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Man of Aran

Man of Aran
Home Vision Enertainment
1934 / b&w / 1:33 flat full frame / 76 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Colman 'Tiger' King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dillane, Pat Mullin
Cinematography Robert J. Flaherty
Film Editor John Goldman
Original Music John Greenwood
Produced by Michael Balcon
Written and Directed by Robert J. Flaherty

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Home Vision Entertainment steps firmly into Criterion territory with this exemplary edition of Man of Aran, one of the most famous documentaries of all time and a staple in cinema and communications classes. The excellent transfer of the film itself is topped by a few carefully-chosen extras, including a key docu that serves as an extension of the film, made 42 years later.


The hard life of survival for the poor residents of the wind-swept Aran islands off the West coast of Ireland is chronicled. We follow one family that finds ways to grow potatoes on patches of naked rock. The young boy fishes by throwing his line over a cliff hundreds of feet high. And the men brave outrageously dangerous seas in flimsy boats to harpoon giant basking sharks.

It's just a movie made with an old wind-up camera, where one simple shot follows another, but Man of Aran's considerable power is related more to poetics than to documentary ideals. Bold fishermen and farmers are composed against violent seas and noble skies, but the reality of their hard life is more than just dramatized pictorialism. American Robert Flaherty wowed 'em with his Nanook of the North 12 years earlier, and this elemental look at an impossibly rugged way of life continued the filmmaker's quest.

Made over the course of two years, Aran shows a series of events but has no real story. We see fishermen chasing the giant sharks, and trying to get their boats ashore on a coastline that is all jagged rocks. The boats appear to be made of wooden slats and tarred cloth, and are as delicate as flower petals against the might of the crashing waves. Finely-judged editing keeps a brisk pace, and breaks up into rapid montages with arresting jumpcuts, as in the shark hunt sequence. There's an excellent score as well.

Except for the bounty of the sea, the movie makes Aran look like an uninhabitable place. The most shocking segment shows a family cultivating its farm. Since there is no soil per se, the farmers dig for dirt in the craggy rocks that cover the island, and fertilize it by mnaually hauling seaweed up from the shore. To survive in this manner, there's little time to do anything but work like dogs - we can easily imagine a week's backbreaking labor lost in a windstorm, or the spunky 12-year-old son losing his life by working all day on the edge of a precipice as high as a skyscraper. The intertitles (there is sporadic recorded non-sync dialog, much of it difficult to hear even in this clear presentation) stress that these aren't primitives but instead people who have chosen to live here for the independence it gives them. Watching the daily effort required to scratch out a living, we get a new perspective on the concept of work & commitment ... living such a life certainly can't be called a 'lifestyle choice' as we know it now.

The frightful conclusion depicts a single boat fighting its way to the rocky beach in the middle of a gale. The high seas look murderous, and the exertion needed to row the tiny craft exhausts us. At one point the heroine has to be hauled out of the surf by her hair, a detail that lets us know the events may have been staged, but are certainly not faked. The waves are beautiful and all-powerful; when they do land, finally, we certainly 'get' the idea that the forces of nature dominate all, and the humans are completely at their mercy.

HVe's DVD of Man of Aran presents the docu in fine shape, with a very clear picture and track. I've never seen school 16mm prints, so I don't know how much of an improvement this is. A 1976 docu by George Stoney, How the Myth Was Made returns to Aran with some of the filmmakers (Flaherty died in 1950) and examines the film and its heritage from all angles. We see leading lady Maggie Dirrane, a hearty woman in 1934, transformed into an adorable old lady who waddles about singing with a smile on her face. An assistant explores a shack used to develop the film on location (!) and finds all the equipment still stored in a loft, 42 years later. And producer Michael Balcon characterizes the project as an inexpensive yet risky economic gamble.

The docu explains what film school non-fiction courses have taught for years, that Man of Aran is a poetic representation of a way of life, not a true documentary. The family were non-related actors and all events were staged. The Aran islands have their share of farmland, owned by a few rich landlords, and there were plenty of islanders making a living just as we are shown. Also, religion is strong in the area, a major force in people's lives.

Flaherty chose to limit the scope of his show and to simplify everything to what could be explained visually. It's a technical cheat to show a village on naked stone and say there are no farms, when a pan to the left would reveal cultivated acreage. Flaherty omitted the politics of economic inequity and religion from the show. Stoney's followup docu shows islanders reacting to the movie with some spirited (that's Irish for near-belligerent) discussions of what in it is accurate and what is not. One man says it's shameful that the filmmakers would entice the fishermen to go out in such dangerous seas, that it bordered on exploitation to make men risk their lives for a few dollars. Flaherty's widow and collaborator explains that the filmmaker was a driven man who took risks himself. His philosophy was to leave out everything but the hand-to-mouth basics of living, so that the film would not become dated. As a poetic account of subsistence living in the 20th century, Man of Aran is a success, but it needs this follow up, with the 1976 islanders changing to electric power and living off tourism, to become a true documentary.

Also included are filmed and television excerpts with Robert and Frances Flaherty, and a gallery of photos. Like Nanook, Man of Aran was a big success, as shown by photos of the giant marqee in New York City in '34.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Man of Aran rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Good (I assume we're not meant to understand all of the dialogue)
Supplements: 60 minute followup docu from 1976, tv interview Frances Flaherty, a short docu on ARAN with Frances Flaherty, filmed interview with Robert Flaherty, photo selection
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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