Y’all know the story. The Serpent tempts Eve with an apple, and she in turn tempts Adam with the same. …Okay, some say it’s more likely to be a pomegranate. That’s not the point! In arctic cinema, the temptation is more likely to be a knife or a gun.
…or a sewing needle.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but with Eskimo populations, cinematic stories of a tragic fall from grace certainly do seem to start with the temptations of trade. Much as the fruit of a certain Biblical tree, these trade goods come with a cost, and with a sudden awareness of things that might best be left out of the world altogether. And just as with the story of Adam and Eve, it seems sex is very much at play in these stories.
The movie Before Tomorrow (2009) begins with a story about the Raven, which is certainly a more fitting motif than Genesis for use in an Inuit production, but its implications are no less ominous. This narrative ends badly, as does that of the movie itself. We are then treated to a joyous reunion between friends and family, one of whom carries a brand new knife made of strange materials. It’s extraordinarily sharp and very sturdy. The same guest soon produces an extraordinary set of sewing needles, along with a story of the strangers from whom these items had been obtained. Everyone laughs and marvels at the wonderful goods.
Sadly, it wasn’t simply trade goods these this fellow and his family picked up from the strangers, and the laughter of these opening scenes will lead us only to tears.
But I left out an interesting detail. You see the needles had to be obtained through sex, one night with a young woman for each needle. That was the price, so we are told. This too is cause for laughter and bawdy humor in that happy moment when the characters in Before Tomorrow can still laugh at the whole story and count the encounter with strangers as a blessing of sorts.
Before Tomorrow is an indigenous production. It handles this theme with grace and sensitivity, but of course the scene echoes others that have come before. Few things about the arctic seem to interest movie makers more than Eskimo sexuality, or more particularly those practices giving rise to phrases like ‘Eskimo hospitality’ or ‘Eskimo Brother’. Aware that arctic natives engage in something akin to wife sharing, a number of film-makers have given this theme a prominent place in several productions. The treatment is almost always short on ethnographic detail and long on prurient interests. White Dawn is perhaps the most indulgent of these films, but the theme has a long-standing presence in the history of arctic film. It is commonly bound to the topic of trade.
…and to narratives of the fall.
(Speaking of terrible things, I must warn you that spoilers are coming.)
In the year, 1960 (when Anthony Quinn was an Eskimo), his great source of temptation was a gun. I say he was an ‘Eskimo’, because it really wouldn’t be appropriate to saddle any specific people with the cultural baggage of Savage Innocents. a pseudo-documentary narrator notwithstanding, this film is not about any real-world population so much as a certain imaginary people best called to mind by precisely this grotesque term. Like so many films about natives of the Arctic, Savage Innocents really isn’t a film about Inupiaq, Inuit, Yupik, or even Chupik. It is most certainly a film about Eskimos, and that is a topic that has interested movie-makers long before the general public learned to think twice about such vocabulary. Anyway, when Anthony Quinn was an Eskimo, it was his introduction to the gun that kicked off a crises (and hence the story) of Savage Innocents.
For all its crudeness, Savage Innocents does throw a curve ball into my analogy here. Inuk (Quinn) is the one who first falls for this great temptation. Upon learning that white men will trade a gun for a hundred fox furs, he immediately sets about getting one. His wife, Asiak (played by Yoko Tani), will have none of it. She ends up giving away the gun, because she doesn’t want to live on fox meat while Inuk tries to put together enough furs for the bullets to fire it.
That’s a damned sensible Eve if you ask me!
Too bad Asiak is too late in her efforts to get free of the white man’s influence. A visit from a priest goes rather poorly when he refuses the food she and Inuk offer. It goes even more poorly when Inuk and Asiak offer to let the man ‘laugh’ with her (yes that’s an innuendo). When the Priest denounces the offer in the harshest of terms, a foul-tempered Inuk accidentally kills him. (h meant to crack the man’s head a little, inuk will later explain, but the man’s head “cracked a lot.” Legal troubles will soon follow in the form of Peter O’Toole who plays a trooper sent to catch Inuk and bring him back for punishment.
In savage Innocents, it is the gun which gets the action rolling, but it is sex that provides the tragic turn. It’s an interesting variation on a theme, and of course the movie’s title helps to underscore its relevance to stories of the Fall. Inuk and his wife are savages, yes, but they are also innocent (one might even say ‘noble’). Their encounters with the white world bring little other than the threat of guilt. It is the wisdom of this particular Eve that saves them.
But of course all of these plot developments emulate those of the far more famous film, Eskimo, starring Ray Mala. As in Before Tomorrow and Savage Innocents, visitors bring the temptation to our main characters in the form of trade goods acquired from strangers. A sharp knife is the first temptation to make an appearance in this film, followed shortly thereafter by iron sewing needles, and then a gun. Mala and his family are suitably impressed.
Mala’s wife, Aba (played by Lotus Long) asks a woman in possession of the sewing needles if she had received them from a ship’s Captain. No, her guest answers; “I was only able to please the man who did the cooking.”
And thus we learn the price that will be paid for these goods. Mala will of course trade many furs for his gun, but he will also have to share his wife with the strangers. Far from accepting this arrangement as the normal course of things, Mala is outraged that the strangers have taken liberties without asking for permission. this is not the sort of spousal sharing that occurs in his own village; it is violation carried out by men with no respect for either Mala or his wife, Aba.
But of course, it gets worse.
What interests me most about this, howeever, is not the he terrible consequences of trade with outsiders; it is the moment of temptation. In Eskimo that temptation plays out much as it does in Genesis. It is Aba who asks Mala to go trade with the strangers.
The white men have iron needles-
One could be even a greater hunter with a gun.
Like Eve tempting Adam with an
Apple pomegranate, she urges Mala to begin the quest that will end their simple, happy existence. “The white men have black hearts,” so an elder warns the both of them, and yet Mala agrees to the trip. they will go, he explains, after the long winter night has ended. Aba will herself pay the highest price of the two for this decision, but that too seems rather appropriate for stories of the fall. When such stories approach the status of mythic narratives, at least in the western traditions, women always seem to fall harder than men. Perhaps that is why they are so often portrayed as the ones most responsible for that very fall.
Why we seem to keep telling such stories is another question altogether.
Of course, the story of Adam and Eve is hardly a narrative indigenous to the arctic, but then again, only one of the three stories listed above is an indigenous production. One can almost see the story of Adam and Eve pulling on the the tragic tale in Savage Innocents and Eskimo, even as each movie grapples to one degree or another with the sensibilities of the people it depicts. And yet elements of this trope overlay nicely (though not precisely) with those of Before Tomorrow. In each case, trade with outsiders would seem to constitute the original sin, and in each case sex would appear to be part of the picture.
Sex, occupies a more tempered role in Before Tomorrow than it does in either of the mainstream productions. It’s characters relate the terms of exchange (sex for needles) in matter of fact tones. They laugh yes, but they are not shocked. Perhaps we as the audience are meant to grasp the exploitive nature of the strangers approach to trade, but in Before Tomorrow that is of little consequence. In both Eskimo and Savage Innocents, it is sex itself (or the prospect of it) that triggers the coming hardship. It does so through conscious decisions of the parties involved. In Before Tomorrow, it is something far more subtle, an exchange understood by no-one present in those opening scenes.
It isn’t hard to see a trace of tragedy in the globalization of the Arctic. So, I suppose it should also come as no surprise the onset of trade would provide a ready subject matter for epic narratives about loss of innocence. These stories carry different inflections, but they also carry a few common themes.
…such as , “beware of strangers with really cool sewing needles.”