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Home Vision Entertainment has accompanied its release of pioneer Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran with his next-to-last film, 1948's Louisiana Story. The restored quasi-documentary has been packaged with a selection of extras useful in understanding the filmmaker's style and point of view.
Louisiana Story is very different from the earlier Man of Aran in that it was funded by the Standard Oil company. This time there are the beginnings of a plot, a fictional story to provide a framework for the exploration of the Acadian lifestyle. We see the father signing an oil lease agreement with the Driller. Almost everything that happens after that plays, unfortunately, like pro-oil propaganda. Why a rig engineer would handle legal paperwork looks suspicious now, as if Standard Oil wanted to give the impression that oil leases are a mere formality. There's a terribly condescending scene near the end, after the well is completed, that shows mom getting a new pot and the boy a new rifle. Boy, Ma, lookit the goodies we 'kin buy with all thayet money the oyl men are givven' us.
Flaherty surely wanted to avoid such non-ethnographic details, but the result is a distortion of reality. Did Standard want to downplay the idea that Oil had anything to do with Money? When the drillers first come to the bayou, the young boy's pirouge is swamped by the wake of their motorboat, giving a visual hint that the oilmen will be disturbing the natural environment. But the rig doesn't cause a single problem, even though a newspaper talks about evacuations due to explosive gases after an accident. At the end, the boy is left with a friendly well-head to play on, and all is just ducky.
This tenor and tone of Louisiana Story contrasts with non-Oil Company account of the effect of drilling on local environments, not to mention the warping of local economies. Andrei Konchalovsky's unheralded Shy People dramatized the devastation to the bayou and the economic upset to families. Flaherty's Cajuns live in shacks under primitive conditions, unlike landowners of any cloth. Whether for oil, lumber or minerals, the predatory nature of 'resource development' isn't like this. Any self-respecting businessman would precede talk of oil by simply purchasing the land cheap.
Louisiana Story is a beautiful picture, with carefully-observed details in both the bayou and the hard work of the oil-drillers. But, unlike Aran, we don't learn how these French-speaking Acadians live. Mom cooks, while the son plays in the wild, like the kid from The Yearling. He keeps a pet raccoon, and guards two good luck charms, a bag of salt and a frog. He believes in mermaids and werewolves, and smiles like a friendly primitive. Is his a family of subsistence trappers, living on pelts and hides? Pa is never seen doing anything more vocational than handling a small trap, and the son has nothing to do but amuse himself exploring the dangerous bayou.
The bayou, the wildlife and the oil rig are real, and Richard Leacock's luminous black & white photography makes them all come to life without undue beautification. But the people are all fake. Flaherty spent a great deal of time casting for faces, but his child actor's full experience in the bayou was that he knew how to handle a boat and fish. The ethnographic interest in Aran was undeniable, as its 'staged' events were daily events in the lives of the people we watched. But Louisiana is mostly fiction, complete with a cute kid who finds his lost pet, in time-honored Disney style.
Had Flaherty made a straight docu on the rugged lifestyle of oil drillers, there'd be no objection. The commercial content, as simple as it is, doesn't mesh well with the filmmaker's ethnographic interests. Both the oilmen and the filmmakers come off as condescending. The Cajuns approach the oil rig in small boats, and the riggers smile and wave benignly at them, as if they were mute natives. Pa's attitude is limited to joking that the strangers will never strike anything of value. His disinterest makes us think he's unaware of the riches involved, or that he's signed over his mineral rights for nothing, or for a few dollars' consideration. Is the paperwork just an easement technicality, and not a lease? Probably not, as the newspaper clippings use the LaTour family name to identify the oil venture.
Flaherty ignored or excluded extraneous details on his previous films, giving ammunition to some critics to accuse him of fakery and oversimplification. Oil drilling is more than just the men on a derrick, and is too complicated to distill down to Flaherty's visual level of communication. In this case, oversimplification doesn't clear the way for any insights about the people involved.
The best parts of the movie take the boy into the bayou. Even though everything is contrived, his tangle with the bull alligator that attacks his pet racoon is suspenseful. The shots of the baby gators hatching in the nest must have been a revelation to 1948 audiences.
The acting is very primitive. The personable main Driller (Frank Hardy) has an outgoing smile and hearty manner, and is the only one who looks at ease before the camera. Unlike Flaherty's earlier work, much of the film resembles a convential drama, incompetently shot. We don't get the 'natural' feeling that sometimes comes from non-actors. The direction is just too crude. The film is visually distinguished, but in almost every other way, it resembles the kind of industrial film that half-heartedly imitates Hollywood.
The filmmakers liked the boy (Joseph Boudreaux) for his smile, and he flashes it incongruously throughout. Key action in his little boat comes off as false, when he's obviously amused by Flaherty's direction coming from out of frame. In the worst scene, the boy lends the blessings of his good luck charms to the well-head, a stroke-the-sponsor contrivance that turns the derrick into a new God for the 'primitive' boy, like a volcano in the South Seas. The sequence also looks as if it were difficult to get on film, as what we see is an awkward succession of jumpcuts, probably to avoid Boudreaux's constant smiling at the camera. What continuity and tone the film retains (it still has an amiable-enough feel) must have been the result of a lot of frustrating effort.
Louisiana Story is considered by many to be Flaherty's masterpiece, a view that escapes me. The music score, directed by Eugene Ormandy, is beautiful. But the subject matter isn't as alien to our experience as the older pictures about Inuits, Polynesians and Irish fishermen. It's a lyrical visual poem interrupted by a piece of mild industrial propaganda. It says a lot about the 20th century, that a 1920s Fur company would spend a fortune for a filmmaker to go off into the wilderness and bring back a picture, whereas in 1496, the same filmmaker has to shoehorn his art into a film honoring an oil derrick.
Home Vision's DVD of Louisiana Story is a real beauty. An extensive 1998 restoration retrieved this honored film from deterioration, and the image looks great. The encoding is also excellent, retaining the textures of the careful photography, and all the detail in the very-busy bayou exteriors. The frame is frequently filled with foliage and reeds and shadows, but the image never degrades. Virgil Thomson's score is clear and robust.
HVe has repeated one show about Frances Flaherty from Man of Aran, and included other excerpts. In one interview piece, the articulate lady compares her husband's filmmaking to haiku poetry. The best extra is a new montage that combines behind-the-scenes stills with a dramatized reading of some of cameraman Richard Leacock's letters to his wife, left behind in New York while he spent months shooting in Louisiana. A major problem, the letters relate, was getting around the Napoleonic Code-based state child labor laws, that required the filmmakers to get their young star officially adopted before they could hire him to act.
Another telling extra is a big chunk of Flaherty's 1940 The Land, made but never shown by the Department of Agriculture. The audio quality is marginal, but we can see why it was shelved, as the section shown paints a grim and hopeless-sounding picture of over-farming, erosion, and other land misuse as responsible for the destruction of millions of acres of farmland. Perhaps Flaherty learned from the experience, and made more sponsor-friendly films afterwards.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Louisiana Story rates:
Supplements: Exerpt from The Land, Frances Flaherty and Richard Leacock discuss the opening of the film; 1960 Frances Flaherty interview; 1971 short subject on Frances Flaherty, dramatized letters from Richard Leacock to his wife during filming.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2003
1 1. A much more conservative Hollywood propaganda piece for the oil industry is the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Thunder Bay, a thriller with an insulting script that grants wildcat oilmen the right to do anything they need to keep America's oil flowing, with the fishermen who object turned into whining morons. Unfortunately, casting and tone make it play like a modern sequel to Bend of the River. Considering the whitewash of oil activities, it's very appropriate that the scurvy Western villain played by Harry Morgan is now Stewart's closest buddy.