The Innocent Eye

An anarchist cinema? Well, the first thing this suggests is the Marx
Brothers, and the second, Chaplin, who at least has called himself an
anarchist and who in some films like Monsieur Verdoux achieves a
pretty savage degree of social criticism, and at the same time has reached
every corner of the world with the character (much more like Schweik
than the "little man" he is usually called), variously known as Charlie,
Chariot, Carlos, Carlino and Carlitos, the innocent or 'holy fool' who
has only his wits to fight authority with.

Or it suggests Vigo, Bufiuel, or perhaps Georges Franju. Or fan-
tasies like de Sica's Miracle in Milan, the most anarchistic, though not
the best of his films.

But it also suggests a certain vision of life and of human dignity
and integrity, that we are prone to see in simpler societies, which though
they are more at the mercy of natural disaster than our own, but are,
to our eyes, more free from the tyranny of arbitrary authority. The
American critic Lionel Trilling writes of the "great modern theme" of
"the child's elemental emotions and familial trust being violated by the
ideas and institutions of modern life" and notes that

Haunted as we all are by unquiet dreams of peace and wholeness, we
are eager and quick to find them embodied in another people. Other
peoples may have for us the same beautiful integrity that, from childhood
on, we are taught to find in some period of our national or ethnic past.
Truth, we feel, must somewhere be embodied in man. Ever since the nine-
teenth century, we have been fixing on one kind of person or another,
one group of people or another, to satisfy our yearning . . . everyone
searching for innocence, for simplicity and integrity of life.

In terms of the cinema, this suggests one man, Robert Flaherty, who
died ten years ago this month. Flaherty was a film director who had
nothing at all in common with the 'motion picture industry'. He did
not speak its language or obey its rules. He was concerned, not with
finance, output or the supposed requirements of the box office, but with
using the medium of film for enhancing our perception of human life
and the land and water on which it is lived.

He began his working life as a prospector looking for iron ore in
Northern Canada and then between 1910 and 1916 became an explorer,
discovering a land mass bigger than England at the north of Hudson's
Bay, where an island bears his name. On his last journey he took with
him a film camera, and after he brought back 70,000 feet of film to
edit, he dropped a lighted cigarette on it, so he decided to return and
make a better one about the life of the Eskimos. With seven thousand
pounds from the fur traders Revillon Freres, he got together an expedi-
tion to Port Harrison, Hudson's Bay, where he took eighteen months
to make the film which was first shown to the public in 1922 and has
had welcome revivals ever since.

Nanook of the North is a story of man's life at its very hardest,
a constant desperate struggle for food, a struggle which leads not to
competition, but to all food being common to all. "It has to be so,"
said Flaherty, "an Eskimo family on its own would starve. If I went
into an igloo, whatever food they had was mine ... I often think of
the Eskimo after a long journey, starving and with not even oil for his
lamp, coming to the white man's store full of bacon and salt beef
and tins of food and tons of flour, and yet the white man will not
give him anything unless he has skins. That is something he cannot
understand." Nanook died of starvation just two years after the film
was finished. And yet, Flaherty concluded, "These people, with less
resources than any other people on earth, are the happiest people I have
ever known."

In 1923 Flaherty and his family went to the South Seas to make
Moana, a film built around the ceremonial tattooing which marked the
Samoan's coming of age. "As a matter of fact," Frances Flaherty
wrote, "we had come only just in time to catch a fleeting ghost," the
ghost of a way of life which was coming to an end.

The true Samoan does not know the meaning of private property; he

does not know the meaning of gain. He does not know want nor the fear

of poverty. If his house burns down, there is always his neighbour's house.

If he gets no fish, there are always his neighbour's fish. Small wonder

his inclination is for singing and dancing, for flowers and loving. Wherever

he walks, it is 'Malic, Malic!— Beautiful, beautiful!'

But the film was not what its sponsors had expected, and when it
appeared in 1926, it was introduced as "the love-life of a South Sea
siren". Flaherty parted from Paramount and was sent by Metro-
Goldwyn-Mayer to make a film in Tahiti. But Mr. Goldwyn wanted
an 4 epic drama' and Flaherty tore up his contract, returning with the
German director, F. W. Murnau, to make a film of a different sort.
The film was made, appearing as Tabu in 1931, though it was more
Murnau's than Flaherty's: Tahiti seen through the eyes of an imagina-
tive European, rather than the real Tahiti.

After this, Flaherty came to Europe, and after making Industrial
Britain, with John Grierson for the GPO, he went to the far west of
Ireland and produced Man of Aran (1932-4) about the never-ending
struggle of the islanders with the sea. Then Alexander Korda sent
him to India to bring back in 1936 Elephant Boy, built around one of
Kipling's stories. The story was not considered exciting enough, and
new scenes were shot at the Denham studios, by other hands than
Flaherty's, to make it more acceptable to the British film industry.

In the period of the New Deal in America, Pare Lorentz had made
The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, and their success had
landed Lorentz with the job of director of the United States Film
Service. He sent for Flaherty to make a film about soil erosion and the
dust bowl. The film was made, The Land, but after one performence
in 1941 the authorities neither showed it nor permitted it to be shown.
It apparently did not fit in with the "new mood" of America, because
of the bitterness with which it showed the squalor and misery resulting
from the commercial exploitation of the soil.

His last film, Louisiana Story, began two years after the war and
shown here first in 1949, is an exquisite elegiac evocation of the swamps
and forests of Southern Louisiana, and the coming of floating derricks
canoe by the son of a Cajun trapper. (The Cajuns descend from French
settlers deported from Canada for sedition in 1750).

"Do it again and you will be immortal — and excommunicated from
Hollywood, which is a good fate," wrote Charlie Chaplin to Flaherty,
but he was never to make the films he planned about Burma and
Ethiopia. Considering the thirty years he spent making films, they
were few in number compared with those of the successful directors
of the "industry", for he worked slowly, spending months in absorbing
the life which he was to photograph and interpret, and working with a
small team of enthusiasts. But his influence on other directors was
profound, from Eisenstein who declared that "We wore out Nanook,
studying it", to the pioneers of the documentary school

The qualities which Flaherty gave to his films are a sense of the
uniqueness of individual people, of the dignity of human activities and
of the reciprocity between man and his environment, his home and
family, and the tools with which he earns his living. Yet Flaherty's
too, was a cinema of social comment and social protest. His friend
Charles Siepmann writes :

Bob was one of the great protestants of his time. Nothing was small
about him, and his indignation, like his love, fairly overflowed. His films
are full of both, of the former— at least by inference. He hated the ugliness
and impersonality of the urbanized, industrialised world he lived in, and he
hated 'man's inhumanity to man' as expressed in one ugly word, exploita-
tion . . . Bob was worldly enough, but he loathed the insensibility of the
'sophisticated'. He stood in the pathway of his own times and shouted
"No!" to the callous and indifferent.

For his extraordinary perception of the delicate personal relation-
ships of simple people, painstakingly interpreted to enlarge our vision
also, we owe much to this passionate ecologist. C.

I am an anarchist. 1 wish governments would go away and leave
people alone more. People can get along without governments.
I can."

—Charlie Chaplin, 25/9/51.

Posted By

Jun 4 2016 08:45


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