All posts by Alina Romo

Scott Mackenzie & Anna Westerståhl Stenport (eds.), Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

Load-bearing concepts are those that enable us to think (or conceptualize) something else.  [Any] mediation—between disciplines or subdisciplines, between interests within a field, and certainly between historical moments—can only be the result of the construction of a shared discourse within which a consensus must be sought for the use of specific words (hence, concepts).                      — Peter de Bolla, “Mediation and the Division of Labor”

In Films on Ice, “Arctic Cinemas” is offered as a load-bearing concept upon which varying forms of Arctic filmmaking hitherto regarded as discrete traditions can be placed in dialogue, challenging, as the introduction claims, the very notion of “Arctic” as an unified concept and conventional views of film history, at the same time. By proposing “Arctic Cinemas” as a new lens through which to view the diverse film histories of nations and peoples spanning the vast Arctic region, including those that might seem more dissimilar than similar on first consideration—Inuit and Sámi cinemas, Scottish women filmmakers, and Norwegian horror flicks, to point out a few—Films on Ice stakes an innovative claim concerning the “dialogue between insiders and outsiders” that occur across the Arctic region (1). In so doing, the collection of essays recasts ground that has been stereotyped by the glare of otherworldly ice, Eurocentric-ethnography and the sublime.

While “Arctic Cinemas” is indeed a load-bearing concept, the introduction to the collection, penned by its editors MacKenzie and Westerståhl Stenport, performs methodological heavy lifting worthy of Atlas, and the introduction is a veritable gold mine for anyone wishing to either design a course or binge watch film from and about the North, although the rarity of many of the films in question would make finding them on Netflix a feat.  As such, the introduction serves as an ample starting place for anyone needing to strengthen their broader knowledge of the Arctic and its many discourses, including Critical Arctic Studies and Arctic Art Cinema. Further, the introductions that open each of Film on Ice’s four parts are equally indispensable and help frame the plurality of theoretical perspectives included in the collection.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of the context from which the collection emerges is located in “Transnational, World, Global, Arctic Cinemas?” Here, the editors put forth their goal: “to challenge standard national cinema histories that have generally overlooked film production in, about, and for the Arctic region” (13). By envisioning “Arctic Cinema” as a concept by which “geographically related subsections of various nation-states” are incorporated into one conceptual rubric, Films on Ice also challenges normative definitions of World Cinema. This is equally achieved by including in the collection of essays examples of “sub-national” film, or those “not representative of what is understood as a ‘national’ tradition” (14). “Arctic Cinema,” then, expands the purview of both World Cinema and “cinematic tradition.”

It is because of this aim that the study focuses on what MacKenzie and Westerståhl Stenport describe as “three distinct, yet interrelated groups” (1). It is useful to describe these groups at length since it is through their interrelationships that the concept of “Arctic Cinemas” emerges.  They are: “(1) films made by Arctic residents, but mostly seen in the South […]; (2), films made outside the Arctic, typically by outsiders, and viewed mostly in the South and; (3) films made and viewed by Arctic residents through narrowcast broadcast and alternative venues” (1). As this list suggests, the collection is acutely attuned to the ways that perceptions of the Arctic, its regions, and its peoples have been amalgamated, marginalized and propagated in film.

The collection is equally attentive, however, to the ways in which pushback and reinscription have occurred with more frequency over the last several decades of filmmaking among the Arctic regions. Because of representation’s implicit function in film, the collection equally takes cue from Critical Arctic Studies, which is interested in exploring how cultural representation can serve as a humanistic counterpoint to the definition of the Arctic region by climate, geopolitics, or cartography (2). The collection’s broad scope is further organized into four parts, each highlighting a distinct frame of reference through which to view “Arctic Cinema.”

Part I, “Global Indigeneity,” focuses the notion of “unified singularity” on the indigenous peoples who populate the Arctic, representing “the first instance that the multiple cinematic traditions from various indigenous cultures and regions of the Arctic are placed in dialogue with one another” (31). There are very few venues, indeed, where an examination of Sámi, native Alaskan and Canadian, “Eskimo,” Inuit, and Greenlander film traditions would make sense standing side-by-side; this is one of them. This juxtapositioning succeeds in large part because of the engagement with the relationship between hybridity (cultural, ethnic, cinematic) and play in contemporary Arctic film, which stresses the reality of transnationality for the region’s indigenous peoples, both for the good and bad.

Part II, “Hollywood Hegemony,” constructs a thorough history of how, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, “the Arctic” has figured in American cinema and its “cinematic imaginaries” (121). The tradition of “location substitution” is one of the focuses in this section, as is the line between fiction and “actuality” in representations of the North. Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of this section is, however, the connection drawn between polar expedition, film production, and the way in which proto-fascist aesthetics reemployed the Arctic in its own image within German Bergfilm, the arctic landscape inscribed with sublime, masculine whiteness.

At the core of Part III, “Ethnography and the Documentary Dilemma,” are questions concerning time, chronology, the concept of historical progress and the ways in which ethnography and documentary film have grappled with and, in many cases, perpetuated notions of “cultural evolution” akin to those developed in stadial theory and disseminated in conjectural history and its descendants from the eighteenth century forward. It is in this section where the collection’s multiple threads begin to fully unite, and “Arctic Cinema” begins to signify in ways indicative of a functional, load-bearing concept: by juxtaposing the Arctic’s many unique regions and film histories with one another, it becomes apparent that, regardless of the differences among them, film made about the regions and peoples of the Arctic have repeatedly participated in forms of history-making predicated on the representation, evaluation and hierarchization of “otherness.” From this premise, one can more fully appreciate the flip-side of “Arctic Cinema” set forth in Part I, that of contemporary, indigenous filmmakers subverting, hybridizing, and playing with tropes long held within a film tradition that for too long functioned outside of their control. Although I appreciate the choice to place “Global Indigeneity” first in the collection, allowing indigenous voices to speak first and for themselves, I cannot help but wonder if Part III should have come before it, as the incredible contrast between early ethnographic film and contemporary, indigenous responses to it would deepen the significance of the latter, especially for a reader not wholly versed in the cinemas of the Arctic. After finishing the collection, read in order, I felt as though I needed to return to the opening chapters with the insights I collected along the way.

Part IV, “Myths and Modes of Exploration,” is perhaps the most daring section of the collection due to the broad geographical, cultural and temporal scope of its subjects: topics range from the earliest depictions of the race to the North Pole in silent film, circa 1901, to a comparison of 1930 and 1970s Soviet images of the North where, in the case of the later films, the Arctic space is imagined as “the place of possibilities where socialist dreams come true” (321); the collection closes with two works that scrutinize contemporary, visual interactions with the Arctic, examining new models of representing the region through “creolization” and “info-aesthetics.” Despite its diverse material, Part IV succeeds in connecting method, mythmaking, and exploration along several lines, including how film has mediated or attempted to mediate varying histories of the Arctic, personal, political, and environmental.

In its own words, Films on Ice demonstrates how the concept of “the Arctic” “elides the political, geographic, national, transnational and linguistic differences that define and populate the region;” foregrounding, even, how “the Arctic” encompasses an “intertwined” and “unifying singularity” (2). For even the most casual student of the Arctic, this conclusion will be unavoidable because although it signifies in so many interrelated ways, it is particularly prescient regarding climate change, which will not pause at borders and which will impact the Arctic and its peoples hardest, its uniqueness, its interwoven fabric, the first victim rent by modernity’s hubris. As a whole, the essays in Films on Ice speak among one another, pick up threads of common focus, and, in numerous cases, offer readings and arguments concerning the same films, scaffolding up, as it were, from the concept of “Arctic Cinema” to demonstrate the concept’s ability to provide a foundation for a new, counter history of film.

 

Philip J. Anderson and Dag Blanck (eds.), Norwegians and Swedes in the United States: Friends and Neighbors (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012)

The collection is divided into four distinct sections—Context, Culture, Conflict and Community—each undertaking a thorough examination of the relationships and interactions between the largest immigration populations from Scandinavian to the United States. As the subheadings suggest, a comprehensive study of the relationship between Norwegians and Swedes in the United States cannot be sustained on comparison alone. Indeed, as Donna R. Gabaccia outlines in the very useful foreword to the book, the narrative of this relationship continues to develop new strains due in part to increasing attention to “inter-ethnic perspectives” concerning American immigration history in general and Scandinavian interactions in particular. It is the developing story of Scandinavian “inter-ethnic perspectives” that the collection aims to uncover and narrate and as a whole this aim is successful. As Gabaccia rightly points out, however, the collection downplays the “importance of contention” between the two groups, by choosing to highlight “the Americanization that brought both groups of immigrates closer to each other.”

 

The first section on context contains two substantial introductory chapters: “Friends and Neighbors? Patterns of Norwegian-Swedish Interaction in the United States” by co-editor Dag Blanck and “Norwegians and Swedes in America: Some Comparisons” by H. Arnold Barton. The opening chapters strive to broadly describe the identities of each group and the patterns of interactions between them. Blanck develops a useful chronology for grappling with the complex issue, dividing recognizable patterns of interaction into three periods. Blanck emphasizes that although there has yet to be a systematic and comprehensive study of the history of the Scandinavians in the United States, certain patterns emerge from the studies that do exist. When division did occur between Norwegian and Swedish immigrants it was along religious lines, more so than national ones. In matters of the heart, however, Norwegians and Swedes found each other the most desirable and within the political sphere they were each others’ closest allies. Barton’s comparative study of the two groups is admittedly more speculative in nature, but no less productive in results by focusing on the differences between the groups. Some of Barton’s findings are less surprising than others. That the Norwegians were the more nationalist of the two immigrant groups makes sense in term of Norway’s political development over the nineteenth century ending with its independence in 1905. That Norwegian Americans wrote more novels than Swedes was unexpected. As was the conclusion that Swedish Americans generally outpaced their Scandinavian neighbors in the sciences and technology, the visual arts and business. As Barton states, differences such as those I have pointed out are compelling and open new lines of investigation for further research. How to assess why these differences occurred, however, is not as easy or apparent.

 

The second section examines the central position that diverse aspects of culture held in the Norwegian and Swedish immigrant experience. The following three chapters stood out: Odd S. Lovoll’s opening chapter, “Preserving a Cultural Heritage Across Boundaries: A Comparative Perspective on Riksföreningen Sverigekontakt and the Nordmanns-Forbundet” skillfully depicts how even as societies were started in both Norway and Sweden to promote home colonization, the two societies mentioned in the title were founded to cope with expanding populations outside the nation state. Lovoll’s explanation of how each society aimed to create a notion of worldwide nationality founded on the promotion of cultural retention within emigrant populations is thought provoking, particularly regarding the underlying conservative politics at its core, a point I would have liked to see more thoroughly developed. In “Freedom, Identity, and Double Perspectives: Representations of the Migrant Experience in the Novels of Vilhelm Moberg and O.E. Rølvaag,” Ingeborg Kongslien illustrates that although each author penned works of historical fiction and not historical accounts per se, due to the authors’ personal experiences the novels nevertheless provide ample and reliable insights into Scandinavian emigration, including those historical, psychological, sociological and existential. James P. Leary’s “Är Du Svenske?”–”Norsk! Norsk!”: Folk Humor and Cultural Difference in Scandinavian America” is the highlight of the section as it is rich with familiar jokes that become compelling examples of the development of cultural difference between Norwegian and Swedish Americans. Leary convincingly maps how “Scandihoovian” humor is more about negotiating relationships between Norwegians and Swedes in the United States than about any actual reference to the homeland. Indeed, he illustrates that what often appears as insider teasing is in reality a way to communicate cultural difference to the wider, and often undiscerning, American public.

 

The third section of the collection identifies areas where conflict arose between the Scandinavian immigrant groups. The first two chapters examine how Norwegian independence affected relationships between Norwegian and Swedish Americans, while the second two chapters scrutinize the complex divides, factions and mergers within the varying denominations of the Lutheran Church in the United States. Jørn Brøndal’s “We are Norwegians and Swedes Now, Not Scandinavians”: The Impact of Norwegian Independence on Scandinavian American Politics in the Midwest” and Ulf Jonas Björk’s “An End to Brotherhood?” Swedes and Norwegians in America Discuss the 1905 Union Dissolution” are complimentary chapters that detail the ramifications of Norway’s independence on political and social alignments between Norwegian and Swedish Americans. The conclusions of both chapters reflect back to my earlier statement concerning the collection overall: conflicts were limited and those that arose were short-lived. As each chapter suggests, pan-Scandinavianism seems to have post- dated any animosity, albeit at varying levels across time and place. Kurt W. Peterson’s “A Question of Conscious: Minnesota’s Norwegian American Lutherans and the Teaching of Evolution” is the stand out piece of the collection. Peterson targets the imperative position that Norwegian American Lutherans held in early twentieth century debates concerning the status of evolution in public schools and by doing so, places current discourse on the subject into a new, and nuanced historical context. The chapter is filled with—what was for me at least—compelling insight into how Lutheran history supported the separation of church and state, thus ultimately rendering null the scheme to legislate the exclusion of evolution in Minnesota’s public schools and universities. Peterson asserts that, “many Lutherans wanted nothing to do with [legislation] because they wanted nothing to do with the Reformed tradition. Their fight was not simply over the teaching of evolution; for them, the heart of their Lutheran theological heritage was at stake.” Equally compelling is the way in which Peterson details the close ideological ties between Norwegian American Lutheranism and the broader Evangelical movement.

 

The closing section of the collection is a fitting bookend to a study that casts a wide net as it examines both distinct features and broad trends within the Norwegian and Swedish American community. That this section is the largest reinforces the collection’s unifying intentions. Each chapter features a case study of a specific cluster of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants within the United States. The section is rich with description and details, demographics and specifics, whether investigating the nontraditional immigrant position held by many Norwegian and Swedish engineers and architects, as in Per-Olof Grönberg’s contribution, or chronicling the narrative of an insulated Scandinavian enclave on the shores of Lake Superior, as in Philip J. Anderson’s piece. All but one chapter, however, focuses on Scandinavian communities in the Midwest. The exception being Jennifer Eastman Atterbery’s “Scandinavian’s in the Rocky Mountain West: Pragmatic and Programmatic.” Atterbery’s very interesting examination of Scandinavian settlements in Montana and LDS Utah (touching only briefly on California) broadens the scope of what is an otherwise very regional-specific section. In fact, the exclusion of the West is one of the shortcomings of the collection as a whole and I would have liked the same rigorous scholarship that pervades the collection applied to Norwegian and Swedish communities in California, Oregon and Washington, or for that matter, to those in New York and the East. One of the most outstanding features in this section is the way in which personal narrative and family history interjects into large-scale and oftentimes characterless demographic statistics. In more than one instance, particularly in Byron J. Nordstrom’s “Norwegians and Swedes in Willmar, Minnesota, in the Early Twentieth Century,” general and sweeping statistical information is transformed from the tedious to the compelling by granting the dates, numbers, and anonymous names on the page, a narrative. By fleshing out both the communities under study and particular individuals within those communities, the closing section is a fitting end to what is a comprehensive, informative and insightful study of Norwegians and Swedes in the United States. The information presented in this study will most certainly fuel and encourage subsequent research and publication in the field.