Not long before his death, legendary and influential documentarian Robert Flaherty completed this stunning film "Louisiana Story," for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, and through the long production and editing seasons, he managed to create a work that shows both a culture in transition - the life of an Acadian family, and their land altered by the arrival of an oil drilling rig and its 'genial' team - and fulfills the company's desire to educate and entertain general theatre audience about oil. While generally propagandistic - the change in terrain as marsh reeds are flattened, and the good luck offered by the local boy that results in a money-making geyser are shown as elements of positive modern progress - Flaherty nevertheless makes it clear through authentic locations and his non-actors that a way of life is being destroyed. The "Christmas tree" that caps the piping for future pumping may gleam brilliantly in the film's final shot, but after montages of the boy's life and the surrounding wildlife, and peaceful sounds and still images of his world before the derrick's arrival, contemporary audiences knew something significant was being lost.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD offers a beautiful transfer of Flaherty's final film, photographed by Richard Leacock in stunning black and white over 14 unending months in Louisiana, with an original score by the great Virgil Thomson. A few spots show some wear, and it's clear some reels were in better shape than others, but "Louisiana Story" is a beautiful movie that recalls the high contrast black and white cinematography of pioneering visualists like Gregg Toland. With a cleaned up print and crisp sound, the movie's an absolute treat for cineastes.
Fans of the director and his longtime collaborator and wife should seek out Ralph Rosenblum's superb chronicle as an editor, "When the Shooting Stops…" (published in 1979, and reprinted by Da Capo press). His first gig on a feature film, Rosenblum worked as an assistant editor on Flaherty's swan song, and offers a detailed, personal assessment on the creative relationship between the director and his wife; and longtime editor Helen van Dongen, who, over time, learned to watch the director's subtle behaviour during screenings of rough footage, and decipher which ticks and particular anecdotes were genuine criticisms and editorial suggestions. A complex man, the late Rosenblum characterized Flaherty as "a lonely and misunderstood man, much abused in his own profession. Even documentarists who hailed him as their founder and flocked to his side during the filming of "Man of Aran" had, by the time that film had been finished, largely dismissed him as irrelevant and even blind."
Skeptics may find some impatience with the generous interview material on the disc, gathering extracts of Frances Flaherty as she discusses her late husband and the techniques used by the couple on various projects. In "Flaherty and Film," a 1960 kinescope with Robert Gardner, she seems to be reading off-camera lengthy chunks of prepared statements, waxing her' husband's gifts and reaffirming his pivotal role in the documentary genre with iron determination; but in subsequent replies, it becomes clear she's a natural raconteur. Much like her husband, Frances Flaherty has many stories to tell, and she frequently looks off-camera while recalling intriguing adventures. The theorizing gets a bit thick - though less rigid in the way Patricia Hitchcock, in her own interviews, has transformed father Alfred Hitchcock as a genius without human flaws or professional controversies - but in the end it all comes off as pretty genuine. One can't help be won over by this strong-willed woman who trekked to the most barren places on Earth for art, for unique work, and the immense love of her husband.
Whereas the 1960 interview is a Q&A session with lengthy film clips from the restored print, "Hidden and Seeking," directed by Peter Werner in 1971, is less formal, photographing Frances Flaherty at a campus, in her office, and on the family farm, where her son ploughs a field for planting. When shown watching old family movies of the kids, the sprightly grandmother admits that filmmaking and having children isn't a wise move, but her life is all the richer for having a large extended network. There's also a delightful moment when Flaherty tries on a battery belt and shoots the camera crew with a new Arriflex camera; shades of septuagenarian Leni Riefenstahl carrying the same camera on her titanium shoulder among the Nuba, as the gleaming eyes of senior filmmakers never lose that special glimmer.
"Study Film" recaps the opening montage, with audio extracts by Frances Flaherty and cinematographer Richard Leacock. "Louisiana Story," as explained in "Flaherty and Film," evoked some of the childhood memories of its director (his father was a surveyor for a Canadian mining company), and Leacock describes how the edited footage follows the director's Growth philosophy; as still images and subtle movements move towards the boy, rafting through the bayou, the minutia evoke distinct moods and contrasts between Man and Nature. Leacock also points out the film was the first time Arriflex cameras were used in an American feature film.
Leacock's 14-month term on location and its effects on his marital life are captured in extracts from letters with his wife (actually named Happy), read by an engaging actor. There's choice anecdotes about the nightmarish legal work the team had to endure to engage 12 year old Joseph Boudreaux with Louisiana's Napoleonic child labor laws and the state's slower wheels of judiciary motion; filming on location amid alligators; and Leacock's increasing disillusionment with Flaherty as each cash advance from the film's backers extended the production's stay - and allowed more retakes and reshoots. Calling himself "a stinky, absentee husband," Leacock nevertheless gives credit to the director when footage of the drilling rig, shot at night, proved to be a magical experience, and far superior to the previous daylight footage. (That sequence alone is incredible, with the crew wrapping chains around huge shafts with short pauses to get hands and limbs free before a giant winch yanked phallic equipment deeper into the Bayou.)
Lastly, HVE includes an extract from "The Land," a short made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1939-4. The extract follows the abuse of overgrowth and over-development by large agri-businesses, and foreshadows the plight of the migrant worker and local farmers - most tenants on the land they once owned - and the death of farmland. According to Rosenblum, who learned his craft working at the government's documentary unit, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the government lost interest in the film, and the short was never commercially released. It was only in 1946, after a long idling period, that Standard Oil contacted Robert Flaherty with their project, and much like the French furriers who sponsored "Nanook of the North," gave the director a chance to make another great film.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan