Friday, August 30, 2019

The Elements

No wonder that primitive people worshipped nature as a god: the harsher that nature becomes, the more grandeur and beauty it has. In explosive bursts of power, it subdues us, and we exalt it in return. The people in Robert Flaherty’s elemental Man of Aran (1934) live by the skin of their teeth—they can barely manage to keep themselves fed—but they celebrate their proximity to the very force that threatens them daily.

The Atlantic Ocean as a venerated threat.
In movies such as Nanook of the North (1922), The Pottery Maker (1925), and Moana (1926), Flaherty, who started as a still-photographer, developed a style that has been called “narrative documentary,” “docufiction,” and “ethnofiction.” Whatever one calls it, its filmic impact is undeniable. Certain aspects are fictionalized or anachronistic, such as the basking shark hunt in Man of Aran, but audiences respond rapturously to Flaherty’s alchemy—the way he combines anthropological accuracy with the aesthetic drive of storytelling and characterization. Before Nanook, Flaherty had traveled to Hudson Bay with an early movie camera to film the Inuit people. But he rejected the results—the “filmed nature” approach without any artistic shaping or organization, which anthropologists might consider “true” documentary—referring to them as pointless and boring.

Trying to save the wooden-hulled craft.
In Man of Aran, Flaherty scripted characters in naturalistic settings—the tiny hovels and villages in the Aran Islands off the storm-battered west coast of Ireland—and then cast local fishermen and their wives and children in those parts. These non-actors have craggy, leathery faces and gnarled hands; they’re the weather-beaten salt of the earth of primitive myths. No part of their lives is ornamental; everything seems destined either to signify their scrappy religious faith or to increase their chances for survival. Even their homes—huts or shacks—show virtually no sign of impracticality; these people, engaged in epic battles against nature, have no time for tea, as they say.

Man of Aran is marvelous cinema. Few other movies or styles combine realism and spirituality with this much primitivist poetry.