October 26, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The Films of Robert Flaherty and John Grierson

Man of Aran. 1934. Great Britain. Directed by Robert Flaherty

Man of Aran. 1934. Great Britain. Directed by Robert Flaherty

These notes accompany the Robert Flaherty and John Grierson Program on October 27, 28, and 29 in Theater 3.

Robert Flaherty (1884–1951) is credited with being the father of the documentary. There had, of course, been “actuality” films from the very beginning of cinema; the Lumiere brothers sent film crews around the world to bring the wonders of the planet to audiences long before jets made it possible for large numbers of people to travel to exotic or remote locales. The great photographer of Native Americans, Edward Curtis, had released In the Land of the War Canoes (In the Land of the Headhunters: A Drama of Primitive Life on the Shores of the North Pacific) in 1914. (Curtis was primarily known for his photographs of “Indians,” and this was his only motion picture.) Flaherty had previously made a failed attempt at capturing the lives of Baffin Island Eskimos, and Curtis’s film inspired him to try again. The resulting work was the much more familiar Nanook of the North (1922). Although both men shared a Romantic desire to preserve native cultures on film before the incursion of “civilization,” Flaherty was more adept at co-opting some of the zeitgeist of Hollywood. Such a judgment would be anathema to the “Flaherty cult” that flourished for a long time, but nonetheless, Flaherty’s pure, authentic vision was tempered by an irrepressible artistry that caused him to shape and manipulate his material, while remaining true to his basic principles. Nanook made a lot of money and was critically acclaimed, as was his later South Seas film, Moana (1926).

Man of Aran. 1934. Great Britain. Directed by Robert Flaherty

Man of Aran. 1934. Great Britain. Directed by Robert Flaherty

After a falling out with F. W. Murnau over Tabu in 1931&Mdash;Murnau, a much more self-conscious artist, had no particular interest in ethnographic authenticity; some of his best films, after all, were about hotel doormen, pacts with the Devil, and vampires—Flaherty made a few short films in Britain. Man of Aran (1934) was Flaherty’s first sound feature, and while it fits his established anthropological pattern, it tends toward greater narrative coherence. The poetry is supplied by the enormity of the natural forces with which the Aran islanders must contend, and the fathomless, unforgiving beauty of the shark-infested sea. The film was criticized by, among others, his friend John Grierson, for ignoring the contemporary reality of the Depression and the economic exploitation of the islanders. Grierson wrote, “I imagine they shine as bravely in pursuit of Irish landlords as in the pursuit of Irish sharks.” In Flaherty’s (and auteurism’s) defense, historian Jack Ellis pointed out that “in some respects his films are as much about him…as about the people he was filming.”

After one more frustrating attempt to participate in the commercial/fiction industry (Zoltan Korda’s Elephant Boy in 1937), Flaherty returned to documentaries. His The Land (1942), produced by the U.S. government, dealt with some of the contemporary social issues he had previously avoided and was cited by the late critic Stuart Byron as the greatest documentary ever made. His final feature, Louisiana Story (1948), is beautifully photographed, but its message about the harmlessness of oil-drilling has been somewhat undermined by, among other disasters, the recent BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. By the way, the film was produced by Standard Oil of New Jersey.

John Grierson (1898—1972) was a disciple of Flaherty’s, but one who was critical of his mentor’s detachment from the real world. His films (which were mostly directed by others, with Grierson as supervising producer), including The Drifters, Granton Trawler, Song of Ceylon, Night Mail, and dozens of others, were authentic, but they generally didn’t aspire toward being poetic. Grierson was the central figure in the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada during the Second World War, and he invented the term “documentary” and developed a coherent theory of its meaning. Because he was involved in so many films seen by so many people, he was in many ways a more influential figure than Flaherty. We are in his debt every time we turn on our television for a nonfiction program or tune to one of the numerous cable channels that specialize in the genre. He was an able teacher, if not an artist.

MoMA’s To Save and Project festival continues, and for their special historical importance I recommend Alexandre Volkoff’s The White Devil (Thursday, October 28) and the Disney/Iwerks animation program (Sunday, October 31). We are planning a possible Volkoff retrospective for 2012, and there will be other Disney shorts shown in the Auteurist History series early next year.

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