Monday, November 27, 2017


Momoa as Declan Harp

“Frontier” is sort of halfway between “Longmire” and “Game of Thrones” in terms of style and casting.  Zahn McClarnon is only in the first episode of the new series and Tantoo Cardinal is in the last, but Jason Momoa is all the way through, the fulcrum and justification for the production.  An imposing figure, he is partly Native Hawaiian but doesn’t play that.  If he did, I would remind the uninformed that among the other fur trappers were Samoans and Iroquois.  They came from everywhere for beaver gold. 

Another character I found notable was Jessica Matten.  She’s tall, tough and beautiful with a fabulous hair treatment.  Her film name, Sakanon kept disconcertingly echoing “Outlander’s” Sasenack. which I can’t spell.  But I gather that Matten is fully capable of walking in Cardinal’s moccasin path.  She’s not limited to historical dramas.  There’s a lot of indigenous talent in this film, and all are quite conscious  of the impact.

Since Bob Scriver was a fur-buyer, a trade he learned in Edmonton, and he continued it alongside the taxidermy business in Browning, the smells of raw fur, the mild acid of the tanning vat (which was in the basement of the shop — I don’t know whether it’s still there — it was an old wine fermenting wooden tank), and sometimes the lingering scent of the living animal were kindled while I watched.  

The matrix at top, knapped off shards fanned out

This is the first time I’ve seen flint-knapping -- the creation of an edged hand-ax or spear head -- actually done in front of the camera.  Most people only know it in terms of diamond cutting.  The idea is to find the subtle fracture-potentials in a stone and hit it in a way that will remove a “flake” to create the edge.  There was a hobby flint-knapper in my Saskatoon UU congregation who said you could always tell someone who did this by the many small wounds on their forearms, where the flying cleaved-off bits hit the cleaving person.  Here’s a link if you want to learn how to do it.

Before exploiting the mineral resources of the west and north parts of the continent, and even before the timber extraction, the engine of profit was fur-trapping.  It followed the usual arc of discovery, accumulation, transportation across the profit boundary between acquisition and commerce, and humans striving to exploit national powers while ignoring tribal entitlements.  This sort of thing does not support very good behavior and often gets entangled in the military and the sex trade.  Bottom line: it creates a whole new culture, the Métis.  Its impact is global, into the faraway lives of Britain.

All this when the western half of Canada still more-or-less belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company, resource entrepreneurs who finally settled for being department stores.  In 1975 the Hudson’s Bay archives were opened for public research and added to the “Memory of the World”  They’re kept in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Access to them prompted a lot of new writing and I’m sure the writers of this series made good use of them.

The surprisingly symphonic score is by Andrew Lockington, who seems to do scores for sci-fi and monster movies.  He was also nominated for Best Original Score for a Fantasy/Science Fiction Film, for City of Ember.  The sweep of the music echoes the sweep of the land.

The credited lead writers are brothers.  Peter Blackie was born and raised in Gander, Newfoundland. He is a registered architect with The Newfoundland Association of Architects, and is a graduate of the Master of Architecture Program at the Technical University of Nova Scotia (TUNS) (1996), the Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies program, also TUNS (1994), and of the Bachelor of Arts Program (Philosophy) at Dalhousie University(1992). Peter has lived and worked as an Architect in New York, Berlin, the Dutch West Indies and finally Halifax before returning to Canada in 2010 to focus on writing and producing television in St John’s.  His brother Rob Blackie is an award winning filmmaker who holds a Masters in Fine Arts (Film) from Columbia University (2007) along with a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws from Dalhousie University (1999).  

These are unconventional and impressive backgrounds for film makers, but certainly explains their success in controlling dramatic and shocking material against a background of detailed and controversial history.  The addition of gays to the mix is a modern touch — no need to exclude what is bound to be a major part of the audience.  The costumes, by John Ground (who as far as I can tell is not related to the Blackfeet John Ground) are one of the great pleasures of this series, and, in fact, is the cause of one of the best stories, the casting of Greg Byrk as Cobb Ponds.

Cobb Ponds

“Rob called me, and I remember being in a parking lot in the Distillery District [of Toronto]. ‘Greg, hear me out on this. We have a character. So far we haven’t written a line for him yet. We have no idea what he could become or will become. He’s a cross between this real-life assassin-gunfighter that exists—historically from Boston—and Oscar Wilde.’ I’m like, ‘Done. Let’s have an adventure.’”

We literally created this character from scratch and when I first walked in and I saw the fox hat. When [costume designer] Michael [Ground] handed me the hat I had everything I needed to know about this character. There is such a playful malevolence about him and the idea of sexuality and femininity and being placed in that historical context but to be this completely complicated and contemporary man, in a lot of ways, was a fascinating adventure. We found moments throughout Season 1—some dark, horrific moments and moments of real longing and being lost—and that arc/descent accelerates during Season 2. Cobbs goes to some places that I was so thrilled to get to be able to take him and really explore what love means to this character, what loyalty means, what ambition means, what greed means, what savage revenge means … all the while spinning in the most beautiful clothes one could ever hope to dress themselves in.”

Everything was shot on location where there was snow on the ground and people wore coats, often mentioned in the dialogue.  You can buy some of Declan Harp’s coats here:  But not that fabulous sheepskin long coat that is reversible, looking like a polar bear pelt on one side and sueded golden leather on the other.

This is a purely Canadian production with characteristic cultural mix of languages (there are subtitles) that is organic. But the land, both the bleached treeless moonscape of the Inuit and the tangle of woodlands quite different from the West Coast timber, transcends the human story.  No more "good gray" fantasy about Canadian righteousness.

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