Man of Aran (U.S., 1934) * * * 1/2
D: Robert J. Flaherty
There is an excellent, if ultimately somewhat disconcerting, essay on the meaning and relevance of "movie magic" by Geoffrey O'Brien in the latest Film Comment. In the essay, "Spellbound," he dissects the meaning of the words "movie magic" by attempting to trace both the historical and the personal origins of fear and revelation brought into effect by sitting in a dark room and watching images projected on a wall. On the historical side, he mentions the imagined effects of watching the early films of the Lumiere Brothers , notably Arrival of a Train, which supposedly caused patrons to hide behind the seats lest they get run over by the hallucination. More fruitfully, he lets his memory retreat to the first projected films he saw: home movies directed by his father, which nevertheless created a spark of awe. Advancing forward on both fronts, he mentions D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and the impact of artistic innovation on the imagination--drawing the assumption that something's been lost with the medium's familiarity, and by now, "movie magic" may not exist.
I find movie magic in small moments, and they don't have to exist in the past. I can find movie magic in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (although my emotions soar a little even as O'Brien name-drops Vertigo, Laura, The Thief of Bagdad, Ugetsu, Lola Montes, Solaris, and Eyes Wide Shut, in that order; we have similar cravings in our moviegoing experiences--it's just that mine might be a little more open to contemporary films of the popcorn variety). I'm stirred by images of originality; my god is imagination, in any medium. Movie magic, to me, can be as wide-ranging to encompass the brief moment of motion in a film comprised of stills in La Jetee, or the juxtaposition of photographs and video in the same director's Sans Soleil; on the other hand, I find sublime the image/moment of the hulking Hellboy and a small child sharing cookies and milk on a rooftop while discussing love in Guillermo del Toro's comic book film. There is Peter Sellers dipping his umbrella into the lake while standing on its surface in Being There; Marcello Mastroianni watching his girl run ecstatically through the snow into the arms of her true love in La Notte Bianche; Balthazar settling into the grass amidst the sheep--especially that!--in Au Hasard Balthazar; but also Rosemary dropping her knife in shock and disbelief as she sees her son Adrian, and one of the apartment-dwelling crones fastidiously polishing off the notch it leaves in the floor, in Rosemary's Baby. If I might be slightly dulled to the innovation of the medium of film--one aspect of O'Brien's argument--I'm certainly appreciating the possibilities of storytelling and empathy in the medium. But it's imagination I really appreciate. Herzog puts it one way: he seeks out images that no one has ever filmed; he thinks our culture in the twenty-first century is starving for new images. I would substitute the word "moments," the palimpsest (to borrow O'Brien's term) of images and story that generates alchemically either the sublime or the deeply felt.
All I want to say about the Robert J. Flaherty documentary Man of Aran--which has, for the benefit of his camera, non-actors recreating moments in their daily struggle for survival, as he did with his earlier Nanook of the North--is that it contains two moments like this, for me anyway. One is the climax. After the fishermen, who live on the isolated Irish island of Aran and salvage what food they can to subsist, are caught out in a storm and nearly capsized, they eventually work their way to touch the rocky land and, leaping from the boat, run as far as they can from the massive waves (the tide, on Aran, seems not to crawl slowly inland, but to swallow its piece whole), and after being reunited with his family, the Man of Aran looks back to see his boat shattered against the rocks. Nature has won, but their lives have been spared for one more day. That's one moment, and it's suitably dramatic to close the film. What had me more affected comes at the film's midway point. The Man of Aran's son is fishing from a tall cliff. Seeing something, he descends carefully to where the slope disappears into the water. Suddenly the dramatic score of the orchestra--which heretofore lingered on the surreal movements of the waves like the classical accompaniment to some abstract sequence from Fantasia--is silenced, and we see a monster gliding near the surface of the water, its mouth gaping open, the nose jutting into the air and leading it forward. It's an enormous basking shark, but we don't know that--the titles haven't appeared to hold our hand and tell us that--and for all we know, it's a previously undiscovered lifeform, with a fin like a shark but the gaping mouth of a manta ray and the mammoth bulk of a whale. For a few moments, the boy is mesmerized. Then, realizing how close it is and how precarious is his footing, he scrambles back up the cliff. And the creature continues to circle, mouth hanging open like a banshee of the island's folklore, waiting for some child or another to fall into its belly. That's the kind of moment for which I bide my time watching all manner of movies. I can't say that I've experienced anything like that, in reality or celluloid.
And the next twenty minutes or so are spent watching the fishermen try to kill it! How sublime can you get: the intertitles (no, this is not a silent film, though it might as well be, so thick are the accents and spare the dialogue) tell us they want the shark's oil to light their lamps. Think about it: they spend days hunting, killing, and reeling in this massive shark just so they can read at night.