Man of Aran (1934)
Directed by Robert J. Flaherty
76 min; Great Britain; Black and White; Mono
In the May 1927 issue of Amateur Movie Makers, Robert J. Flaherty, director of the acclaimed Nanook of the North (1922), and Moana (1926), declared that he intended to make a "camera poem" about the city of New York. The project did not materialize as expected.1 Instead, Flaherty collaborated with F.W. Murnau on Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), but ultimately withdrew from the project during production. Crossing the Atlantic in 1931, Flaherty heard stories about the inhospitable environment on the islands of Aran, which lie west of Ireland, and the fiercely independent people living there. He conceived an idea to make a film about the islands and brought it to John Grierson, Assistant Film Officer for the Empire Marketing Board in England. Grierson had previously worked, briefly, as a film critic and as such had praised the "documentary value" of Flaherty's Moana (he's also recognized as one of the major proponents of documentary filmmaking in Great Britain and some credit him with popularizing the term documentary itself). Grierson and Flaherty presented Flaherty's new idea to Michael Balcon, production chief of the Gainsborough Company, and he agreed to fund the picture. Flaherty and his team spent nearly two years on Aran casting and producing the picture. According to Balcon, the resulting film, which had an estimated budget of £10,000 but instead cost more than twice that amount, was worth every pence spent on it. Man of Aran has been labeled a naturalistic documentary, a romantic documentary, a mockumentary, and cinematic ethnography. Marveling at the stark beauty of the images, and noticing the mix of fiction and documentary filmmaking techniques, I think it's better described using Flaherty's 1927 term, "camera poem."
With funding in place, Flaherty and his wife Frances, accompanied by his assistant John Taylor, relocated to Kilmurvey in the western part of Aran. There, with the help of a local, Pat Mullin, acting as "major domo, casting manager, and liaison officer," they got to work. They converted a stone storehouse into a laboratory for developing, drying and printing film, and used a petrol generator for electricity. They constructed cottages for crew quarters and for interior scenes. Meanwhile, Frances photographed some of the island's inhabitants to aid in the casting decisions. The film's three stars were non-professional actors hailing from Aran, Colman (Tiger) King (The Man of Aran), Maggie Dirrane (his wife), and Michael Dillane (their son). Flaherty and his camera operators shot the film using three sturdy metal spring-wound Newman-Sinclair A cameras, fitted with long-focus lenses, mounted on tripods with gyro movement to ensure steadiness in the unpredictable shooting conditions. Once the picture moved into the production stage Flaherty sought Frances' input on the daily rushes.
Aran family and fishermen grapple with the sea for their curragh.
Flaherty described the main concept of the film as "man in conflict with nature."2 Opening title cards describe the Aran islands as a barren location, "three small wastes of rock...without trees...without soil," that are pounded by gigantic waves during the gales that blow up in winter. As one of Flaherty's assistants reminds us in George C. Stoney's documentary How the Myth was Made (1978) "the film was basically about the sea," and perhaps a starring credit should also go to the Atlantic ocean because the thundering sea gets a majority of screen time and plays the part of the heavy, confronting every effort the islanders make to improve their condition. For example, early in the film the family and some island fishermen work together in the roaring waves to bring a fishing curragh and nets safely in to shore (see photo left). But even this seemingly everyday task proves dangerous when the wife is nearly washed out to sea. She's saved thanks to her husband clutching her by the hair (a real-life moment of terror for Dirrane who had fallen into the water and couldn't swim). Later, we see more harmless but no less difficult tasks as man and wife toil together to scour soil from between rocks, pound stones to form farmland, and gather and lay seaweed, all in an effort to grow potatoes on the bare rock. Meanwhile, their son fishes from high atop a cliff, and spots huge basking sharks making their annual migration past the islands. The climax of the film follows as the men of the island risk their lives to hunt the sharks and the rest of the family renders the animals' livers for oil to light their lamps (activities the real islanders engaged in only in the past). Through it all, a mounting winter gale whips up the white foamy sea and it inexorably crashes into the rocky shore, destroying nets, boats, and nearly the Man of Aran too.
Though John Greenwood's excellent score, based on original Irish folk songs of the Aran Islands, the thunderous sounds of the surf, and snatches of dialogue enrich the experience of watching Man of Aran, the filmmaking nevertheless drew me back in time to make comparisons with some of the best filmmaking techniques of the early silent period. Much of the cinematography here is remarkable for it's beauty, and looks like perfectly composed still photographs set to motion. That reminds me of the framing and composition style of the best of the Lumiere films. Editor John Monck (Goldman) reveals in Stoney's documentary that these images made his job more difficult because each shot was "perfectly composed in itself and didn't necessarily lead from anywhere to anywhere." Apparently, Flaherty and his crew didn't adhere to a shoot-to-edit philosophy of filmmaking on this picture. In addition, I found the action sequences reminiscent of the films of D.W. Griffith because they proceed in Griffith's favorite style: parallel action. Whereas Griffith might cut back and forth between criminals on a railroad handcart making a frantic getaway and the heroes rushing after them by steam locomotive, Man of Aran mainly cuts between the Aran islanders and a violent sea.
Man of Aran premiered at the New Gallery in Regent Street in London 25 May 1934. A reviewer noted, "'Man of Aran' cannot exactly be said to have taken London by storm, but...there exists a public sufficiently interested in the art of cinema for its own sake, and numerous enough to ensure an adequate commercial return for the outlay of time, labor and money required in the production of a film of this kind."3 Over the next few months, the film continued to run in London, found welcome screens in continental Europe, and received the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film of 1934 at the Venice Film Festival.
In September, Balcon, Flaherty, and the cast arrived in New York where the film premiered at the Criterion (see photo right) as part of an effort to break British films into the lucrative American film market. Critics familiar with Flaherty's most famous film, Nanook of the North, recognized the filmmaker's style and the similar theme of the movie even though Man of Aran is set far away from the land of the Inuit. "With the fervor of a poet and skill of a magnificent cameraman he once more examines...the grim and ceaseless struggles of primitive beings to preserve their lives against the crushing assaults of their environment," wrote Andre Sennwald in the New York Times.4 The film was awarded a Best Foreign Picture award for 1934 from the National Board of Review. However, the movie wasn't a hit with everyone. "The movies are not for misery..." wrote one disappointed viewer to the screen editor of the Times. "They are for rest, for a haven, for laughter, for thrills and for tears that are not too bitter."5 In retrospect it seems reasonable to assume that some cinema-goers simply preferred the entertaining fare offered by studio features, such as Frank Capra's highly popular It Happened One Night (1934) to Flaherty's bleak tale of survival. Sennwald attributed this sort of reaction to the simple fact that "this masterpiece of pure cinema artistry" lacked the "fictional qualities which pay dividends at the ticket window."6 Defending the film, Flaherty asserted that from its inception "such a picture is treated differently than a studio picture," and that it "must not be judged by the standards of the studio, but by measurements of its own."7
Given the nature of these complaints, it is interesting to note that the film was subsequently attacked for it's fiction filmmaking techniques, for dramatizing events, for failing to be simply a reflection of life on the Aran Islands, for failing to include certain social realities, etc. These complaints appear more concerned about a film Flaherty did not make than the film he did. Moreover, the manner in which many of the films' critics scrutinize Man of Aran is problematic because they treat the film as a nonfiction documentary when, in the words of the film's editor John Monck (Goldman), "it was not a documentary, it was never intended to be a documentary, and never could be a documentary." In Stoney's film, Flaherty biographer Arthur Calder-Marshall concurs that the filmmaker was creating a piece of poetry not a record of actual events.
I think the fact that Flaherty's style isn't easily pigeonholed as either a fiction or documentary affects the reactions of audiences, critics, and writers.8 The movie presents staged events, in real locations and conditions, to communicate to the viewer how people adapt to a comfortless environment. But, if Man of Aran isn't a documentary and it isn't a fiction film, but has elements of both, just what kind of film is it? In the Spring 2004 issue of Cineaste Paul Arthur referred to Flaherty as "the progenitor of the ascendant postmodern documentary" in reference to the film. Film historians Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell term it a "romantic documentary." Others describe it as cinematic ethnography. I call it a cineaste's perfect fire starter: just get three film critics into a room, loudly declare that Flaherty's film is the best documentary ever made, and watch the sparks fly!
1. Twenty-four Dollar Island (1927) had a very limited release and suffered an unfortunate fate when it was trimmed to just one reel and used as background projection for a stage routine at the Roxy in New York. See Lewis Jacobs, "Experimental Cinema in America: (Part One: 1921-1941)," Hollywood Quarterly, 3:2 (Winter 1947-48) 113.
2.Robert Flaherty, "Man with a Camera," New York Times, 11 November 1934, x5.
3. Ernest Marshall, "Flaherty's New Film" New York Times, 10 June 1934, x4.
4. Andre Sennwald, "The Screen" New York Times, 19 October 1934, 27.
5. Rosamond Botsford, "Audience Reaction," New York Times, 11 November 1934, x4.
6. Andre Sennwald, "Laments for Two That Died," New York Times, 4 November 1934, x5.
7. Flaherty, "Man with a Camera."
8. For recent evaluation of Flaherty's film as a documentary see, for example, Jerry White, "Arguing with Ethnography: The Films of Bob Quinn and Pierre Perrault," Cinema Journal 4.2 (Winter 2003) 101-127; Eliot Wienberger, "The Camera People," Transition 55 (1992) 24-54. An evalutaion from an anthropological perspective can be found in Solon T. Kimball, "Man of Aran. 1932-34 by Robert J. Flaherty," American Anthropologist, New Series 79.3 (September 1977) 749-51.