Part 2 of my exploration of Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story [Read Part 1]
Transcript follows: The opening of Louisiana Story conveys such an overpowering sacredness that it feels sacreligious for me to talk over it. Major credit must go to Helen Van Dongen’s editing, which lavishes us with one amazing view of nature after another. Though I have to wonder how much of the power of this sequence is owed to Virgil Thompson’s Pulitzer Prize winning score. In fact I think I recall a film school anecdote where this sequence was played both with and without music, and the difference was like night and day. That might seem like nothing unusual, but with the Flaherty aesthetic there’s more at stake — a cinematic ideal, one I happen to find truly inspiring. And that’s kind of the frustrating thing about Robert Flaherty’s aesthetic, and Louisiana Story in particular — is whether in practice it truly upholds that ideal. But first, here’s Frances Flaherty to say more about it:
[Frances Flaherty's interview clip]
The shot of those bubbles for me is the boolean switch that makes Flaherty’s ethnographic voiceover something enchanted rather than cheap. That shot not only serves as an explanation for Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour’s visions, but it’s an invitation for us to see the same way; to see things anew. This primordial approach to seeing proves essential for a movie that is intended to make us see the oil industry in a new light.
The awesome first appearance of the oil rig, floating like an apparition feels like a threat to the environment and a work of modern art, redefining the landscape, its strictly linear geography giving order to the wilderness. From today’s vantage point we’re likely to see this moment as an environmental travesty — but to appreciate Flaherty’s art, one has to suspend such hindsight judgments and entertain the way of seeing he’s offering here…
like with this scene that shows the oilmen at work. Never mind the ridiculousness of this boy being welcomed into such a dangerous environment. This sequence is so beautiful in capturing the rhythms and music of work, thanks again to Helen Van Dongen’s editing, but this time without the grandiose music lifting the proceedings — and for that I consider this scene Flaherty’s great achievement – because it fully lives up to his ideals — taking the audiovisual materials captured by his camera and sound — directly, non-judgmentally, and making the beauty of life evident, even in this cold industrial setting, not unlike what Jacques Tati would do 20 years later in Playtime. This is what Siegfried Kracauer and the modernist film critics loved about Flaherty, his ability to save man from the alienation wrought by modern industrial civilization through the use of modern technology, the camera.
But then midway through the movie, something goes wrong… the cinema that I’m praising here starts to unravel, whether through the demands places on Flaherty or through his own weakness, he succumbs to two temptations of modern cinema that compromise his art: narrative and action filmmaking. There’s a completely gratuitous action sequence where the boy, suspecting an alligator of eating his pet racoon, exacts revenge on the alligator by attempting to trap it … and notice how his pulling action matches the pull of the chain in the oil drilling sequence. Flaherty’s comparing industrial man and rural man in their attempts to tame nature and impose human order. But this comparison is dubious because the boy’s revenge act is totally unwarranted — it’s in the alligator’s nature to kill a raccoon, he shouldn’t be killed for it. Flaherty’s reverence and professed acceptance of nature’s ways is thoroughly undermined by his own impulse for cheap narrative thrills.
This moment constitutes a loss of innocence for Flaherty’s cinema from which it never recovers. Flaherty can no longer sustain his mandate that we see the world with boyish wonder, because his attempt to construct it has become too obvious and strained. When the oil well goes bust, the boy performs some homemade voodoo. We’re meant to admire his capacity to believe that such rituals will work miracles, but to me it feels contrived, as if Flaherty has lost faith in the power of found images and feels compelled to manufacture this dramatic climax. Sure enough the oil starts flowing… and the boy’s family can reap the rewards with more groceries and appliances for their home. But this isn’t just a narrative about capitalism, it’s narrative as capitalism — the splendor of Flaherty’s wondrous cinema and its potential to turn everyday life into poetry is turned into a commodity in itself, to push forward a vision that’s stunningly prosaic.