Man Of Aran (DVD)
Though director Robert Flaherty is known as "the father of the documentary" for making 1922's Nanook Of The North, an ethnographic year-in-the-life portrait of an Eskimo and his family, the title comes with a giant asterisk, because much of Nanook's action was staged (or restaged) for the camera. In many ways, it was a fitting beginning for an inherently slippery form, one that consistently prompts questions about the truth and how it's evoked, contextualized, and manipulated both by the camera and by the filmmaker's agenda. And yet Flaherty should be exempt from such questions, because he was never a documentarian so much as he was a great mythmaker and imagist, conjuring harsh beauty from far-reaching landscapes and indigenous people who seem immune to the march of time. For taking the camera to exotic places where it had never gone before, Flaherty was also accused of being a showman who fudged authenticity for the sort of eye-catching cinematic spectacle and drama that could rope in crowds like a carnival barker. But the gorgeous new DVD reissues of 1934's Man Of Aran and 1948's Louisiana Story are a fresh reminder that Flaherty's legacy defies easy categorization, because his idea of truth was neither as literal as a documentarian's nor as sensationalistic as a showman's. Produced over two and a half years on the Aran Islands, "three wastes of rock" off Ireland's western coast, Man Of Aran studies a battered community that epitomizes the struggle between man and nature. As he did with Nanook, Flaherty had his subjects "perform" their lives in a way that seems authentic because their duties and traditions have been captured with meticulous attention to the smallest detail. Limiting the dialogue to a few unintelligible overdubs, Flaherty favors long, lyrical, and often suspenseful sequences with the visual purity of the best silent cinema, goosed up only by a sophisticated sound mix and dynamic montage editing. Against the barren rocks and crashing waves, Man Of Aran celebrates survival and resilience under punishing conditions, as the islanders dig through crevices for precious soil, fish from towering cliff faces, and battle a massive basking shark for two days, just to render enough oil for their lamps. In stark and pictorially ravishing terms, the film depicts man's heroic relationship with the environment–an unpredictable and merciless source of sustenance, peril, and unvarnished beauty. Flaherty's commitment to finding remote natural settings didn't change with his final masterpiece, Louisiana Story, but, for the first time, he wrestles with the tension of a once-timeless place being invaded by the modern world. Graced by the woodwinds and harps of Virgil Thomson's Pulitzer Prize-winning score, the famous opening sequence of a young Cajun boy gently guiding his canoe through the bayou has a poetic lyricism worthy of Rousseau. When a towering oil derrick is erected near the boy's home, his natural curiosity draws him to its orbit as he tries to incorporate a machine into his previously secluded world. Financed by the Standard Oil Company, Louisiana Story doesn't take any obvious position on the rig's presence in the bayou, which could be seen as disruptive or awe-inspiring, depending on the viewer's perspective. In either case, the gentle, lightly humorous tone is so effectively aligned with the child's point of view that environmental politics never quite enter into the equation. The mixed and overlapping bag of supplements on both discs confirm Flaherty's interest in image-making above all other concerns, which explains why the stolid 60-minute documentary (1978's How The Myth Was Made) included on Man Of Aran seems beside the point. In order to show "the consequences when life becomes myth," director George C. Stoney rounds up islanders who participated in the film, but in doing so, holds Flaherty to standards of documentary realism that never interested him. As Flaherty's wife and collaborator Frances eloquently phrases it during an interview included on the Louisiana Story disc, he was devoted first and foremost to the camera, "a machine for seeing more than the eye can see."