June 04, 2008

In the Land of the Head Hunters

Don't forget to buy your ticket to see In the Land of the Head Hunters at the Moore Theater, Tuesday June 10.
More about the event found here.


steviepinhead said...

"Head Hunters" was a great event, though it's easy to see why this "movie" failed to generate much excitement in its original run.

A great photographer Curtis certainly was; a great cinematographer, not so much, even by the standards of that long-gone era. The screenplay, such as it was, is wooden, contrived, and makes insufficient and clumsy use of the rich ethnographic and mythic material available (and of which Curtis was well aware--in fact, the information recrded by him is itself of ethnographic and historical value).

Even as an attempt to appeal to (whatever Curtis imagined the appetites of) his Euro-American audience to be, the story-line is wince-some rather than winsome.

Curtis staged almost every scene from the perspective of a still photographer, rather than with even the shakiest grasp of the potential made available by "moving" pictures. There are few scenes in which the camera even rotates on its tripod and virtually no pans or dramatic close-ups.

Little of this clumsiness can be laid to the cast members. When allowed to act at all naturally in anything like their accustomed element, they appear to have been "naturals." Their scrambling over rocks, leaping into canoes, boat-handling in general, dancing, fire-handling, and ceremonial recreations all portray comfort and fluidity, even though in many cases they were being asked to wear clothing and portray activities that already lay decades, and even generations, in their past.

Despite the considerable efforts (and remarkable luck) which have allowed scholars and film students to "restore" some sense of much of the original movie, too many scenes remain damaged or missing to retain whatever "flow" made its way past the limitations of Curtis's technique.

It's unclear why several of the "restored" scenes consist largely of bubbling, irretrievably damaged material. Showing an example of this material once--perhaps in the form of a few-second interval between salvaged shots--might be understandable as an effort to indicate the challenge the restorers faced. But the "showing" of several scenes consisting of little more than bubbling film was a little difficult to understand--indeed, the distinct impression created was that the "restored" film was undergoing further damage right before the eyes of the modern audience!

An example is the scene in which the house of the hero is being burned following the attack and ravishment by the villain and his cohorts: the scene begins to show the burning of the house, but dissolves into bubbles and spots, without ever recapturing the initial thrust of the scene.

(It was never made clear in what form the restoration is now being presented--fresh film? digital imagery?--so this illusion of fresh damage presumably was just that, an illusion, but a confusing and questionable one at best.)

There are, nonetheless, compelling reasons why this effort at resrtoration has been made (initially by Holm and Quimby and, with the addition of new-found reels, by the current restoration team).

Despite everything said above, there are visually compelling scenes--some of which have long been familiar to local enthusiasts of northwest coast art and culture through their use by regional museums: these include the spirit-quest dance of the hero, Motana; the later scene where he builds a fire with a hand-twirled firemaker and again dances and quests for a vision; the towing of the dead whale, with Motana standing aside the body; the sea lions fleeing the hunt' the well-known "welcome" scene of three canoes approaching a village, with bear, wasp, and thunderbird leaping about in the bows; similar scenes of the same animal-monsters and more dancing in house interiors; the dramatic escape and chase of the heroine's slave; the ritual destruction of the fire...

The serendipitous recovery of the original score, and its spirited and highly-enjoyable representation, was one of the most laudable and successful aspects of the attempted creation of the original movie experience. Likewise as to the choice of the venerable but welcoming Moore Theater.

Had Curtis had greater faith in his "aboriginal" material, a dab more ingenuity behind the camera, a less sentimental approach to screenwriting, and had more of the vigorous scenes survived, this might be a somewhat kinder "movie review"...

Of course, the current value of this remarkable material is NOT for the movie-goer, despite the commendable effort to recreate the movie-going experience an original viewer might have, er, "enjoyed."

The value of this material is now ethnographic, cultural, historical, and art historical (one longs desperately for Curtis's immobile camera to pan around the interior of the long-house, to focus in on the houseposts, to feature close-ups of the faces of the remarkable and well-chosen group of principal actors...). As such, it is well worth all the effort that has been expended, and well worth the seeing (though one could imagine more interesting ways to highlight these aspects of the production--please see, in this regard, the Burke's new downstairs exhibit of some of the masks and other props created for the movie!).

It was with the conclusion of the "movie" itself, and the introduction by Chief Bill Cranmer of the Alert Bay dance troupe (partly decked out in their own regalia, and partly fitted out with Bill and Marty Holm's wonderful collection of authentic costumes and masks, due to problems with the cross-border shipment of the troupe's gear), that this aspect of the presentation came into its own.

The dancing, drumming, and singing were simply sensational: an exceptional tribute both to the original movie cast from whom several of the troupe are directly descended and to the dedication of the mostly-young dancers to the perpetuation of the most vital aspects of their own culture.

Both the orchestra and the dance group received extended and healthy rounds of applause from the large audience at the Moore.

Deservedly so!

The Burke Museum said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments about the "Head Hunters" movie and I'm glad you enjoyed the rest of the event!

Jay River said...

Stevie might enjoy another Curtis re-construction. The Indian Picture Opera, availbble on dvd, Amazon.

In this case it is a reassembly of a Curtis lecture and stage show from 1911, along with recreated original music.

You must keep in mind with Head Hunters, that this was in the early years of motion picture. Every attempt was a work in progress. The medium was just being created by people who took a chance to make a film. You can't criticize it with 100 years worth of film perspective.

Check our Indian Picture Opera, you will like it.

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