While viewing the Man of Aran, I could not help but think of Hobbes' comment about life often being "solitary, nasty, brutish and short." When "documentarian" Robert Flaherty traveled to the three harsh, barren Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland to shoot for a period of two years, he knew full well that the inhospitable landscape and laborious manner of life were perfectly suited to his particular brand of filmmaking. The result, Man of Aran (1934), has been given a wonderful, extra-laden release by Home Vision, along with the separate release of his perhaps even more celebrated Louisiana Story
(1948). This DVD not only presents his spectacular rendering of "everyday" life there, but also provides a great deal of material which debunks – and adds context to – the "myth" of Aran that Flaherty created.
Never a stranger to controversy, Flaherty is not – and should not be – considered a documentary filmmaker in the strictest sense of the word, even though he was the most prominent "realist" of his day and helped usher in the documentary movement. Although the term "documentary" was first bestowed upon his film Moana, Flaherty staged elements of his films, heightened focus for dramatic effect, and was generally concerned less with social realities than with romanticized, epic struggles. To add some brief historical context, it's useful to contrast Flaherty's films (and his concerns) with the other forms of "documentary" being produced at the time. Generally, there was the "Grierson" school (largely British and founded by John Grierson, a lifelong friend and ideological enemy of Flaherty), which was predicated on the utilitarian aspect of the documentary, and maintained that the format could expose social reality and thereby assist the public-at-large in rendering political decisions. The other was the expressionist movement being forged by the Soviets (especially Vertov), which – although certainly like-minded insofar as educating the masses was concerned – was equally concerned with the form itself, and made great inroads in both film editing and distancing techniques.
Flaherty demonstrated virtually no interest in truly enlightening anyone to the equally pressing social realities of the islands (religious strife, crushing poverty, etc.) in Aran, nor did he possess any pressing concern for the "revolution" (although he did employ an effective montage when needed). He was primarily concerned with (and romantically intrigued by) less "civilized" societies, wherein the human struggle against nature was often a daily fact of life. His Nanook of the North (1922) captured the harsh existence of Eskimo Nanook and his family, and his Moana (1926) detailed life in Samoa. Man of Aran is not dissimilar to Nanook – in many respects, if you've seen Nanook you've seen Aran. Aran's living conditions are as equally harsh as Nanook's. Since there is precious little real soil to speak of, the inhabitants must plant potatoes in a mixture of seaweed and crushed rock. The struggle for food is equaled by the struggle with the sea, which the fisherman travail in curraghs (and can only be described as canoes), largely inadequate for the stormy seas as shown. The men are also seen hunting the basking shark, a huge creature whose liver oil is necessary for their lamps. These occurrences are pretty much the stuff of Aran – the struggle is the thing for Flaherty, and he illustrates them to grueling effect through the eyes of a small family on the island.
Flaherty's "family" consists of "Tiger" King (the Father), Maggie (the Mother), and Mikeleen (Michael, the son). The sea, which is almost always either seen of heard on the soundtrack, is ever present and what largely defines life for his family – this is the "reality" Flaherty elects to show. Again, virtually every aspect of this film has been staged and is otherwise inauthentic as documentary – his "family," for instance, was of no relation whatsoever. The inhabitants of the island had ceased hunting sharks for decades (Flaherty, ever mindful of his audience, knew that a shark hunt would help pack 'em in). In fact, the dreaded basking shark is not the ferocious "monster" that Flaherty describes it as in his intertitles, but rather a mild-mannered plankton eater, slaughtered nevertheless.
However, the omission of facts surrounding "real" life on Aran really does nothing to diminish the power and beauty of what Flaherty has created – Aran is only suspect if viewed through the lens of pure documentary. Sure it's contrived, maybe even a little hokey at times, but it is also largely beautiful, with scenes of the sea that rival those of any film ever produced. In addition, it's hard to not be moved by the striking silhouettes of the family against the ragged cliffs and pounding surf. Man of Aran is impressively rendered, and even if most of what is shown in terms of "narrative" was staged, it does not take away anything from the travails of its stalwart inhabitants.
Video: Presented in an excellent full frame transfer, Man of Aran looks terrific. For a film shot in the early thirties and developed in a shack on the islands, the transfer is very good – although there are instances of source print damage and scratches, it is generally quite smooth in appearance. Black levels are virtually perfect, and the contrast is also nicely balanced – in short, I have never seen Man of Aran look better. Home Vision is to be commended for this fine release.
Audio: Man of Aran is presented in DD 2.0 mono and is also well-rendered and generally quite clear. There is occasional dialogue in the film, although it not exactly matched to the those speaking and is presented generally for ambience. It often proves difficult to hear (there are times when I suspected Gaelic was being spoken), but since Man of Aran's storytelling is essentially visual, the difficulty in making out the words is not really problematic. The score, which incorporates some traditional folk arrangements from the islands, also sounds quite good.
Extras: For whatever reason, Aran and Louisiana Story were released under the Home Vision banner, even though they are affiliated with Criterion (which released Flaherty's Nanook of the North on DVD). In any event, the DVD of Man of Aran is packed with Criterion-worthy extras:
How the Myth Was Made (58:26) is an informative, valuable documentary made in 1977 by George Stoney, whose family once lived on the islands. He travels back to Aran more than forty years after Flaherty's film (where it is still shown every summer) and speaks with many of the natives regarding their take on it (including Maggie), as well as the liberties than Flaherty had taken. Also included are interviews with John Monck (Goldman), the editor of Aran, Michael Balcon, the producer (who was introduced to Flaherty by Grierson), and Flaherty biographer Arthur Calder-Marshall;
Looking Back (4:55): This is a brief video segment in which Flaherty tells a few anecdotes regarding the production of Aran;
Flaherty and Film (16:25): This is an interview between Robert Gardner (director of Film Studies Center of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard) with Frances Flaherty, Robert's wife and collaborator, and includes many clips from Aran. There are a few choice nuggets to be found here, including the genesis of the project: Robert was discussing the Great Depression with an Irishman, and in a no doubt "you think you have it bad" moment, the Irishman described life on Aran. Frances also adamantly denies criticism that she and her husband had placed the natives in danger with their staging of events;
Hidden and Seeking (29:45): Following Frances (87 years old at the time of filming) in and around her Vermont home, this meandering documentary serves as an amiable – though vague – portrait of the then still highly lucid, articulate partner of Robert;
Outside the Frame: This includes production stills, head shots, publicity photos, and sketches from Man of Aran.
Final Thoughts: Man of Aran may fail as a "documentary" (if one were to judge it as such), but as a loosely truth-based film more concerned with myth, thematics, and visual poetry, it works quite well. Like his Nanook of the North, it is virtually impossible to not sympathize with the inhabitants' struggles – Flaherty's land in Aran is as unforgiving as the sea, and the people of Aran are constantly engaged in heroic endeavors. Moreover, through the use of long-focus lenses, the sea is captured and presented with all the awe and power of a blind force of nature, indifferent to those who happen upon it – when the men encounter a fierce struggle in the waves in the latter part of the film, the movements and rhythm of the film are stirring and powerful. Man of Aran also possesses a high degree of effective blarney – certainly compelling, but blarney nevertheless, even if it is a landmark of the genre. And as Aran ends with the "family" gazing at the sea from the relative safety of a cliff, one suspects the struggle will remain eternal, never any easier – well, according to Flaherty, anyway.
Recommended to documentary enthusiasts, film buffs, and history buffs - otherwise, a rental would be in order.