Sunday, May 06, 2018

Blind Date with Nitrate 2018: Man of Aran (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Robert Flaherty, UK 1934
Print source: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY
Running time: 76 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 6 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

A gift to the Eastman Museum from the Flaherty estate in 1964, this stunning print has held up remarkably well and shows little damage. Some perf and edge damage has been repaired. Shrinkage: 0.75%

About the film

"The eternal and endless surge of the sea on the rocks, the awful and impersonal hatred which the flood tide expresses in its brutal sweep, are brilliantly created on Mr. Flaherty's canvas. The theme develops symphonically, rising in excitement, shortening in tempo, establishing in the spectator an emotion that is beautiful, tragic and cleansing. At the last, as the seas strive with Providence for the souls of the Man of Aran and his comrades in the tiny curragh, and in defeat continue to smash relentlessly against the towering cliffs, the tendency of the spectator is to hang back in terror from the screen and finally to droop in exhaustion" 
- Andre Sennwald, The New York times, October 28, 1934

"The islanders risked their lives to make the film. The curraghmen in the storm sequence went out to the sea three times, at increasing peril, till [Robert Flaherty] got the stupendous result shown. When the films were projected, the cast and village friends cheered. But they had their superstitions, beginning with the opinion of some that the camera lens was an evil eye."
- David Flaherty, New York Herald Tribune, October 28, 1934

"The awarding of the Mussolini Prize to Man of Aran at the recent international festival of films at Venice is an ... important event in the history of the world-cinema. For this is the first occasion on which an unequivocal victory has been gained by that type of film called 'documentary'."
- Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1934" (NPS)

AA: Man of Aran brought to completion Robert Flaherty's trilogy on "man against the elements" preceded by Nanook of the North and Moana. Flaherty was interested in the eternal story, the pre-modern way of life going back to millennia, the "paradise lost", already vanishing from memory but still just barely possible to reconstruct with people living close to nature. Flaherty made people play their ancestors, and often they had to be taught obsolete customs of previous generations. Certain customs were fictional.

Flaherty's grand poetic visions, focused on the mythical dimension, are ethnofictions without ethnographical validity. They are, however, always tributes to the people on display, mythological accounts on ways of life, made with the people and for the people. Irishmen were proud of Man of Aran, as were the islanders who played in it. It was a poetic celebration of Irishness essential for Flaherty personally, proud of his Irish roots.

Man of Aran is one of the great sea movies, belonging to a noble tradition also including Jacques-Yves Cousteau and dating back to the Lumière brothers (a favourite of mine is Mauvais temps au port, Vue N° 1096) and the Brighton school and including the sea masterpieces of Jean Epstein. Michael Powell was influenced by Flaherty in The Edge of the World. The sublime of the sea has never been more powerfully rendered than in Flaherty and Powell's films. During a storm in the Atlantic waves higher than a high-rise building hit the rocky island and almost drown it.

Flaherty ignored social and religious conditions, imported the customs of the exciting shark hunt sequence from Scotland, and confessed that he should have been shot for having put people in peril in order to get an exciting scene. But Araners defended him. Araners are the heroes in this drama illustrating the battle of survival, not documentary or truthful in detail but true on more profound and eternal levels. Perhaps even John Ford (whose yacht was called USS Araner) was influenced by Flaherty in The Long Voyage Home. Man of Aran is a saga of human dignity and nobility beyond social structures.

The cinematographer was Flaherty himself. His vision is brave, dark, and engrossing.

The visual look of Man of Aran, based on fine shades of darkness, must be difficult to reproduce in copies.

This vintage print from the Robert Flaherty estate reveals the original look of the masterpiece, covering the full scale of light from the velvet black to the silky white.

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