- "It's so cold in Alaska":Evoking Exploration Between Bazin and The Forbidden Quest
On frostbitten fingers
In his essay "Cinema and Exploration," André Bazin gives the early films of polar discovery a central place in film history. He argues that,
It was after World War I, that is to say in 1920, some ten years after it was filmed by Ponting during the heroic expedition of Scott to the South Pole, that With Scott to the South Pole revealed to the film-going public those polar landscapes which were to constitute the major success of a series of films of which Flaherty's Nanook is still the outstanding example.1
In this narrative, only a few short steps separate the travel documents of Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley to the nascent genres of documentary and ethnographic film. Exploratory films here form an Ursprung for the British documentary movement and the anthropological film, instantiating a relation to landscape space that would become a key element of non-fiction filmmaking.
Bazin goes on to make an immediate geographical and significatory shift. He continues, "Not long afterwards, very likely because of the success of the Arctic films, a type of production appeared which we might categorize as 'tropical and equatorial.'"2 This spatia [End Page 53] l displacement from the poles to the equator enables an elaboration of exoticism, which Bazin notes is particularly important in the films made in the Southern hemisphere. He adds,
. . . this poetry, especially in those films shot in the South Seas, began to take on an exotic quality. From Moana, virtually an ethnographic document, to Tabu, by way of White Shadows, we are aware of the gradual formation of a mythology. We see the Western mind as it were taking over a far-off civilization and interpreting it after its own fashion.3
This development appears to take us far from the journeys of Scott and Shackleton, for while the North of Nanook permits a colonial gaze, the Antarctic contains no distant civilization to conquer, simply the uninhabited polar landscape.
However, I want to suggest that this is not a simple colonial progress narrative from Ponting to Flaherty to Grierson or Murnau, but rather that the polar exploration film enables a complex staging of space and time. We find in Bazin's account of these films two kinds of origin: the beginnings of a particular narration of geographical space, and the emergence of a particular discourse of cinematic authenticity. Naturally, these two cinematic structures carry a significatory and ideological weight, although Bazin's characteristic lightness of touch does not press hard on the implications. Instead, the two origins come together in the pregnant example cited by Serge Daney as illustrative of Bazin's erotics—the frostbite suffered by Shackleton's cameraman Herbert Ponting as he re-loaded film in polar temperatures, which, for Bazin, made the film more beautiful.4 Here, experience and geography are marked in terms of extremity; both written on the body of the filmmaker.
This example suggests the part of the essay that is best known: its use of the exploration film to exemplify the precedence in film of temporality over mimesis as a signifier of the profilmic real. Bazin famously argues that the scrappy and unintelligible footage of the Kon-Tiki voyage compels not because of what we can see—which is not a lot—but because of our knowledge of how and when it was shot. Kon-Tiki (Heyerdahl, 1950) is, for him, an overwhelming film because the film itself is a trace of the adventurous journey. He describes a fleeting image of a whale, and asks whether it is the whale we are interested in seeing, or the fact that:
. . . the shot was taken at the very moment when a capricious movement of the monster might well have annihilated the raft and sent camera and cameraman seven or eight thousand meters into the deep? The answer is clear. It is not so much the photograph of the whale that interests us as the photograph of the danger.5 [End Page 54]
This notion of capturing a moment in time rather than an object is, of course, central...