Not to impugn the guy’s character or champion the current fire-and-brimstone attitude of social media, where anybody falling short of an east- and west-coast set of values is vilified and ousted from their profession, but I don’t think director Robert Flaherty would’ve been able to work if he were making movies today, if his career sported the same credentials, because his last appearance on the List (and it blows my mind to think of this) was Nanook of the North in 1922 – a beautiful, funny, charming and occasionally unsettling documentary about a family of Inuit, what their daily life is like, and it shows us the slaughter and flaying of a walrus, among other stuff, and but apart from all that (which would probably catch some flak if it were released today) there appears to be some controversy about which bits of Nanook were staged and which were not. The killing of the walrus, for instance, is said by some to’ve been aided by Flaherty, who shot it with a rifle while the Inuit struggled to pull it back from the water Flaherty wrote a compelling piece saying the men had called back, while fighting the walrus, and begged him to use the rifle and that he pretended not to understand them so that he could just be left to crank the camera.
For the next two days we made almost hourly trips to that beach before finally we found them- a herd of twenty- asleep and basking in the sand on the shore…Behind the rise, I mounted the camera and Nanook, stringing his harpoon, began slowly snaking over the crest. From the crest to where they lay was less than fifty feet and until Nanook crawled to within half that distance toward them none took any alarm. For the rest of the way, whenever the sentinel of the herd slowly raised his head to look around, Nanook lay motionless on the ground. Then when his head drooped in sleep, once more Nanook wormed his way slowly on…When almost right in amongst them, Nanook picked out the biggest bull, rose quickly and with all his strength landed his harpoon. The wounded bull, bellowing in rage, his enormous bulk diving and thrashing the sea (he weighed more than 2,000 pounds), the yells of the men straining for their lives in their attempt to hold him, the battle cry of the herd that hovered near, the wounded bull’s mate which swam in, locked tusks, in an attempt to rescue- was the greatest fight I have ever seen. For a long time it was nip and tuck- repeatedly the crew called to me to use the gun- but the camera crank was my only interest then and I pretended not to understand. Finally Nanook worked the quarry toward the surf where he was pounded by the heavy seas and unable to get a purchase in the water. For at least twenty minutes that tug-o’-war kept on.Long-ass excerpt, but Flaherty wrote of the experience really well.
And there’s other fabricated stuff, some of which he was open about, and there’s a pretty solid argument to be made about a documentarian’s need, on occasion, to interpret a huge or difficult aspect of reality rather than simply document it.
So twenty-odd years later we get this fiction film out of him, Louisiana Story, which was financed in large part by Standard Oil of New Jersey ($200k) and depicts a team of friendly, humble, hardworking oilmen digging for sweet black gold on a welcoming man’s property. It’s packed with glory shots of how the rig works: pumps and swivels and all other manner of menacing equipment.
That’s thee background story, sorta. The B-plot. The heart of the movie is a long and ponderous drift through the bayou: a boy named Alex (son of the man whose property is being mined for oil) rides a paddleboat with his pet racoon and the camera keeps cutting back to show us an alligator, and to do so in such a way that it’s hard to tell, at times, whether the kid s stalking the gator or vice versa.
There’s some excitement here, but it’s not Hollywood excitement, and that whole long scene of drifting feels like Flaherty’s trying really hard to build suspense but not quite achieving it. Credit where it’s due: he’s an ambitious filmmaker and while shooting a short feature largely on the water is probably not quite so difficult as shooting in a snowy tundra, I don’t suppose it’s easy.
As for the oil bits, they’ve got the same hokey optimism of wartime propaganda, except it’s boring. (The great feat of things like Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mrs. Miniver is they were solid movies in their own right. They can be understood and enjoyed outside of their historical context.) I don’t personally care so much that it’s so in love with oil, and oil companies, but I started vilifying it cuzza the tedium.
The reason it doesn’t bother me so much as it would today is because this feels like a big step in the direction of what so much entertainment would become in the 1950s. Basking in postwar prosperity, the explosive growth of the suburbs, the affordability of cars and the aestheticization of home appliances, the feeling that everything had turned out fine after all – that’s the kinda movie this is.
And it’s tiring. It’s interesting to look back on and think about, but no fun to watch.