A tale of winter
In dedication to Frissell, White Thunder is the title of Victoria King’s 2002 documentary tracing his life and work. But she neglects to mention the coincidences between Tabu and The Viking: their combination of documentary and narrative; Flaherty, Murnau and Frissell’s ties with Paramount (they also released Tabu); that both pictures were released the same year; their tumultuous filming conditions; and the deaths of their co-creators. Flaherty and Melford survived, but Murnau died in a car accident shortly before Tabu opened, and Frissell perished with twenty-six others when their ship went down in the worst cinema-related catastrophe of its time.
Milestone Films have brought together Frissell’s films with King’s documentary for a comprehensive DVD study of an abbreviated and forgotten career. White Thunder is a solid introduction, with King tracing Frissell’s privileged upbringing in Manhattan to his education at Yale, and the wanderlust that sent him far north with a 16mm camera. She touches on Frissell’s momentary association with Flaherty, and attempts to reconstruct a life which never grew or developed. (Frissell was only twenty-eight when he died.) Old photos show a melancholy loner, whose trips to the frosty ends of the Earth remind me of the estranged creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein alienating in his Arctic retreat.
Interviewing several of his descendants seventy-five years after his death, King turns to Kevin Brownlow for his bead on the films and their historic and artistic significance. He dismisses Melford’s contribution to The Viking — no Murnau, Melford was unable to transcend stagy, static imagery and grandiose gesture and mime. He left behind an oeuvre of no lasting value save for The Sheik (1921), a picture that survives solely for Rudolph Valentino. To be fair, The Viking is further hampered by Frissell’s clumsy romantic scenario. Between the stilted situations, stagnant camerawork and broad performances, it wouldn’t be outrageous to compare the rigged portions of The Viking to an Ed Wood movie.
However, these ugly passages coexist with spellbinding footage of an arctic sea adventure, a breathtaking panorama of a primal culture on the verge of extinction. It’s essentially an expansion of The Swilin’ Racket, Frissell’s portrait of Newfoundland sealers. They call their prey ‘swils,’ but whether ‘racket’ is slang for their vocation or the cacophonous screams of seals as they’re clubbed is never explained. The Viking and nearly all of The Swilin’ Racket shy away from the slaughter, an indication of Frissell’s unease and distance from his subject’s natural barbarism.
You can see why Paramount were intrigued: vessels cracking through miles of ice; bergs popping up unexpectedly from below; actual sealers, not actors or stuntmen, bounding from floe to frigid floe, many of them underdressed in raggedy street clothes; and the bizarre rolling effect of the ice, a bobbing, white terrain blanketing the ocean, all of it passionately rendered and beyond Hollywood manufacture.
A prologue to The Swilin’ Racket provides a list of seal hunting hazards, chief among them the possibility of an explosion. (Dynamite was stored onboard in the event the ship became encased in ice.) Frissell set out on the SS Viking to film additional scenes after principal photography wrapped, but an accidental blast destroyed the ship. Cinematographer Alexander Penrod (who, in a twist of dark irony, filmed Down to the Sea in Ships in 1922) and Frissell were among the missing, and their bodies were never recovered. Thanks to Victoria King’s portrait, Frissell’s fervor to explore and photograph primitive society and the rugged beauty of his imagery, the loss now becomes all the more profound.