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Man of Aran

Home Vision Entertainment

Directed by Robert Flaherty


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


By the 1930s, renowned American documentary filmmaker and world traveler Robert J. Flaherty had transported silent-screen audiences to exotic lands in Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926). In 1931 he moved to England to work in collaboration with movers and shakers within the burgeoning British documentary scene. Eager to inject both inspiration and Flaherty's handling of technique into the their work, British documentarians such as John Grierson welcomed him as an innovative master craftsman who had proven that non-fiction films could be popular with critics and everyday audiences alike.

A string of silent shorts with titles such as Industrial Britain and The Glassmakers of England gave a dignified face to the British worker, though it wasn't until 1934 that the U.K. got its first full-blown "Flaherty film." It was a feature-length sound film (Flaherty's first) called Man of Aran. This look at the brutal living conditions endured by subsistence farmers and fisher-folk on the austere, isolated Aran islands was emotionally evocative, stunningly photographed, and a commercial success. It was also the most controversial work of Flaherty's career. Audiences from London to New York loved it, but critics and fellow documentarians decried the degree to which Flaherty's staged inventions distorted (or scuttled outright) filmmaking's much-vaunted powers of truthful observation.

Situated among the frequent and violent storms that slam into its barren landscape, the Aran Isles are "three wastes of rock" off the western coast of Ireland. They mark the westernmost point of the European continent. The largest, Inishmore, is eight miles long. For two-and-a-half years Flaherty lived on Inishmore, shooting vast quantities of film while immersing himself in some intuitive, idealized Aran-ness. He dwelled there (quite princely, it's reported) largely cut off from the world except for his small crew and the young filmmakers who went there to watch and learn from the master at work. During those years he turned local residents into some of the most photogenic character actors ever to define the term "weathered visage." The islanders didn't fully understand Flaherty's purpose or motives, and were correspondingly suspicious. After he scouted out practically every villager abiding in that rocky landscape, his principle cast — whom he coaxed into working for him through equal parts cajolery, a priest's assurance that the boy wouldn't be made into a Protestant, the promise of payment, and a hard-hitting local brew served at weddings and known as potheen — was Mickleen Dillane as the Boy, Maggie Dirrane as the Woman, and Coleman "Tiger" King as the Man of Aran himself. King was a blacksmith by trade, but like most of the islanders he was also a boatbuilder, a fisherman, and a farmer.

Flaherty used this faux family (man, wife, child) as the centerpiece of a dramatized "day in the life" that enacted events far removed from anything ever experienced by the urban audiences who eventually cheered Man of Aran. Flaherty captured monstrous ocean waves crashing into limestone cliffs hundreds of feet high, filmed murderously storm-wracked fishing excursions to harpoon immense basking sharks (in one scene we witness a woman almost drown under pounding waves, and she's not acting), showed how to grow potatoes on craggy land that has little soil but an abundance of seaweed, and underlined what it really means to live yoked to the necessity of back-breaking labor. (No matter how bad your personal situation in life happens to be, or how desperate you feel just waking up in the morning, watching Man of Aran will wrench your perspective so sharply that you'll feel much, much better about damn near everything before the closing credits roll.)

More than a decade later Flaherty romanticized (albeit beautifully) the arrival of Big Oil into the Cajun swamplands (Louisiana Story), and that film earned international acclaim as a work of sublime art. Man of Aran, although likewise poetically tilted and crafted with rigid deliberateness, was a victim of unlucky timing. During those two years of shooting, the world had changed. By 1934 Britain could read the writing on the wall of Europe. The Depression was at its worst and war with Germany was rumbling on the horizon. Although Man of Aran was well received by the general public, Flaherty's documentarian colleagues and several influential critics turned cold shoulders to it. In England and America documentaries were now seen as powerful tools for social change, not idyllic stagecraft no matter how well executed. By shooting a re-enactment of ancient fishing techniques that had been left behind a century before, Flaherty made Man of Aran less a window into Aran life in the 20th Century than his interpretation of a state of rugged grace that romantic writers such as W.B. Yeats and William Synge projected onto the 19th Century.

In other words, it wasn't considered a true documentary in any precise definition of the word. It didn't help Flaherty that Man of Aran's depiction of noble, hard-working peasants toiling without complaint found favor with the Nazis, an unwelcome taint worsened by Flaherty's reputation for socialist leanings. The realities of the islanders' grinding poverty, religious strife, and stark economic inequity were completely absent from Man of Aran. So instead of exemplifying a record of documented fact, to many Flaherty's pre-modern romanticism had led to a false mythology that was evasive or dishonest — or worse, propaganda.

There is some validity in those criticisms, and the well-documented controversies surrounding Man of Aran began well before anyone had seen even a single reel of footage.

But that's not to say that the chilly professional reception that Man of Aran received was entirely honest or fair. The movie earned the USA's National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film, and at the Venice Film Festival it took the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film. When Pauline Kael stated that "Robert J. Flaherty left the Aran Islands with a truly exalted work ... undoubtedly the greatest film tribute to man's struggle against hostile nature," she was seeing Man of Aran as Flaherty intended — as a film, not as a pamphlet on social realism.

Flaherty believed that documentary narrative should "come out of the life of a people, not from the actions of individuals." Therefore, in Man of Aran and other films he aspired to show people in a Rousseauvian natural state, braving the fierce elements and maintaining a way of life that by all appearances (though Flaherty selectively fudged the facts here) existed unsullied by Mankind's modern technology or lifestyles. His trademark stunning location photography across that magnificent habitat, given further impact and rhythm through exceptional montage editing, paints a memorable portrait of Nature as an all-powerful, uncaring force that Flaherty's subjects must live in harmony with and struggle against every day of their lives.

Man of Aran's melodramatized scenes of life lived literally on the edge can be viewed either as artifice for the sake of art, and therefore serving a deeper "truth," or else as — in the words of Graham Greene — "Mr. Flaherty's bogus and sentimental picture." In either case, there's a potent humanism in Man of Aran that plucked strings within a public that had reason to feel dehumanized by their own rough reality. Even the most polemical or informational documentarian could benefit from understanding how Flaherty's lauded technical strengths were all focused like laser beams on illuminating a fundamental humanity that bridges Nanook's frozen north to the Irish sea cliffs and the bayous of North America.

*          *          *

As with their simultaneous release of Louisiana Story, Home Vision Entertainment gives Man of Aran the Criterion treatment on a DVD that presents a good print of the film plus a collection of no-fluff supplementary extras that would fill out a film school course in Flaherty 101.

Man of Aran looks very good, all things considered. The print is in fine shape for a 1934 vintage film, with no more than an expected and acceptable amount of scratches and wear present throughout. The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio suffers in comparison, being rather thin and — not surprisingly, given not only the limitations of 1934 recording equipment, but also the encumbrances built into recording in this environment — the dialogue of the islanders is frequently difficult to make out, even if we could translate through their thick-as-porridge Gaelic brogue. The musical score comes through well, as does the crashing roar of the ever-present sea.

The keystone extra is How the Myth Was Made (58:26). Director George C. Stoney (himself a pioneer of the social documentary and whose father was born on Aran) and some of Flaherty's original crew revisited the Aran Isles in 1977, more than forty years after Flaherty had left. "We went to record how and why America's greatest film poet worked as he did, and to see what effects the release of his masterpiece, Man of Aran, had on the people who represented themselves on the screen." This documentary recorded how Flaherty set up his scenes and molded locations and customs to fulfill his vision. Islanders who participated in the original film are interviewed and heatedly argue the "myth" versus the truth in their portrayal more than forty years earlier. This is a remarkable documentary in its own right, one that adds insight and depth to what Flaherty achieved through Man of Aran. The charming old woman here in Maggie Dirrane, who recalls the incident in the film where she came close to drowning in the stormy ocean. We discover that a production shack where Flaherty's footage was developed on location still holds equipment stored over four decades. The film uncovers important aspects of the islanders' character and lifestyle that viewers of Man of Aran didn't see, and it's fascinating to observe the reactions of the Aran islanders now to the film Flaherty made "about" them. Flaherty's collaborator/wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, is here and makes a good case for her husband's goals and intentions. As in other supplements on this disc and the DVD of Louisiana Story, she is on record as the pioneering filmmaker's greatest champion and most passionate torch-bearer.

Looking Back (4:55) is footage of Flaherty (who died in 1951) discussing some of the conditions he, Frances Flaherty, and the crew encountered during the two-and-a-half years of production on the Aran Isles.

Flaherty and Film (16:25) is a segment from a series of discussions with Francis Flaherty filmed in 1960. It's hosted by Robert Gardner, director of Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography. With serene, genteel eloquence, Mrs. Flaherty discusses her husband's devotion to the filmed image, with this segment devoted to Man of Aran.

Another excerpt from a longer work is Hidden and Seeking (29:44), an in-depth 1971 documentary with Mrs. Flaherty reflecting on a shared lifetime of learning to "see" with the eyes of the camera.

Finally, Outside the Frame (15:26) is a gallery of thirty click-through production and behind-the-scene stills, headshots, sketches, and publicity photos pertaining to Man of Aran.

The packaging comes with a fold-out insert that provides an essay compiled from The Odyssey of a Film-maker: Robert J. Flaherty's Story, written by Frances Flaherty. Within this excerpt Mrs. Flaherty quotes extensively from the memoirs of Pat Mullen, an Aran islander and assistant to Flaherty during the production.

—Mark Bourne



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