Robert Flaherty and the Art of Survival

02/05/2010 12:30 PM |

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Roberty Flaherty’s seminal documentary Man of Aran plays tomorrow at Anthology Film Archives as part of their Essential Cinema program.

Like other Flahertys, Aran is a romantic handbook about the original artists, roughneck frontiersmen outside of time who shore up fragments of the natural elements around them to recreate them as tools and homes for their own survival. And like other Flahertys, it is itself a recreation—of outmoded traditions, rustic life in some Platonic form of leather faces against blustering wind, sea, and blasted rocklands—here, off the coast of Ireland. The film itself, with its billowing bonnets against horizons evaporating into sea, almost seems to mimic its subjects: long, abstract passages of ocean-whorl set in sudden relief by the close-up of a hardened face, steady in makeshift lifestyle against the ebb and flow of natural life. The tradition is as much Homer as Winslow Homer, and in retrospect, Flaherty looks as much a father of neorealism as Jean Renoir: Aran’s shark-hunt (performed by the actual hunters’ descendents, locals who had to learn the outdated techniques) leads straight to Rossellini’s Stromboli—and Rossellini as a whole—as does the idea of artist-as-excavator, piecing together the rubble of everyday life in real locations as a manual to a possible life, with epic challenges whose mundane, material solutions almost look miraculous. In that respect, it also leads to Bresson (a Flaherty admirer), as does Flaherty’s usual concentration on hands, reforming elements into objects—but Man of Aran in particular nearly gets remade a few years later as Michael Powell’s Edge of the World.

I first saw Aran (and Edge of the World) as a double feature with Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s widow. “It’s such a great film,” she said, adding, quite rightly, “and so loosely edited.”