt seems never able to get enough work, but despite economic woes he is dedicated to the not-inexpensive sport of snowmobile racing. In one scene, he and his wife discuss [End Page 205] juggling paychecks and bills to make sure, above all, that he can race. Walt’s wife coaches a cheer team, and their children face uncertain economic futures: a married daughter in or barely out of her teens gives birth near the end of the film; another hopes to be a high school English teacher; another is getting her GED. The Komarnizki clan is lower middle class, and they aspire, but not too grandly. While living near the welfare line, the family works hard, plays, and eats with gusto. The many family scenes are warm with interior spaces lit against the cold night or are outdoor spaces converging on a porch or bonfire. Characters are often framed through doorways; such shots create a sense of intimacy as if viewers are in the next room, and they accentuate how the Komarnizkis are bounded by a frame of limited economic opportunity.
Contrasted to Komarnizki is Isaac Wolfgang, who works at a tool-and-die plant. Isaac is more austere than Walt, more Germanic, tight where Walt is loose, and in his twenties while Walt is in his late thirties. Isaac works out at a gym, and while he too has an extended family, the film hovers over him and his wife, a former cheerleader who in the course of the film begins to search for a passion like the one Isaac has for...