It will be 80 years ago this August that Robert Flaherty’s docu-fable Man of Aran won the prize for Best Foreign Film at the third Venice Film Festival. In a world where certain market psychologies would have you think that something a year old is passé, a documentary that’s been eight decades in the rearview mirror could be assumed to interest only academics and deep-diving film buffs. But Flaherty’s piece, which vividly evoked (somewhat anachronistically) the rugged lives of Aran Islanders, seems to resonate from around the margins of present popular culture. Daniel Radcliffe is currently starring on Broadway as “The Cripple of Inishman” a drama based around the production of the film, a 2010 feature-length retrospective on Flaherty (“A Boatload of Wild Irishmen”) references Aran in its title and a recent DVD release of this semi-silent film features a new soundtrack by the iconographic indie-rock group British Sea Power. On their regular albums, BSP’s poetical topics often revolve around the natural world and geographical/environmental themes that are simpatico with Flaherty’s work. Samplings of their lyrics are in bold face throughout.
“I headed for the coastalry/Regions of mind, to see what I’d find”
Robert Flaherty had considerable difficulty duplicating the great achievement of Nanook of the North, his 1922 Eskimo epic that is widely considered to be the mother of all narrative documentaries and also helped popularize awareness of indigenous populations. It would not be until 1934, twelve years after Nanook, that Flaherty would recapture his winning formula for success with Man of Aran. It is a film filled with stark beauty and authentic admiration for the stalwart people of these islands off the west coast of Ireland, a place where “the peculiar shelving of the coastline piles up into one of the most gigantic seas in the world”. As in Nanook, Flaherty went beyond straight documentary; he also convinced fishermen and their families to collaborate with him in conjuring up a nearly pre-industrial lost age, making for a unique film experience but one that has come in for a certain amount of criticism over the years.
“Hoopoes and herring gulls over chalky cliffs/It’s all that’s left you know, carbonate and myth”
Initially, Flaherty had mixed results gaining the islanders’ cooperation but eventually recruited enough residents to make the production possible and was assisted at times by members of England’s famed EMB Film Unit, the groundbreaking organization run by John Grierson, the man who coined the term documentary after seeing Nanook of the North. Yet the film was financed as a “real-life drama” by the Gaumont British studio. It was just as well. Flaherty, who was born in 1884, had “one foot in the age of innocence” according to photographer Walker Evans and was a filmmaker who was as enthralled with the spirit of truth as he was with the letter of it. Several recent documentaries, like Surviving Progress or Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, have noted a particular aspect of our current ecological crisis stems from the notion that mankind sees itself as separate and superior from the very planet that it is part of. Man of Aran by contrast is a vivid re-imagination of man as sublimely co-existent with nature and even if this ideal is archaic or unrealistic, it still remains a quiet but powerful corrective.
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In this arcadian sequence above, boy protagonist Michael Dillane interrupts his fishing to climb partway down a craggy bluff when he spies a basking shark lolling just below the water’s surface (at the end of the clip which is 5:10 not 1:34 as listed). The song that British Sea Power chose to go along with this scene is a lovely instrumental re-working of the song “North Hanging Rock” from their 2005 album Open Season.
The local practice of hunting these whale-like creatures with harpoons died out a half-century earlier but Flaherty’s enthusiasm and persuasion won the day and soon the men, especially his closest Irish collaborator Pat Mullen, were brushing up on the subject and getting new harpoons forged. This centerpiece of the film, and one of the great prototypical scenes Flaherty would ever commit to film, shows Mullen and the “Man” of the title (Colman “Tiger” King) as they lead the crew through the daunting surf in their modest curraghs then meticulously track down and harpoon the beast—but not before it repeatedly slaps at the boat with its tail and nearly tows it out into the open sea. This led to rebukes that his film almost led to the drowning of a “boatload of wild Irishmen.”
“I don’t know what I’m made of or where from I came/Don’t even seem to remember my name or why the ghost’s alive in this cave”
Although Flaherty did not pretend that he was making anything more than a “picture” that used real islanders, Man of Aran can seem disingenuous when the purpose of the hunt is said to be to gain “shark oil for their lamps”. Electricity had been available on the Aran Islands for some time. Contemporary critics pointed out that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the poverty and absentee-landlord system that existed on the Arans at least deserved a mention. The headstrong Flaherty felt entitled to his own agenda and his tribute to his leading man (“In this desperate environment the Man of Aran, because his independence is the most precious privilege he can win from life, fights for his existence, bare though it may be”) can and probably did resonate back then as well as any more literal recognition of economic inequality.
British Sea Power is based in Brighton on England’s cliff-lined southern coast and is known for their melodic indie rock and poetic lyrics that veer from personal and romantic concerns into themes that suggest astute ecological and historical awareness and that celebrate the overarching domain of nature. There are not too many bands out there inventing words like “coastalry” and writing a paean to “Larsen B” their “favourite foremost coastal Antartic shelf” that disintegrated in 2002. When the band addresses Larsen with the acknowledgment “you had 12,000 years and now it’s all over” the bittersweet observation seems turned on mankind itself, esp. with the recent escalation of dire warnings about catastrophic climate change and the Ostrich Oblivion of denial and resignation that exists alongside it.
“Daisy chains of light surround the city now/They glow but never quite illuminate/Hell and high water won’t stop us now/The future’s twisted, righteousness is coming back around/And we fall like sparks from a muzzle”
In Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story, his last major film, benign oil riggers treaded lightly on the primeval Cajun bayou and indulged its inhabitants (the film was commissioned by Standard Oil though R.H. had free creative reign). Flaherty tried to see his way clear to a world where industry and nature could indefinitely co-exist. Were it only so. When British Sea Power advocated “Lights Out for Darker Skies” on their 2008 CD, Do You Like Rock Music?, it reminded me of a couple of things—the ethereal late-night radio ads from a skywatcher’s advocacy group I used to hear in the Eighties and the idea that the true meaning of the word “understanding” is nearly literal with the idea of letting oneself stand under something in order to fully comprehend it. BSP’s brand of bracing anthemic rock comes from that same imperative, devoid of the overly self-conscious type of uplift you get from bands with similar attributes. (Not to mention any names, but one has the initials A.F. and another has the initials U.2.) If you like rock music pick up one of their CDs, you won’t be sorry.
Official video for British Sea Power’s “It Ended on an Oily Stage.”
All rights to video, music and re-printed lyrics go to BSP and their publishers