Cinema is primarily a visual medium—silent film exists, invisible film doesn’t—but the experience of watching movies has almost never been without sound. In the silent era, single narrators or entire troupes of actors used to lend their live voices to the muted speech of onscreen dialogues. Orchestras or lone pianists provided music. Film’s early period was full of attempts to coordinate speech with speakers and music with musicians.
This context was on my mind during the Friday performance of Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North. A vocalist who works in the tradition of Inuit throat singing, Tagaq took the stage alongside Jesse Zubot (on violin and viola) and Jean Martin (on drums), and the three were accompanied by the recorded music of Derek Charke. Behind the performers, a large screen played Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North. Almost a hundred years separate us from that film, but this juxtaposition of sound and image didn’t feel unnatural. I often found myself falling into what seems like the natural division of the senses—eyes on the screen, ears attentive to the music—until I’d catch myself and remember that there was a really riveting live performance happening on the stage in front of me. In those moments of forgetfulness, I was reliving what lots of early filmgoers experienced: visually captured, sonically enveloped.
But the point of this music was something other than to accompany the moving image. Rather, the musicians aimed to reframe Flaherty’s narrative. In this sense, the performance worked like a second interpretive layer atop the first one, which is already present in the film through its intertitles. For just as film has almost never gone without sound, it has just as rarely been without language. Images mean lots of things on their own, but since the early days of cinema the inclusion of words has served to orient the viewer toward certain aspects of the image track and away from others.
Thus a key sequence in Nanook of the North—which begins with the arrival of a group of Inuit men and women to a trading post and ends with a supposed demonstration of the workings of the gramophone—is interspersed with constant intertitles that instruct the viewer how to interpret the scenes. We learn that the group has arrived at a trading post, that they have skins and furs to trade, that they are proud of their dogs, one of whom is named Rainbow. And beyond this contextual knowledge, the words on screen also convey specific ideological and affective positions. The first one puts quotes around the words “big igloo,” which is the term, it is implied, used by the Inuit to refer to the trading post. The inclusion of this term responds to more than simple utilitarian purposes. Rather, it is meant to exhibit the filmmaker’s intimacy with the culture he is representing, even as it emphasizes its foreignness from both himself and his intended audience.
This emphasis on difference—the supposed exoticism of the Inuit family—runs throughout the intertitles. Their function seems to be to domesticate the image track, ensuring its smooth insertion into the racist clichés of settler colonialism. Over this initial interpretative layer, Tagaq and her collaborators introduced new layers of meaning. They did so sometimes by giving certain sequences an epic quality, the music building and quickening, but also through straightforward uses of language, as when Tagaq repeatedly heaved the word “colonizer” into the microphone as Nanook, the film’s protagonist, was being schooled in the operations of the gramophone. Her intervention reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s demand for revolutionary photographers, which was to give their images captions that would wrench them out of “fashionable clichés,” giving them rather a “revolutionary use value.” Over the visual captions present throughout Flaherty’s film, Tagaq added her own (vocal ones, in this case), reinterpreting the nature of trade and race relations in Canada.
Cinema scholar Rick Altman once compared the screen image to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Sound, in this scheme of things, rules the production of meaning in film. This concept can help us understand the force of this performance. That is, the sonic puppet show performed by Tagaq and her collaborators gives the characters in Nanook of the North, itself already a mash of word and image, new agency and vitality. The music—pulse or roar, or some other unnamable effect—eclipses Flaherty’s often condescending intertitles. In the process, the daily routines depicted in the film acquire a sense of heroism and dignity that the original film denies them.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Portland State University.