Man of Aran & Louisiana Story

Man of Aran. Year: 1934. Running time: 77 minutes. Black & white. Directed by Robert Flaherty. From Home Vision Entertainment.

Louisiana Story. Year: 1948. Running time: 79 minutes. Black & white. Directed by Robert Flaherty. From Home Vision Entertainment.

Review by Derek Hill

Although Robert Flaherty is generally considered the father of documentary filmmaking, it would be unwise and misleading to consider him a traditional documentarian by any stretch of the imagination. Understanding that it is virtually impossible for the camera not to interfere with the subject's reality, that "objectivity" is merely a quixotic dream for the director, Flaherty eschewed any attempt of capturing moments of strict naturalism. Instead, Flaherty strove for faux authenticity and the secret fire of poetic realism. Ever the Romantic, it was Flaherty's quest to make the flickering lies across the movie screen the true history that stayed with us when we ventured back into the light of day.

Flaherty is probably best known as the director of Nanook of the North (1922), a film chronicling the day-to-day struggles of the Eskimo Nanook and his Inuit family. Praised by critics and audiences alike, the film also displayed what many detractors dislike about Flaherty's films — na´ve romanticism, manipulation of the film's subjects to fit a particular scenario, deliberately falsifying reality (having the Eskimos wearing traditional clothing that they no longer wore, for instance). But despite whatever qualms one may have concerning his gloriously staged scenes, Flaherty the cinematic poet is a formidable filmmaker indeed.

Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948), both available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment, showcase both Flaherty's strengths and weaknesses in bold fashion. The former title is a deliriously heroic portrait of a proud Irish fisherman from the Aran Islands. Flaherty's intention was to chronicle a day in a life of a fisherman (Colman "Tiger" King), his wife (Maggie Dirrane) and their son (Michael Dillane), as they struggle to stay alive upon a weather-beaten desolate island. In typical Flaherty style, people from the island were selected to "play" the principle leads, and a "story" was concocted by the director so that he would be able to explore, to the utmost degree, the drama and cosmic significance of the islanders' battle against nature.

The film contains two memorable scenes in particular that exemplify said battle: the opening with the fisherman barely surviving a raging storm (which almost killed Maggie Dirrane) and the infamous shark-hunting scene. The latter is infamous since shark hunting hadn't been done in the Arans for over 50 years when Flaherty filmed there between 1932 and 1934. Flaherty also took other liberties, such as excluding any visual evidence of the island's more wealthy landowners of the time. Regardless, the film brilliantly showcases Flaherty's straightforward yet subtle use of montage, luminous black-and-white cinematography, and vivid set pieces. Almost 70 years since its release, Man of Aran is still a monumental work.

Louisiana Story is even better. Made only a few years before Flaherty's death (and unfortunately his last production), the film documents the life of a young Cajun boy on a Louisiana bayou. The swamp is a seeming oasis of adventure and daydreams for the youth. But when the tyrannical majesty of big oil drilling machines roll through the swamp looking for the black gold, life on the bayou becomes even stranger and more malevolent.

Commissioned by the Standard Oil Company, this "autobiographical" film (Flaherty grew up in the Canadian wilderness where his father was a mining engineer) is almost tragically beautiful at times and remarkably restrained when it explores the clash of cultures that could have easily been relegated to a Boy equals Good, Oil Company equals Bad dichotomy. Since we are viewing the world through the boy's eyes, the terror of seeing the oilmen venture into his world is also coated with fascination and wonder. The machines roar into the swamp like mighty biomechanical animals from the boy's daydreams. Like the skilled storyteller that he is, Flaherty infuses needed ambiguity into the story, giving the film an added weight and emotional core that it wouldn't have had otherwise. The score by Virgil Thomson also helps in this department, beautifully expanding the film's mundane storyline into the realm of myth. Unforgettable.

Both discs are loaded with insightful extras, adding to one's appreciation of these classic films. The 60-minute documentary (made in the late-1970s) that accompanies the Man of Aran disc is excellent. Returning to the Aran Islands in order to reclaim the myth of the life portrayed in the film, and to demystify Flaherty's representations as well, the documentary revisits an elderly Maggie Dirrane (who was still proud to be a part of Flaherty's visionary film) and many of the people who helped on the production. Not all of the islanders are fond of Flaherty's film, and the documentary nicely explores how one man's myth is another man's pack of lies.

The disc also contains a long documentary excerpt with Francis Flaherty (Robert's wife and collaborator), a discussion with Francis about the making of the film, as well as a short interview with Robert Flaherty about the film.

The Louisiana Story disc unfortunately doesn't contain a lengthy documentary, but it does include a filmed conversation with Francis about the making of the film, among other interesting extras. Both discs are highly recommended

Man of Aran and Louisiana Story are now available on DVD from the Home Vision Entertainment in new digital transfers. Special features of Man of Aran: a documentary about the making of Man of Aran titled How the Myth was Made; a documentary excerpt from Hidden and Seeking, in which Frances Flaherty reflects on her life with Robert Flaherty; Flaherty and Film, a filmed discussion between Frances Flaherty and Robert Gardner about the making of Man of Aran; and a gallery of production stills, sketches, and publicity photos. Special features of Louisiana Story: a reading of cinematographer Richard Leacock's letters with images from the production; a documentary excerpt from Hidden and Seeking, in which Frances Flaherty reflects on her life with Robert Flaherty; Flaherty and Film, a filmed discussion between Frances Flaherty and Robert Gardner about the making of Louisiana Story; an excerpt from a 1940 film directed by Robert Flaherty for the United States Department of Agriculture, titled The Land; and audio commentary by Richard Leacock and Frances Flaherty over the framed opening sequence. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.