Fantasy and Ethnographic Film

May 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

King Kong is a classic American film.  The 1933 original is an example of fantasy and horror that has played a role in shaping the popular imaginary of generations.  The story has been retold in the form of comic books, films, and a cartoon series.  The 2005 big budget film released by Universal Studies has grossed over $550 Million, illustrating the degree to which the imperialist fantasy from the early Twentieth Century remains a relevant tale to people throughout the world in the new millennium.

Danger in HybridityFatimah Tobing Rony’s piece, King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema discusses the ways in which genres of fantasy, horror, and ethnographic film told similar stories.  I will not flesh out her arguments in this post, but you can read her work on DUCA94’s readings page.

Today in CA 94 we will examine the parallels between King Kong and Nanook of the North, an influential ethnographic film from 1922 (it was considered the first feature-length documentary).  Countless viewers have valued the film for its presentation of “authentic” Inuit culture in a well preserved environment–imaginably untouched by civilization.  However, this assumption is quite problematic, given the reality of cultural exchange between Indigenous communities such as the Inuit and their Western counterparts.  While Nanook of the North is a documentary style film, it reflects the creator’s notions of what Inuit culture ought to be rather than what it was at the time.  For example, the filmmaker (Robert Flaherty) received criticism for staging scenes such as hunts using spears instead of other commonly used hunting weapons (guns).

1933 Racial Imaginary not-so-far in the past.Ultimately, culture, power, and knowledge play large roles in the production of these kinds of film.  Today we will discuss how they manifest themselves in these particular stories as well as the media that we experience in the Twenty-first Century.  The second image in this post should illustrate some of the connections between popular notions of race from 1933 and the ways that we are still dealing with it today.  Ideas?  Please share them.


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