[7 June 2009]
Robert J. Flaherty was more of a romantic poet than a documentary filmmaker. Today, he can be seen as a figure whose work doesn’t fit into strict generic boundaries, an artist whose films functions more as personal vision than anthropology. In his lifetime he was both praised and criticized for this, and Man of Aran was a work of notable controversy.
This 1934 film is a partially fabricated docudrama in the tradition of his own acclaimed Nanook of the North. Its subject is the stubbornness and tenacity of humans who live according to ancient and primitive traditions, seemingly oblivious to the modern world. In his staged events with local citizens as his actors, Flaherty was supposedly preserving a vanishing way of life on film.
Aran is a rocky, barren, cliff-sided Irish island (actually several islands), and Flaherty corralled three unrelated locals to play a family of husband (Coleman “Tiger” King), wife (Maggie Dirrane) and boy (Mickleen Dillane). The boy is seen scrambling about and fishing from cliffs. The wife gathers and arranges seaweed to serve as a bed for growing potatoes on an island without soil. The husband is a fisherman (in reality he was primarily a blacksmith), and he’s seen coming and going on small boats called currachs. He even mends a hole in one.
We see strong high waves crashing everywhere, in one sequence even washing over the woman who needs help from the others because she’s been directed to go out there. The central action of this feature, which is only about 70-minutes long, involves the hunting of a huge shark. The narrative is constructed so that the boy spots the beast and then the men go out in a curragh to spear it, its huge tailfin thrashing around like a whale. The film doesn’t tell you what can be found in an excellent documentary on the Home Vision DVD of Man of Aran, that this shark-hunting method was outdated by several decades and the islanders didn’t do it anymore. What mattered to Flaherty was that they once had and this was the last chance to film it. Well, it’s impressive.
People who wish to see the film must first be directed to that aforementioned DVD, because this CD and DVD project by British Sea Power is an offshoot of the film. The band apparently was approached with the idea of composing a new soundtrack for the movie, and that’s what this is. The CD is the soundtrack, and the DVD is the film with the soundtrack or actually with five soundtracks: two options for the studio recording (in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround), two more for the live recording of a performance at the Edinburgh Film Festival (again 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround), and then a much lower, stranger, minimalist score that’s not so layered.
What the DVD doesn’t have is the actual soundtrack, for after all this was a talkie, not a silent film, and it’s unfortunate that this option isn’t provided. Flaherty’s film has dialogue and a score by John Greenwood based on Irish folk tunes. It’s why you have to look elsewhere for the original, although the print used here is excellently sharp and shows off Flaherty’s beautiful photography and his tight, sometimes frantically expressive editing. You can turn on subtitles to find out what the dialogue should be.
I only know this band from their debut album, which struck me as powerfully loud guitar-rock, and what we have here is also loud, especially if you crank it up as you probably should. It’s floating, slowly-rolling music, approximating waves and wind with layers of electric string. The credits read as follows:
Yan (the band name of Scott Wilkinson)—cello, bass, guitar.
Hamilton (Neil Wilkinson)—guitar, vocals, bass, tape noises, sea.
Wood (Matthew Wood)—drums.
Noble (Martin Noble)—guitar, sea.
Abi Fry—viola, xylophone, vocals, musical saw.
Phil the Wandering Horn—keys, cornet, guitar.
The vocals refer to the ghostly, almost whispered tune (“Come Wander with Me”) heard briefly as the third song on this otherwise instrumental wave of ecstatically crashing sound. Phil’s cornet is heard piercingly near the end as the man comes home from the sea. The shark is signified by a distinctive low, watery gulping noise. The understated “bonus score” is credited to Yan alone, and I would have said it was sparely electronic in a manner reminiscent of Brian Eno. Well, I guess I did say it.
A word about that song “Come Wander with Me”. It was written by Jeff Alexander as a faux-folk tune for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and has had a curious afterlife in the last several years, showing up in various places. An entry in IMDB explains that it’s been heard in the film The Brown Bunny and at least one commercial, among other places, and showed up on a compilation album curated by Air. British Sea Power have now retro-fitted the song for a modern re-imagining of a project where the song might have been heard if it had existed at the time, which it didn’t. Talk about twilight zones.
The notes say the movie is “at once heroic, stunning, camp, ridiculous. It’s everything a rock band should be … Man of Aran is a dream, allowing you to imagine how things might be. As guitarist Martin Noble observes: ‘We made this soundtrack because we liked the romantic notion of people living on the edge of existence. It’s something I’d like to think I could do, but never will.’ “
What an odd project this is, to replace an old movie’s soundtrack with a new one. I admit there’s a strange symmetry in a band called British Sea Power handling a movie all about the power of the sea, but clearly the intended audience here is the band’s fans, for this is marketed as a CD and will be shelved with their others. Those people will take a look at the DVD and find an experience like a feature-length music video, and perhaps then they will be encouraged to seek out the proper presentation and even Flaherty’s other films. But what if you’re already a Flaherty fan? You’ll probably seek this out for curiosity value and, depending on your musical taste, may well enjoy the majestic sound as an adjunct to the majestic pictures, but I’ve already said that film buffs shouldn’t look to this as their first experience of the film.
Such a thing has “gimmick” written all over it and there have been others in the new century—Yo La Tengo’s music for the undersea nature documentaries of Jean Painlevé (sold through the band’s website but now also available on a Criterion disc of his films), Superchunk’s score to the silent Japanese film A Page of Madness (available through their site). Those latter two examples premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival. Guitarist Bill Frisell was commissioned to compose scores for Buster Keaton films in New York, and some of those are being released on DVD this year.
It’s a way of attracting hip young sell-out crowds to old movies. It works at least provisionally for the night of the performance. I am reminding of Giorgio Moroder’s ‘80s rescoring of Metropolis. Perhaps we can look forward to bolder moves: The White Stripes do Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Pet Shop Boys rescoring It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.