“Hollywood” at Point Barrow

ONE

Of all the places I'd never expected to see again in my life—it is this desolate, windswept, tundra coast.

As I said this, Nathaniel Rexford, our North Slope Inupiat driver, turned to me and pulled the 4-wheel drive scouting van to a stop, facing it out toward the Chukchi Sea. We were about 5 miles outside the northernmost town on the North American continent, Barrow, Alaska, and its more affluent “suburb,” Browerville.

Aerial view of Barrow/Browerville.
One of many hardscrabble homes in Barrow.
Whalebone and umiak sculpture on the beach north of Barrow.

“Welcome to Hollywood,” Nathaniel announced to our small crew. Seven of us, including director Ken Kwapis had flown up to Barrow that morning from Anchorage, where we were in pre-production on a film titled Everybody Loves Whales.

Ken Kwapis in foreground inspecting traditional umiak whaling boat.

The whales in question were three California grey whales that were trapped in early sea ice just outside of Barrow in October, 1988. For several weeks an international effort to save the whales and get them herded to open water almost overshadowed the last days of the presidential campaign between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush. For TV viewers around the world, the fate of the whales was more compelling drama than the outcome of the American presidential election. And now, in 2010, we were preparing to make  a "Hollywood" film of the incident.

Ice-bound whales in cut out hole, Oct. 1988, photo by Jack Smith, AP.
Two of the three Calif. grey whales, Photo by Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News.

A beautiful 40 image slideshow of that whale rescue is here:

Alaska Daily News.com—“Trapped Whales in Barrow” slideshow link

And here, a brief, silent clip of the whales, from the Alaska Film Archives:

We had flown up to Barrow to scout second unit scenes to be directed by Peter Collister. But for me personally, it was also a return to a place where I had worked on one of my very first jobs as an assistant cameraman--- a 16mm Disney film for the Wonderful World of Disney television program. That film, Snow Bear, was broadcast in two parts in November 1970. It is the story of a young Eskimo boy, his family and friends, and an orphaned polar bear cub that he adopts. The stars of this Arctic drama were Steve Kaleak, Laura Itta, and Rossman Peetook, all first-time Inupiat actors. The director, Gunther von Fritsch, was a veteran of 50s TV series including Flash Gordon, as well as the Vienna section of This is Cinerama. On frigid evenings, Gunther and I had shared many nostalgic recollections of the fabled city of Strauss, the Waltz King, where Gunther had lived and worked, and where I had been a student only a few years before. It was here in a tiny art house cinema that featured foreign films (subtitled English and American, mainly) that I had first seen The Third Man. Fifteen years after the making of this film there were still traces of WWII rubble within spitting distance of the Stephans Dom.

The town of Barrow, “Ukpeagvik,” (the place where snowy owls are hunted), lies at 71° 17' 44" latitude, 320 miles inside the Arctic Circle. For 200 miles to the south there is only snow, tundra, and underlying permafrost. When the sun does down on November 8, it is not seen again (if then) until January 23, 63–65 days of night and dim twilight. Conversely, either side of the summer solstice there are more than two months when the sun never sets. A time exposure of the summer sun skirting the horizon looks like this.

Summer, Arctic midnight sun in time-lapse.

Barrow is also one of the cloudiest places on earth, completely overcast 50% of the time. The temperature is below freezing at least part of 324 days of the year. About four miles north of the town proper is NARL, the Naval Arctic Research Lab, now mostly inactive, but once a thriving community of scientists. It was here, in the spring and summer of 1969, that I had lived and been part of the crew of Snow Bear.

Quonset hut housing at NARL.

I was printing photos of icebergs in the NARL photo darkroom on July 20, 1969, the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Our small crew watched it live on television. I felt excitement and pride like all Americans that day—but I felt as well a special kinship with the astronauts, as our own intrepid but meager crew was also working in an alien, unforgiving place of metaphysical beauty.

I have never felt so alone as when I was walking the 4 miles from NARL, along the Esatkuat Lagoon,on up to the tip of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of land in North America. Cloudy, fogged in, nothing but an ever-narrowing, ever-shifting spit of coarse sand and pebbles lies directly ahead. Slowly, this track of sand falls away ahead of you; suddenly, there is nothing but open water on three sides. To the east is the Beaufort Sea; to the west the Chukchi Sea; and behind, a narrow beach not much wider than an airplane landing strip.

Point Barrow, North America’s “Finisterre.”

It is difficult to conjure up a place as remote as Barrow, but here is a video made from the top of the ASRC (Arctic Slope Regional Corporation) building in Barrow that at one frame per day documents nearly a year, from Sept. 1, 2008 to August 7, 2009.

But even in this most northern outpost of the United States, community and high school life is in many ways not much different than anywhere else in the country.

TWO

When Nathaniel Rexford picked us up at the FAA Flight Service Station at Barrow’s Wiley Post Airport on a foggy, late morning at the end of July, he asked me if I had been the cameraperson who had made the movie years ago here in what he called “Hollywood?” (Ken Kwapis had told me after he had made an earlier scouting trip in April that “Hollywood” is what the locals call a spot 4 miles southwest of Barrow, a tundra promontory overlooking a small tidal basin and the Chukchi Sea).  Scenes of Snow Bear, the Disney TV movie, had been filmed at this very place forty-one years ago, an isolated piece of land outside town, where locals would go to hang out and drink a beer in the warmer (above freezing) months. This was the site of what once had been the fishing village set of sod houses constructed for the film.

After scouting in Barrow and at NARL, we still had an hour of free time before our charter flight back to Anchorage, so we decided to take a tour of “Hollywood,”  but only after stopping at a drive-thru coffee stand in Browerville called Aarigaa Java-- the northernmost espresso to be had in North America. Nathaniel's wife passed out coffees to us. Nathaniel then deflated the vehicle’s tires to negotiate the deep beach ruts ahead. On the way out, we drove past a couple of walrus carcasses, their tusks already harvested. Reaching a turnout, he drove the van up onto a small promontory and parked. Right away I saw the ruins of the sod houses, their plywood frames long exposed to the weather, but with some clumps of earth still at the base.

Barrow High School “Whalers” trophy case.
Site of “Hollywood” at Barrow, Chukchi Sea.
Two “Hollywood” house frames, tundra sod over plywood.

Our location scout, Laura Ganis, took a photo of me standing next to one of them.

John at “Hollywood,” July 2010, photo by Laura Ganis.

Nathaniel came alongside and there were more photos.

John and Nathaniel Rexford, July 2010, photo by Peter Collister.

It’s not that I am at all keen for personal photo ops. I tend to avoid on set production stills, especially if I'm holding a meter or pointing toward something, as if I knew what the hell I was doing. But I sensed that something very unusual was happening here now with everyone taking photos. Ken, Peter, Nathaniel, Robin Le Chanu, and Laura were all part of it.

THREE

I have been a terrible documenter of my own life in film. I have very few production photo records. But I have always been keenly aware that as we make our movies, we are creating something that (god willing) may be more than just the sum of a weekend’s box office grosses. Our films are not just a disposable product to be re-cycled or become deleted after a single viewing. The movies we make offer us personally a record of who we are at a given moment in our lives and history. The best of our films outlast the brief moment of their theatrical distribution and become part of the cultural legacy of our country. Our own lives become embedded in that film record. We cinematographers are privileged to be able to mark ourselves creatively in the images we make. Years later, viewing a scene from one of those films, we can recall the physicality of the location, the aesthetic, exciting moment of its making,  and the hard work of the crew members who were our ad hoc families.

Standing next to the remains of that sod house, a flimsy construct intended just for a few months of shooting, but somehow still surviving in the desert of the Arctic--- forty-one years of my life suddenly collapsed. I felt myself standing there, heart racing, as a still twenties-something, struggling camera assistant—no idea what the future would hold, but certainly not ever imagining a decades long career photographing commercial movies.

The next day, back in Anchorage, I emailed Tom Koester, who was the soundman on Snow Bear. It was his brother, John Koester, who had been the cinematographer. John had been a long-time camera operator for Steven Poster before John's premature death in 1996. Tom found several photos he had taken from spring of 1969 and emailed them to me. Though the photos indicate  it was still cold, they show that the winter snow had  mostly melted.

John B. in parka, next to camera, Inupiat cast seated, actor Steve Kaleak at right, Rossman Peetok in lower right corner, July 1969.

I am standing next to the Arriflex 16mm “S”, which was our principal camera. Steve Kaleak is at the other end of the roof looking into camera. Rossman Peetook, who played his father, is in profile at lower right. The rest of the young cast, including Laura Itta, is seated on camera cases.

If our lives in film are partly delineated by the films themselves, and if those films survive the years, then our work becomes an almost living thing to us, through the years a marker of its cultural time and of our own creative time. Obviously, a movie is not something physically substantive like a book that we can hold in our hands. It is, like music, evanescent, almost vaporous. It disappears before us even as we watch it in the flow of the moment. But the experience of making a movie embeds in our souls, not just for us who make these movies but for those who view them. Until recently, I had not given all that much thought to how deep an imprint a movie can leave on the soul. Sure, I carry hundreds of movies in my own heart; certain images and sounds from great, classic films are a part of who I am. But the thought that somehow, someday, someone would have that same feeling about a movie I may have photographed? It took many years of filmmaking for me to understand that.

Recently, I have had the opportunity, the privilege even, of showing some of my films to cinema students and developing filmmakers. Some of them told me of certain of these films that have become a lodestone for them, just as Conformista, Hud, and Jules et Jim have for me. Young director Shana Feste, who has recently completed postproduction on Country Strong, asked me to photograph her first film, The Greatest, because of the impact that Ordinary People had made on her. It was not just that she had liked the photography; it was the movie’s drama and character that had burrowed deeply into her.

FOUR

Making a movie is an exercise in overcoming near impossible obstacles. François Truffaut likened it to the experience of being on a roller coaster, not the ups and downs of daily filming—but what happens before that. The multiple aspects of pre-production offer to the filmmakers the promise of a dream to be realized. It’s as if you are in the coaster car rising to the top of the incline, surveying the landscape below. It feels great. The view around you is limitless. Once there at the incline’s summit, there is a moment of breathless anticipation, and then the sudden plunge—from then on, you just hang on for dear life. Shooting the movie is the plunge. Sometimes you safely reach the station; sometimes you run off the rails.

Every morning when we rode out to this set of Snow Bear we could expect an unforeseen turn in that plunge, wrenching our necks, twisting our spines. Here is a photo of one day's ride out to the set.

A typical day's drive to “Hollywood.”

Why do we do this? Why do we sacrifice our family and friends on the altar of cinema? Why do we live these vagabond lives, squirreled away in far-flung hotel rooms? Why do we form and re-form these ad hoc but close- knit surrogate families for months on end, in places we may never choose to visit again on our own time? I’ve asked myself these questions more and more in recent years. I’m not certain I have, or ever will have, any answers, since in a certain sense making fictional movies is a ridiculous and illogical enterprise for adults to undertake. But what I do know and what is reaffirmed to me when I write about other filmmakers in these essays, is that we are all a community--- across the years, across the countries.

The recent series of four essays I wrote about the career of Jack Cardiff and the reading of his book Magic Hour has made me feel more aligned with him than with many people I know who lead so-called normal lives. In my travels to other countries, meeting colleagues whose own native cinema I know only piecemeal, I somehow still feel instant rapport. Maybe this is true of any like-minded community of workers. But there is something about filmmaking itself, its connection (we hope) at times with real life experience and drama that binds us in a common enterprise, despite our linguistic and cultural differences. A motion picture camera, documenting a simulacrum of life, with actors playing roles, does not on the surface seem to have much connection to the real world. But even more than great books or great theater, it is these often ephemeral reels of thousands of images, projected on a theater screen at 24 frames per second (or more and more likely, on a digital TV or PDA) that constitute much of the way we look at life.

Forty-one years ago, standing on frozen tundra the day after men had walked on the moon, I had no conception that this remote parcel of earth would ever emerge again into my life. But it did. And, it did so in the context of another film, a film that itself is a re-creation of an incident that happened here twenty-two years ago, an incident still alive in the memory of Inupiats and other Alaskans who lived it and who are now sharing their own experience of it with us.

Filmmaking can be a many-chambered nautilus, some sonorous, some discordant. Still, making a film is an always-surprising experience, even an adventure, this film even more so than most.

Maybe that is part of the answer that I seek. Maybe we filmmakers are adventurers into fictional realms, who sometimes, albeit rarely, have that fiction run smack back into the real world.

And how often are we who tend to live inside these elaborate, indulged fictive domains, even certain of the difference?

Denali, July 29, 2010.
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