Available on VHS PAL several years ago, Robert Flaherty's highly romanticized film makes its debut on DVD, in a jam-packed release.
The included bonus documentary, “How the Myth Was Made,” is an excellent revisitation film. Unlike “Return to the Edge of the World” - a short, nostalgic documentary that reunited filmmaker Michael Powell with the Shetland islanders of Foula 40 years after the filming of his own 1937 ocean rock mini-epic, “Edge of the World” -“Myth” reveals some of the Aran islanders still have a bone to pick with Flaherty's film.
Directed by American George C. Stoney (with James B. Brown), “Myth” initially starts off as the filmmaker's personal journey to visit the land of his own father's childhood, and includes a delightful reunion between Maggie Dirrane (who co-starred as the family matriarch), and future documentarian, Harry Watt, who served as Flaherty's assistant. Watt also accompanies Stoney to key locations where “Aran” was photographed, crudely processed, and edited, and the two discover an attic that still keeps an odd assortment of vintage souvenirs. There's also an excerpted outtake, and a filmed recreation of an aborted sequence that was to have shown how cows were herded and transported to waiting ships in the harbor.
The charm and charisma of the older islanders is offset somewhat by interviews with subsequent generations, who believe Flaherty's movie is anything but a documentary. Perhaps better characterized as a poetic reconstruction of a more archaic existence – the shark hunt was enthusiastically re-staged with vintage implements by the islanders in 1934, according to the son of Assistant Director Pat Mullin – “Man of Aran” does elicit, at the very least, one major question among viewers: Why would anyone with a sober mind want to live on a barren rock that lacks trees, soil, and forces its half-mad inhabitants to wander across devastatingly treacherous plateaus for seaweed, and endure days tossing in a thin boat for possible food and oil?
Stoney's interviews reveal the fondness and mild rancor that still peppers most inhabitants when asked about the film's legacy and romanticized poverty, and these are contrasted with expertly interwoven clips from “Aran,” details of the islands as they really were in 1934 – far more civilized than depicted – and shots of the busy, quite religious community in 1977, when the documentary was made.
Should a filmmaker be faithful to the reality of a community's life, or be free to create a mythical land that may discolor the world's perception of a vibrant, albeit isolated, culture? It's an issue that remains unresolved in the end, and will no doubt provoke additional questions in viewers unfamiliar with “Man of Aran.” That's precisely why this set is a treasure, because it promotes deeper thoughts and emotions perhaps unintended by Flaherty. Scenes of the family struggling across rough plateaus and outcroppings, while the Ocean's fury repeatedly pummels and drags them closer to the point of no return are truly exciting; and the same holds true in a simple sequence where the son fishes from a cliff – literally perched at the edge, leaning forward as he bobs his lure hundreds of feet above jagged rocks. No safety nets, hidden leashes, or parents out of camera range, as Flaherty's wide shots make it quite clear this kid's a mere wind gust away from a tragic fall.
One of England's cinema titans, producer Michael Balcon, also appears in several interview clips in the “Myth” doc, along with acid-tongued “Aran” editor, John Goldman; the latter notes that Flaherty knew 30% of the battle was making the film, and the remaining 70% was pure publicity. The generous still gallery attests to the director's flair for drama: aware he had captured scenes of a life unknown among city dwellers, Flaherty toured with his “ideal family” – the 3 islanders that comprised the father, mother, and boy – in a campaign that included a massive, multi-story poster.
Also excerpted in the ”Myth” doc is a 1951 colour interview with Flaherty. Titled “Looking Back” (4:55), the unedited material covers casting of the boy, and some amusing anecdotes on a Christmas tree, and the islanders belief in fairies.
“Flaherty And Film” is similar to the segments excerpted in HVE's “Louisiana Story” DVD, and collects additional comments from widow Frances Flaherty in a 1960 TV program. Mrs. Flaherty extrapolates on her husband's theme of the Individual coping with the Environment; the film's genesis; the islanders' initial suspicions of the invading film crew and subsequent co-operation; and the film's 1934 premiere. It's a mix of warm spousal emotions, an obvious effort to preserve Robert Flaherty's memory, and vintage spin against the accusations of his contemporary, and future critics – such as the director's biographer, Arthur Calder-Marshall, who appears in the “Myth” documentary.
HVE's DVD of “Louisiana Story” also included excerpts from “Hidden and Seeing,” a 1971 documentary of Frances Flaherty, then 87, at her Vermont home. For the “Aran” disc, different material – likely the second half of the film – follows the original title sequence, and as a whole, the doc has a kind of rambling quality. The filmmakers follow their subject to a town environmental meeting regarding the construction of a nearby nuclear power plant, and intercut endless scenes of Mrs. Flaherty wandering in the forest, in the field, and by a pond. Edited to her personal comments, the key issues are her sense of detachment from global problems, and her inner frustration in not being heard by the world. (When given the opportunity to vent, one poor soul is forced into silence by her sharp voice and fiery eyes.) The best bits concern her clarification of Flaherty as an independent filmmaker, and though she doesn't fully acknowledge some of the director's flaws as revealed in the “Myth” doc, she admits his working style – more instinctive than his widow's methodological approach – affected his output: a mere 4 films during his final 30 years.
Mrs. Flaherty's words also fill the set's booklet, with generous quotations from the memoirs of Assistant Director Pat Mullin, and the narrative describes the director's decision to shoot a boat sequence on the western side of the isle -–a deadly collection of jagged rocks and massive cliffs repeatedly struck by immense waves.
Flaherty's films remain treasures of Cinema, and HVE's DVD offers a combustible stew of opinions, attitude, and passion, and a movie that still makes jaws drop with its highly romantic images.
Transferred from a decent print, there's less grain, scratches and rumbling audio when compared with clips featured in the “Myth” documentary. Though “Aran” was Flaherty's first sound film, the soundtrack is an extremely intelligent mix of score (adapted from folk themes by John Greenwood), sound effects, and dubbed dialogue.
Photographed with a boxy camera lacking a reflex lens, viewers may noticed odd framing – a problem that was typical, according to a segment in the “Myth” documentary, of the vintage field camera - but the movie's power is hardly diminished.
Flaherty's final film, "Louisiana Story," is also available from HVE on DVD.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan