Saturday, June 5, 2010

Real jaws

It is time to stop arguing about whether Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) is an accurate depiction of life on the Western Isles in the early 1930's. It's not, and it wasn't meant to be. Although Flaherty is one of the founding fathers of film documentary, his practices and aims are utterly at odds with the documentary movement's mainstream today.

Flaherty was a film poet as surely as John Ford or F.W. Murnau. (Some call Griffith a poet, but he was a Victorian novelist.) His poetry was built on the stuff of real life, but it was not intended to reproduce real life, but distill its essence. The people of the Western Isles didn't live quite as starkly as the film shows, but in comparison with the way the rest of us live, the ruggedness of eking an existence out of this harsh environment is clear. Which brings the joys of home and hearth into even starker relief.

The excerpt above illustrates just how intimately the people of Aran live with the natural world. It brings life and takes it, and Flaherty's use of long lens blurs the great distances and puts small, fragile man into greater proximity with the dangerous world than perhaps he was in real life. So, the cinematography's tools are used to make a point, much of the action is staged, and modern objects and tools are banned from the camera's view. The larger point is served, and what we see is not lies, but the truth edited into poetry. (You'll notice that the sound is all post-synched, with varying success. I don't think Flaherty cared much about the soundtrack, he was such a creature of silent film. But the powerful score is an important first for him, and he commissioned a first rate score from Virgil Thomson for Louisiana Story in 1948.)

What I didn't expect about the film is that 34 minutes or so in, it turns into one of the all-time great shark movies, better in ways than Jaws. For one thing, you don't see the shark coming. In fact, you can't even recognize it when you first see it, as it hovers just below the surface of rippling waves. Then the small boy who has first spotted it recognizes what it is, and then we do. And it is big. Really big. And it is swimming along with its mouth open, ready to indiscriminately swallow whatever comes into its range. There is no malice from this shark, just hunger.

And then these crazy Irishmen go out to get it. Talk about needing a bigger boat! Their boat is about the same length as the shark, and the combined weight of the fisherman is probably the same as the fish. If you have a friend who doesn't think they would like 1930's docs, show them this shark hunt, and see if this isn't some of the most exciting film footage ever.

As I've learned with Nanook of the North and the power it exerts over the young students of my film classes, Flaherty still weaves his magic, bumpy editing and abrupt transitions and all, and draws the audience into his exotic worlds, through the power of image upon image.

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