Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Robert J. Flaherty | Man of Aran

the lure of the native
by Douglas Messerli

Robert J. Flaherty (writer and director) Man of Aran / 1934

Often described as a fictional documentary film (an ethnofiction), Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 work Man of Aran might better be described as pure romantic hokum, a work which in its poetic intensity is perhaps closer to someone like Jack London than the post-war neo-realists.
      The major tenets of this film, that the isolated islanders living in harsh conditions off of the western coast of Ireland are a beautiful folk who live in a premodern world, struggling to grow potatoes on stony cliffs by using seaweed as soil, surviving by rock fishing, and keeping their lights on by hunting and harpooning large Basking sharks to render their liver oil into lamplight are almost all fabrications. The seaweed, in fact, was used mostly as a fertilizer; shark hunting had stopped nearly a half-century before the making of this film, and the director needed to bring in Scottish sailors to show the Aran natives how to maneuver their harpoons; and the small crabs and fish that the family’s young son catches would hardly have supported the hunger of a larger family.
      Indeed, even the family Flaherty portrays, the father, Man of Aran (Colman ‘Tiger’ King), the mother (Maggie Dirrane), and son (Michael Dillane) were not related, and were chosen for their photogenic capabilities.
           If the storms and slapping waves against the stony coast, captured by Flaherty’s wide-lens camera (the camera evidently dwarfed by its lens) during his several visits to the island over two years are quite astonishing, the movie’s final scene, in which the shark hunters are nearly lost in a huge storm, was also an utter fiction—and a dangerous one, since, it is rumored, none of the men could swim. Even Flaherty latter admitted: “Looking back I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do for the film…for the enormous risks…and all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pound a piece.”
      Yet, that last scene is so very powerful, looking as it does a bit like something like Albert Pinkham Ryder’s 1880s work, The Waste of Waters Is Their Field, that we can only wonder at the scene. Moreover, as we know from movie history, there were plenty of filmmakers from the 1920s and 1930s who put their stars in great danger: Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd—to name only a few.
      Today, there are a great many critics of this work who completely dismiss it for its lack of proper focus—some arguing that instead of man vs nature, the film might have dealt with the Irish treatment of the island’s poverty-stricken population and the tariffs applied to them—while others such as George Stoney, who created a documentary about the making of the film, Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, How the Myth Was Made, have continued to attack the movie outright for its fabrications. Others have been kinder to the film, which received great acclaim upon its premier, not only from Irish and British viewers, but from the Nazi government, who saw in Flaherty’s myths of the outsider, issues which resonated with their own visions of themselves. It is apparent that Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was influenced by Flaherty’s film.
      But it is equally clear that for Flaherty there was no political intent, but, perhaps just as dangerously, as writer Arthur Calder-Marshall notes, Man of Aran is an “’eclogue’—a pastoral and marine poem”—as I would argue, not a film you can easily make under the guise of a paean to a real place and its people. Ryder’s wild landscapes come to mind again; we know these wonderful works are from a feverous imagination, not from a stolid vision of reality.
      Flaherty loved the exotic, worlds he felt had been left behind by the modern world—and were better off for it, despite the hardships their cultures might have had to face. If only Flaherty had never been classified as a documentarian his films might proffer a different kind of perspective of a man who, in the depths of the Great Depression, who offered lullabies for a people whose land, agriculturally and economically, had betrayed them. Flaherty’s mock-nativists survived because they’d never even entered the 20th century. And the lure of that world still exists. Is it any wonder that Riefenstahl, in her later years, photographed African tribal natives?

Los Angeles, November 21, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).

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