Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Savage Innocents

Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood career was well into the final curves of its flaming death-spiral by the time The Savage Innocents was released in 1960. He was fighting a losing battle with his addictions, and only two more troubled mainstream productions stood between him and a decade wandering the artistic wilderness, teasing out interest in dead-on-arrival projects while limping by on the largesse of friends and admirers. A short porn film and a couple of collaborations—the recently re-released We Can’t Go Home Again and Lightning Over Water, co-directed with Wim Wenders—would eventually surface, but The Savage Innocents can be seen as the last truly personal film Ray would make inside the studio system, his last complete attempt at injecting his hot-blooded artistry into the cold machinery of commercial filmmaking. The film ends with a tense farewell between two friends who must become enemies for their own survival, and I can think of no better epitaph for this stage of the director’s working life.

The Savage Innocents is a mess of good ideas executed badly, flashes of brilliance followed by scenes as flat as the Arctic plains where the action takes place. Much effort has been put into researching the life and customs of the Inuit, and the story charts a fascinating progression, beginning with the hunter Inuk (Anthony Quinn) squabbling with a rival over potential mates before moving on to first contact with western civilization. Unfortunately, the early scenes often resemble a backlot re-staging of Nanook of the North, and Ray’s sub-Flaherty impulses—pedantic narration, for one—rarely bear good results. Even worse, any attempts to recoup some authenticity are scuppered by the appalling Pidgin English that accounts for the bulk of the dialogue. Reportedly, Ray wanted to use a more poetic style of speech, but Quinn apparently preferred this crude jabber. (I’m sure it made it easier to memorize his lines, if nothing else.) At its worst, the film imagines the Inuit as cheery simpletons—Inuk is treated like an overbearing puppy in one particularly uncomfortable scene—and the ill-advised treatment of language scarcely helps on this front.

Fortunately, everything we understand about this story shifts radically midway through the film. Inuk readies to throw his spear at a polar bear, but as the animal rears up it is laid low by some unknown thunder. Not only is this the first appearance of a rifle in the film, but it is also the first indication that the story is taking place in the modern Arctic and not some immortal, snow-covered Eden. The horror of that realization would be meaningless were it not preceded by nearly 40 minutes of fumbling Inuit bedroom farce. The film’s flaws are tangled up in its greatest strengths, and Ray rarely flinches before the brutality of Arctic life. Indeed, he allies himself so closely to the Inuit perspective that viewers may scarcely recognize western society when it finally appears. Ray isn’t showing us an alien culture so much as alienating us from our own culture—a gambit that becomes clear only once Inuk has been captured by two troopers for his part in accidentally killing a man. Compliant but confused, the hunter wonders why he must be dragged across the wasteland just to be put on trial and hanged. Why not shoot him now and save the trouble? One of the troopers, clearly unaware of the absurdity of his own words, merely says it is what their laws require. At that moment, it is tempting to imagine a different film, where the Inuit speak beautiful, flowing English while the westerners communicate in harsh, incomprehensible gibberish.

Ray surely must have seen a mirror of himself in this story of an outsider brought into contact with an unyielding system far beyond his control or comprehension. Seduced by the baubles of the modern world, Inuk is drawn deeper and deeper into this culture until it becomes clear that he will be destroyed by it. Alcohol unsettles him; the jukebox blares at him like an air-raid siren. His wish to please the White Man overrides everything, even his need to care for his family. In his own land, where he thrives effortlessly while the troopers stupidly stumble into every threat, he is a prisoner. He cannot reason with the White Man because his reason is not their reason. His name is written down in a book, he is told, and it will remain there long after everyone else is dead. But one of the troopers, grateful to Inuk for saving his life, offers to report him dead and erase his name from the book in an implausible gesture of kindness. Inuk is granted the rare opportunity to return to his Arctic idyll, as if he had never encountered the trading post or its gaudy trinkets. He is allowed to remain free and untouched by civilization, but only if he no longer exists. With the wooden buildings of the fort slowly creeping closer along the horizon, oblivion is the only sanctuary for the innocent now.

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