The encounter of unspoilt Nature and industrial technology: this is the theme of Louisiana Story, the final work by Robert J. Flaherty, the brilliant American director of Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Industrial Britain (1931), Man of Aran (1934) and The Land (1942).
In this extraordinary film, underwritten by Standard Oil, the “father of the documentary” employs a slight plot enacted by nonprofessionals in the setting they are native to. (It’s a move in the direction of the kind of hybrid of documentary and fiction that Claude Chabrol in France would become a master at.) The protagonist is one Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Letour, a thirteen-year-old Cajun boy whom we watch passing the summer frolicking with his “pet” raccoon, canoeing, fishing and hunting in Petit Ansse Bayou in the Mississippi delta—for us, a lyrical dream of suspended childhood. Rather than the shoreline house he shares at night with his parents, the vast swamp is Alexander’s truest home: the teeming cypresses cloak him; the sun crowns him; the subtropical waterways are his dominion. Thus Flaherty (as he did Nanook) introduces Alexander in long shot, enmeshed in the environment he in fact is a part of. Alexander, like any other child, must “conquer” his surroundings by coming to terms with it. As it happens, his first two names, Alexander Napoleon, are the names of historic conquerors, while his third name, Ulysses, recalls the most celebrated mythical journeyer. Like any other child, this boy, without knowing it, is journeying to the end of childhood. But all life is a journey, a trip, a transport—a fact certified by the boy’s family name, Letour. To the extent that we all retain wisps of our childhoods, Alexander becomes our surrogate in a world of our own past—a past at once visionary and real.
It is a kind of world that Flaherty loves to evoke. For him, its anthropological correlative are communities that allow more technologically advanced outsiders to dream of the possibility of earthly paradises while noting, if one is honest, as he is, that such places are dangerous and demanding for those who, rather than visiting with a pack of mythmaking tendencies, live there. These “paradises” are beseiged from within—the “snake in the garden” may be harsh climate or terrain or, as here, “Nature red in tooth and claw”—and beseiged from without: the “outside world” intent on barging in and taking over. Thus Flaherty’s cinema captures places like Alexander’s domain refracted through the clear, cutting irony that film technology, while perpetuating their mythic pull, is part of the modernity that implies their compromise and imminent demise. In Louisiana Story, the filmmaker and his crew intrude, but they are adjuncts to the dominant imperialism of a daunting, surpassing technology at the command of, and sometimes commanding, the oil drillers with whom Alexander interacts. In the mesmerizing landscape that Flaherty presents, the derrick that the oblivious visitors have constructed looms as a tower of aspiration—the visionary component of commercial enterprise. The cohabitation of the fantastic swamp (Nature) and the equally fantastic tower (industry) elaborates a modern ideal which only recently has begun to be a casualty to environmental concern. Anticipating the need to defend itself, Standard Oil has therefore affixed to Flaherty’s film a written prologue designed to condition the viewer from the outset to interpret the upcoming images according to the company’s own “spin.” No matter. Flaherty, qualmless about whacking the hand that pays him, prevails. His vision prevails because of the power of the images that Standard Oil is so hell-bent on neutering and reversing to the service of their own publicity.
The commercial technology that Flaherty shows competes with the natural environment in order to subdue it—Standard Oil’s idea of “harmony.” There is no getting away from the fascination of this technology. Indeed, Louisiana Story is as engrossed with complicated apparatus as are Sergei M. Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s metallic, gear-grinding Enthusiasm (1931)—two works that illustrate the mythopolitical Soviet equation of technological progress and human fulfillment. This is not Flaherty’s attitude, however. Consider the horrifying shot of birds suddenly flooding the sky in flight—it’s apocalyptic—at the exploratory explosion which itself chokes air with dark gas, dirt and debris, the effect of which no number of company prologues would ever succeed in neutralizing. In Flaherty’s film, the machinery itself is represented in unsettling terms: it’s agitated, smoke-belching, and busily overloaded with lines and chain belts that seem almost capable of attacking. (Compare the sanctified treatment of the cream separator as a huge, shining object of awe in The Old and the New.) But Flaherty and his spouse, Frances, who co-authored the story, go further yet: the machinery fails. Oil is not released; instead, a blowout makes necessary the capping of the well. The drillers are thus portrayed as hapless and impotent, as pure spoilers for all their advanced gadgetry.
What then turns this “failure” into the “success” that Standard Oil surely demanded from the script? Alexander’s intercession is what makes the oil materialize; for Alexander is the child of Nature who, enthralled by the machinery of industry, adapts to it and liberates it. But what can a child like him do? Into the black hole he sends salt—alligator repellent—and some of the spit with which he is accustomed to anointing fishing hooks. For yet more luck, he strokes the friendly frog that he keeps like a second heart under his loose shirt. The ritual works. The well is brought in; black gold surges. Amiably, the boy credits the lead driller, but Flaherty winks long enough for us to infer the redemptive magic of childhood faith and innocence.
As a growing child, Alexander must adapt to his changing environment and become a productive part of it. But far from conferring a superior status to those from Standard Oil who are changing this environment, Alexander’s delightful use of “magic” suggests that the influence and impact that the intruders intend, in order to rise to a level of responsibility and beneficence, must be informed, modified and enriched by the boy’s persistent humanity. For us the viewer, this is dramatic irony; the drillers themselves are unaware of Alexander’s “magical” intervention and in fact have tolerantly chuckled at his superstitious ways, patronizing him at every turn without any attempt even to take his feelings into account. Flaherty thus deftly exposes them as amnesiac with regard to their own childhoods. Their assault on a pristine environment, therefore, doubles (unconsciously) as a symbolical assault on childhood itself, their one-dimensionality partly the result of their singular though dubious accomplishment of excluding themselves from their own childhood memories and sympathies. To Flaherty, Alexander is a primal journeyer navigating his way from an innocent world of enchantment to his own world, and our world, and the drillers’—a flat, shallow world of progress that Alexander’s developing humanity may yet manage to moderate and redeem. Given the power arrayed against him that Standard Oil represents, Alexander represents Flaherty’s hope for the future.
Central to Flaherty’s immense vision is the quarrel within Nature, which the alligator’s pursuit of the raccoon demonstrates. By thus positing competitiveness as the basis of existence (Flaherty could not have been more Victorian), this quarrel leaves sorely ironic the vulnerability of Nature to human exploitation. It isn’t that humans have disregarded what Nature teaches; rather, humans—also “red in tooth and claw”—have learned too well Nature’s lessons. In the film, after all, it is Alexander himself who triggers the violence. Now beginning to separate himself from his enchanted world, he invades the alligator’s den and cradles in his hand a hatching egg, only to be frightened off by the parent animal’s ferocious hiss. Thus this Wordsworthian transgression against Nature by a child of Nature (elsewhere known as puberty), juxtaposed with the oil people’s intrusion into the area, implies the inevitability of human presumption in the service of some dreams—progress; development—and at the expense of other dreams—a radiant view of Nature; childhood itself. Represented by the egg, the new life that the boy had held and has fearfully let go of refers to a world about to be lost—to the boy (as a necessary part of growing up), to his family and community, to us all.
Flaherty’s filmmaking is wondrous. The opening watery journey, lyrical and enthralling, employs an amazing variety of shots edited, in the manner of Joris Ivens and Mannus Frånken’s masterpiece, Regen (1929), to compose a single coherent movement and event. A cut from Alexander as he gaily canoes—the surroundings whiz by—to a flat, static shot of drillers at work contrasts, in addition to bright youth and dull youthlessness, the boy’s aimlessness—his pure being—and the purposefulness of the workaday grown-ups. The result is emotionally complex. But Flaherty’s greatest visual coup is still to come. Steady closeups scaling the derrick recall the ever upward shot of the boy climbing a coconut tree in Moana (1926). Upwardly tracking along the height of the derrick in Louisiana Story, though, Flaherty cuts abortively to a long shot of the derrick, thus devising purely visual means for transforming the act of achieving, which the upward tracking suggests, into the thing achieved, and thereby making of the haze-shrouded derrick a problematic symbol of one kind of human accomplishment.
Flaherty’s last film is not without its flaws. Some—for instance, the occasional obvious postdubbing—are no more than glitches. Others are serious. While the boy’s father is a substantial character (especially when, disappointed by the initial failure of the drilling, he chorically berates his son), the mother remains a negligible presence—a fate that befalls all the boys’ mothers in Flaherty’s films. Worse yet is the vulgar optimism that has the raccoon painlessly reappearing after by all odds it should have been killed by the alligator. (This is not to say that the moment of reunion between boy and pet is unmeaningful. Alexander sets down his rifle, which his father has just given him as a gift. Thus the boy chooses a bond of affection with Nature over a sterile rite of passage.) Still, the film’s shortcomings are far outweighed by its virtues, among which are its moral complexity, masterful form, Richard Leacock’s apt black-and-white cinematography (liquidly smooth in the lyrical “Nature” passages, gritty and grainy amidst the machinery), Virgil Thomson’s celebrated music (the first film score to win a Pulitzer Prize), and Joseph Boudreaux’s appealing enactment of the role of Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Letour.
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