June 12, 2008

Curtis's Head Hunters sucks

Indians in the MistMany thoughts crossed our mind last night as we left the showing of Edward Curtis's In the Land of the Head Hunters at the Moore, not the least of which was our continued amazement that film ever took off. No more or less so than contemporaneous films like Birth of a Nation, Curtis's work bears witness to the fact that early film sucked. The narrative is disjointed, the story thin and hard to follow. It really just proves that people (or at least Americans) love technical gadgetry for its own sake, and are willing to embrace an impoverished experience for the novelty.

But beyond our theatre lover's snubbing of cinema, we were mostly left to consider Native Americans. Not so much within the context of Curtis's work, but in the contemporary. There was a de rigeur exhibit in the Moore's mezzanine that addressed Curtis's complicated legacy. On the one hand, his ethnographic studies--sound recordings and extensive notes and studies in addition to photography and some film--are frequently the only sources on vanished cultures. On the other, his willingness to make a film about head-hunting in the Pacific NW, something that never happened, makes clear that he wasn't beyond sensationalism or obscuring the truth. And his film's history (it was "lost" as a complete work until the 1970s, though segments were used as educational documentary footage) is a microcosm of Euro-Americans' long-standing treatment of Native Americans: a mixture of misrepresentation, idealization, and cultural (and physical) holocaust.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


Anonymous said...

While I appreciate your interest in exposing those guilty of tearing down American Indian cultures such as the likes of Frank L. Baum, I have to disagree on your critique of Land of The Head Hunters, which also was released under the title "Land of The War Canoe."

Beheading was common practice in war on the pacific northwest. Oftentimes if one broke the laws, their head may have ended up at the end of a stake at the river's edge by nightfall of that day.

I have seen the film, and know a few things about Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, and I must say it is a very insightful look at a tiny slice of the culture in that region at the time before european influences. Considering the technology at the time, they seem to have done the best with what they had.

I wouldn't be so quick to turn people away from a film that contains content which some of today's society may not understand, so much as I would encourage viewers to observe such uncommon cultural beliefs with an open mind.

Side note;
How many movies portraying kings and queens of europe show them demanding their enemies' head as proof? Nobody refers to them as headhunters, but using the same logic, one easily could.

Rob said...

Beheading people during war isn't the same as headhunting. One is a quasi-legal method of execution. The other is a quasi-religious belief or imperative.

The person I quoted said "head-hunting in the Pacific NW" is "something that never happened." Now you've said "Beheading was common practice in war on the pacific northwest." If you're talking about the same thing, neither of you has presented any support for your views. I await the facts and evidence with bated breath.

P.S. So far I've posted other people's comments on In the Land of the Head Hunters, not my own. I'm confident that readers can judge these opinions for themselves. If and when I see the film, I'll let everyone know what I think.