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Considered by many to be Robert Flaherty's greatest film, Louisiana Story (1948) underwent a collaborative restoration in 1998 by the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA Film and Television Archives. Written by Flaherty and his wife Frances, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Richard Leacock, Louisiana Story is also listed in the National Film Registry and placed in the top 10 of the 1952 Sight and Sound International Critics Poll of the best films ever made. Now presented in a similarly extra-packed DVD edition as his Man of Aran by Home Vision Entertainment, Flaherty's Louisiana Story is presented in all of its spectacular – and ridiculous – glory.
The controversies that surrounded Flaherty throughout his career also followed him to Louisiana Story, largely because the project was funded by Standard Oil. As a film that concerns itself with the intrusion of an oil derrick into an otherwise idyllic bayou inhabited by indigenous Cajuns, Flaherty certainly must have implicitly understood that Standard Oil would have pulled the plug rather quickly if he began to produce any sort of anti-oil or anti-industry treatise. Flaherty, however, was a filmmaker who thrived on the telling of tales of human struggles in "primitive" cultures, and, based upon Man of Aran, was not terribly concerned with the realm of the political. What Standard Oil was eventually given (after 14 months of shooting and more than 90,000 feet of film) must have made them quite happy – a beautiful looking film bathed in an aura of naively peaceful coexistence, completely non-political (at least overtly) and uncomplicated in nature.
Louisiana Story (again situated between the problematic definitions of "documentary" and narrative film, although this one at least possesses a "story by" credit to both Robert and Frances Flaherty) follows the life of "the boy" and his raccoon as they travel the bayou – or, as the film notes, "Being an account of certain adventures of a Cajun (Acadian) boy who lives in the marshlands of Petit Anse Bayou in Louisiana." His days are leisurely and fun, at least until he witnesses the intrusion of motor boats (one of which capsizes his more humble vessel). Pa, it seems, signed off and gave the oil company rights to drill, and soon a massive derrick is being ferried over into the peaceful environment. As the boy and his raccoon continue to frolic about, he greets the derrick and the oilmen with a smile, blithely oblivious to the larger implications at hand.
Flaherty then devotes a good portion of the film to the boy's struggle with an alligator, which - given the treatment of animals in his other works - is not terribly surprising. Flaherty again proves unable to resist stacking the deck – he cuts to the raccoon watching in suggested horror as an alligator stalks a bird (which, you know, is something alligators do, and not because they have an axe to grind). The alligator then appears to go after the boy's raccoon, and after being unable to find it, the boy decides to exact revenge. Naturally, we get to see the "heroic" struggle of the boy with the captured alligator, and are later treated to seeing the alligator's skin. Meanwhile, the derrick continues its search for oil, and the boy and his family continue on as they (presumably) always have, albeit with some modest improvements courtesy of the magnanimous oil folk.
There is not much more in terms of traditional narrative to be found in Louisiana Story. There is brief dialogue – which is embarrassingly forced and stilted – and everyone on display is all smiles and suspiciously jovial. Although it suggests the simplicity of a child's tale with its wisp of a story, Louisiana Story is really about the visuals – and they are often gorgeous. Leacock's cinematography captures and enriches the sheen of the water (which makes up the most beautiful scenes), as well as the looming presence of the derrick (often shot from low angles, in close up).
If one can surrender to an evocation of the world as a child might see it and understand it – according to Frances, this was the Flaherty's intention – Louisiana Story works well enough. (It should be noted that to most adult sensibilities, industrial interests often prove a tad more insidious than that of a hungry alligator.) Otherwise – aside form the glorious pictorial rendering of life on the bayou – it will prove somewhat difficult to bear.
Video: Presented in full frame, the restoration of Louisiana Story is nothing short of miraculous. The shimmering, glassy water of the bayou is simply gorgeous, and the majesty of the derrick and its interior operations are really something to behold. Black levels are deep and consistent, and every imaginable shade of gray (literally, that is) is on glorious display. There are virtually no instances of any source print damage, such as blemishes, scratches, etc. Louisiana Story has probably not looked this good since its premiere, and the archivists are to be given great kudos for their efforts.
Audio: Presented in DD 1.0, Louisiana Story sounds quite good as well. The Pulitzer Prize winning score by Virgil Thomson (performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy) is given a fine treatment and complements the proceedings beautifully. The dialogue, though atrocious, is easy to hear, and the entire soundtrack is generally free of any pops, hisses, or crackles. Well done.
Extras: For whatever reason, Louisiana Story and Man of Aran 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 Louisiana Story is packed with Criterion-worthy extras:
Flaherty and Film (28:02): 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 Louisiana Story. Frances notes that the film was approached from the perspective of utter simplicity, and recites three haikus as examples of what they were striving for in Louisiana Story.
The Land: This is an excerpt (21:47) of a film that was commissioned by the USDA, never before shown publicly. Flaherty explores the plight of the land and the soil from overproduction, as well as the human toll suffered. Homeless and migrant workers are captured, as are many arid landscapes. Interestingly, this sort of treatment would have also worked well for Louisiana Story, although it would have been utterly contrary to what Robert and Frances were endeavoring (by necessity?) to produce (not to mention Standard Oil's wishes);
Letters Home: This is a series of correspondence (15:27) written by Richard Leacock to his wife Happy, who was back at home in New York and pregnant while Louisiana Story was being shot over a period of 14 months. Read aloud, the letters offer a fairly fascinating glimpse into the process of shooting, as well as Leacock's hot and cold relationship with Flaherty;
Study Film: This a brief (5:11) commentary track featuring both Frances Flaherty and Richard Leacock remarking upon the opening sequence to Louisiana Story;
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. This feature is also included on the Man of Aran release.
Final Thoughts: If the above review makes Louisiana Story sound fairly ridiculous – and dementedly naive – please note that it is largely because viewing this film from a current cultural perspective generally renders it an easy target (this is, however, not to suggest that the blarney on display - implicit and otherwise - was not already thick back in 1948). In all fairness, Frances Flaherty has stated that she and her husband decided to tell the story from the perspective of a child, and if viewed from that particular, myopic perspective, Louisiana Story fares better. Moreover – it cannot be stated enough – the largely serene shots of the bayou are so beautifully captured (and complemented so well by Virgil Thompson's lovely, Pulitzer Prize winning score) that they almost render some of the more disingenuous dynamics on display in Louisiana Story forgettable, if not pardonable. Recommended to fans of Flaherty and the historically and culturally curious – otherwise it is recommended as a rental only.