Notes on reading Filming Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story; The Helen van Dongen Diary
1998, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Richard Leacock December 10th 2000
Richard Leacock Page
No reports are more readily believed than those which disparage genius, and soothe the envy of conscious mediocrity
Macauly in his essay on Bacon.
There are many references to me and some quotes, so I would like to state that at no time was I ever consulted by any of the contributors to this book. Soon after publication I received a copy from my friend Eva Orbanz, editor and contributor to this book. I then read the book and decided that there were so many mistakes, misapprehensions, such lack of knowledge of Robert Flaherty and his wife Francis and ,remarkable in my view, no critical evaluation of the only film that I know of that Helen van Dongen wrote, directed and edited herself titled "Of Human Rights" 1950.
As a close friend of the Flahertys and as collaborator, as associate producer and photographer on Louisiana Story , I had to at least try to put the record straight. I am writing this page by page correction and putting it on the internet in order that hapless students anywhere, being taught from this text have recourse to rebuttal.
pp 9: by Hans Helmut Prinzler "A Gift of Friendship"
"... she committed very little of a personal nature to her diary, limiting her observations to professional matters. At the time she kept it she obviously never dreamed that it would one day be published, ... she describes precisely what she needed for each individual sequence ..."
Quote from HvD's "diary" page 48 "...the idea is that these notes will later serve me as a filmmaker, and may be of value to students who wish to know how a dramatic documentary grows... sequences, such as the catching of the alligator, or boy disturbing alligator nest, which are staged and planned by us - could be shot according to a preconceived shooting script covering the action from every angle, with far shots, medium shots and close-ups in order to have sufficient cutting material."
She did plan on publishing and what she says about the nest sequence is simply not true. This sequence grew out of filming the alligator at her nest... try directing an angry mother alligator for take 1, take 2... medium shot.... "take it from the head dear alligator!"
pp 11 "New York Friends look at Documentary Films" Mary Lea Bandy
A brief history of the MOMA film collection. No mention of Jay Leyda who started it; an authority on Serge Eisenstein and his theories of Montage and author of the scholarly "Melville Log", a classic study of Melville failure as a writer during his lifetime. However I guess Jay has been forgotten because of his Communist affiliations.
pp13 Goebbels did not "buy a copy of Potemkin" it was developed and printed in a German lab.
pp17 January 1947 all diary pages are hand dated, all on the same paper and written with the same pen. I have all the letters I wrote to my wife during this 14 month period, in their original, dated envelopes as a handy corrective reference.
pp20 August 10 1946 Description of meeting Lionel Leblanc. Claims that we showed him a reel of Nanook. I have no recollection of having this print available, let alone showing it.
pp22 Flaherty not playing "Grieg concerto for piano and violin" no such thing, they were always working on Haydn's Sonata #2 but yes, the violin and piano were always "slightly out of tune" (which would pain our sound man Benjy Donneger who was a professional a violinist.)
Aug 29 Reveals a total lack of comprehension of how Flaherty worked. Viz: 2nd unit to shoot refinery scenes in Baton Rouge! Flaherty had a clear notion of what he hoped to find with our camera but only he could find it and then be convinced by seeing it on the screen and editing it. HIMSELF! Why would a studio (which would have to be built) help? We did not shoot at mid day because the light was not the light we wanted and got. Bob did not have to be pushed to film JC ! Transition problem is purely her invention.
pp 29 The original contract called for the film and two shorts and Arnold Eagle did in fact make a 16mm color film supervised by David Flaherty of the building of the Pirogue.
pp 30 She still has no idea of what we are doing! This film was shot over a huge area from near the Texas border, toward New orleans. The spot at Avery Island was a personal sanctuary of the McIlhenny family who owned the source of all those little bottles of Tabasco Sauce that you will find all over the world and which comes from their factory on top of the salt dome that is Avery Island. The pond, the alligator nest the egrets and some of the cyprus forrest were there just a stones throw from the factory. We shot and shot there but RJF was not satisfied with the Cyprus swamp, superb as it was, he wanted better, so, long after HvD went back to New York he decided to move our pontoon raft to Weeks Island, about 30 miles west where in very little time we secured the staggeringly beautiful opening scenes of the Film. Yes, the camera conceals what is around it, Flaherty discovered this in Samoa filming Moana!
pp 31; Sep 5 and on: I don't see how these observations could possibly be from a "diary" written at the time since they mix events that have not yet taken place. It was not decided at this point that Lionel Leblanc Blanc was to play the father. We were still considering Uriah Trahan, an alligator poacher from further west, near where we first picked up JC. The problem with him was that he had a Texas drawl. She speaks of Lionel "if he could sign a lease on his land..." citing a scene that was not filmed until we were shooting synchronous sound near the end of our stay... months after this entry. She speaks of JC paddling around and finding the alligator nest... we had filmed the major scene at the nest before we started filming JC. The scenes of JC at the nest were among the first we made with him and if you look carefully you can see that his hair is much shorter than in the rest of the film. The rushes of the alligator lunging at the camera are hilarious. Mr Flaherty standing just in front of my camera, goading the alligator and leaping aside just as it lunges... later we tried some more with JC but he was scared stiff of the angry mother-alligator.
Sep 8 The script had the oil rig "blowing out" and I kept asking how we were going to film this. The Humble (not Carter, as she has it) sent a barge carrying an array of high pressure pumps to simulate a blowout. it failed dismally, as Mr. Flaherty put it at the time "... any good Irishman could do better than that lying on his back!" . Then, what she doesn't even mention, while I was in New York getting our first born child, Elspeth, with her mother from the hospital, (about November12th) a nearby oil rig did blow out. Mr. Flaherty went there with Sidney Smith and the Arriflex and someone spotted the battery and cable and they were ordered not to film... nothing electrical within a mile of the gas-spouting rig. So they went back to our house and returned with our "standby" Debrie camera, which, though it had an attachable electric motor, was designed as a hand-crank camera and RJF shot it hand-crank, very difficult because the old silent films were shot at 16 fps or two turns of the crank per second and now they had to turn 24 fps or 3 turns per second. Very hard work! Try it! much later we shot peripheral scenes of mud squirting out of pipes etc. (yes! Staged!)
She speaks of the marsh-buggy scenes and she misses the whole point. Flaherty had agreed to make a sequence showing aspects of the search for a likely spot to drill for oil: Seismograph crews setting off dynamite explosions and recording the reflection of pulses from deep strata on a seismograph. We went to some marshlands in Texas where this was being done and we filmed it in quite some detail and it was boring beyond belief! It looked like one of those army training films on how to clean a rifle! So then, RJF decided that we must film it as an almost completely obscured event. There is nothing romantic about a marsh-buggy, so the less you see of it the better, same with planting explosives, only the explosion is seen; and to hell with seismographs... all you see is a flock of migrating birds (preparing to leave for their winter homes) something that, like the much talked about spiders web that Mr. Flaherty had the good sense to film at length, because it was beautiful! (part of Flaherty's "profligacy" with film. no doubt) None of these decisions had anything whatever to do with HvD.
pp 37 Long discussion of JC catching the alligator which bears very little relation to what actually happened. Flaherty knew that we needed what he termed "audience catchers". In Nanook there is a tug-of-war between Nanook and the seal, created by having some strong men at the other end of the rope. In Man of Aran there is a tug of war between the basking shark and the men in the couragh, so we were to film a tug of war between JC and the alligator. The problem we encountered was not that is was difficult to hook an alligator, it is not. The problem is that the alligator offered no resistance at all. A five year old could have pulled it in. Thank god we got one shot with both JC and the alligator in the same frame. the rest is staged with two strong men on the other end of the rope and it has nothing whatever to do with Lionel being "not available". Of course it was staged! Good and proper! The hook was then removed and the alligator left in peace
HvD never mentions one of the most serious problems that arose when she started editing the material filmed on water. When ever you film the surface of the water, its appearance varies with the strength of the wind, dead calm gleaming surface to tiny ripples, to waves and it is essential that shots go with matching surface shots. To make this possible we had to film even more under very different conditions.
HvD barely mentions the refinery sequence that had been contractually agreed to. It was to be a magical visually fascinating sequence with no attempt whatever to "explain"what goes on in a refinery. We did some preliminary filming at the Houston Tex. refinery and then settled for a real go at it in Baton Rouge during the dead of winter. We already knew that we wanted to film in bad weather, especially cloudy, fogy, misty... and we shot and shot and were delighted with what we got and arranged a special screening for some high up oil executives when we were back in Abbeville... disaster! They were horrified! It seemed that we had shot every illegal, and polluting aspect of what goes on there. After the officials left Bob nudged me and said "... they want it to look like a well appointed gentleman's lavatory..." so that was the end of that sequence.
HvD makes no mention of the fact that the whole drilling sequence had been shot and found to be eminently acceptable... in daylight. It was Mr. Flaherty, as we were running out of money and time, with HvD safely working in her New York cutting room, that Flaherty toLd me that he wanted to reshoot the entire sequence at night! I was horrified, crazy! we had no lights to speak of and "the whole rig?!" so I obediently went and bought a bunch of clip-on fixtures and miles of electric cable and spent several days climbing around the rig. The reflector photo spot had just been invented... thank God... We started shooting and we recorded sound, wild but not as it says in this book "synthetic" sound. It all went unbelievably smoothly and Flaherty (as usual) was dead right. The darkness concentrated attention on the pipes, the chain, the fingers, the faces; it was wonderful. These were the essential decisions, and all of them were made by Flaherty. I have never known any other person that not only shot with unbelievable persistence but then looked at rushes over and over again, on the screen, where they belonged. So that he knew every inch of film and knew what worked and what did not work. AND KNEW WHAT TO DO WITH IT.
pp 51 Oct 25-6 etc. Remarkable. Here she is talking about scenes that had not been shot, JC on the "christmas tree" for example was not shot until late spring when HvD was back in New York.
Trivia: my daughter was born Nov 5 not 4th.
Dec 5 Philip Hiss (brother of Alger Hiss) and Mia Keller, a Dutch leader of the resistance who was rescued from execution by Philip, a US Army Intelligence officer. Was not writing a book on Orientals. Mia became a life long friend of mine and died three years ago.
Dec 7 She got the whole story wrong. Randolph Roan, the owner of a sugar mill in Jeanarette La. was running bootleg liquor from Mexico into the U.S and was waiting for the boat to arrive in the Bayous... went out in a friends little plane to look for it and saw the crew dumping his booze overboard thinking the plane was from the IRS...
Dec 8 Nonsense! Of course the forrest looks emptier and it's in the film, JC is "lost". But then she mentions somewhat condescendingly, the shot of the alligator catching the egret. I knew we had it and Bob told me to insure that roll for $150,000! He said " this one shot will justify all the months of filming we have done of alligators... it'll make it all work:"
Jan 17 Refinery material, she says nothing about why this sequence was dropped, and again the obsession with "shamefully over shot" . This was beautiful footage and very difficult to get. It would have been a stunning sequence but was killed by the oil people because of certain laws concerning refineries. I can't believe this was written at the time.
pp 57 Jan 18 What HvD says about not sticking to a script shows her staggering lack of understanding of how this film was made and how Flaherty worked. She is still obsessed with the amount of film shot which was nowhere near as much as this book claims, but is a cardinal sin to neat tidy little minds like hers and look at what she shot when she had control in her UN film, "Of Human Rights", written, directed and edited by Helen van Dongen.
pp 60 Jan 27 Discussion of dialogue sequences... synch sound Mitchell camera and sound equipment, a disc recorder which cut the sound onto 16 inch glass discs coated with acetate. this equipment did not arrive until March 20th. If she is just talking about written dialogue, this was only vaguely used as RJF tried to get them to speak in their own words "spontaneously"!
pp 69 March 19 discussion of need for much voice over... in final film only introduction of the boy and it used Bobs voice... as I said at the time that he wrote it,,, "no one else could get away with such nonsense!" JC was a modern Cajun kid who had worked in a shrimp packing factory and had no use for mermaids and werewolves !!! His major fault was that he never learned to paddle his pirogue properly with a twist at the end of each stroke so that he wouldn't have to change sides the whole time. Bob went crazy trying to show him how but never succeeded.
pp 70 Discussion of filming with JC during the drilling is irrelevant because this entire sequence was reshot at night after HvD was happily ensconced in her New York cutting room.
Richard Barsam's chapter
At the time that I worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story, both I and my Anthropologist wife Eleanor, (known as Happy) and Helen van Dongen were of Marxist persuasion. After becoming an American Citizen HvD married the head of the Soviet News service TAS in New York. Flaherty knew of our "philosophy" and joked about it often. When I returned from a trip, he would greet me and cheerfully add "the FBI's been around asking after you!".
He had spent years living with the Eskimo and was amazed at how cheerful and contented they were whist living under dreadful conditions, I never heard him mention Rousseau. Happy's PhD thesis, based on the book written by Frederick Engels after Marx's death, "The Origin of the Family and Private Property" agrees with Flaherty's conclusions as do legions of others including the Anthropologist Assen Beliksi, whose films on the Netsilick Eskimo were filmed in 196? and had them acting out what their great grandfathers did some 80 years after the fact rather than a mere 20 years. They could have recorded synchronous sound but elected not to and took their Eskimo friends to Montreal where they dubbed the film in a studio. I have heard no criticism of this excellent film, perhaps because Beliksi has a PhD?
The corruption that Flaherty hated was that brought by the Christian Missionaries, especially in Polynesia. He was fascinated by people that did things well. Industrial Britain is about industrial glass blowing, true, he was appalled when filming a young woman operating a complex machine with her hands cuff-linked so as to protect them... he asked what it was that she was making and she replied "I don't know sir". But he was not impressed as most "intellectuals" of that period were, by the "Soviet Experiment". Nor was Bertrand Russell! To claim that his films were about "places that never were" is idiotic. Both Nanook and Moana and, for that matter Louisiana Story are quite accurate.
"to fulfill his romantic vision in the creation of films that would give pleasure to his audience" As far as I know there is no way to get a film shown in theaters (the only way in the 1920's and 30's) or on television for that matter, without convincing the executives that control and profit from the media, that the film will "give pleasure" to their audience. As Flaherty said repeatedly to me "if you think making the film is difficult then wait till you try to distribute it..." This is not a "romantic vision" it's a plain fact. To claim that Nanook and Moana are "travelogues to places that never were" is simply not true. They are remarkably accurate portrayals and it now appears that Margaret Mead's writings are far more dubious, that she was having her leg pulled by her informants.
Flaherty may have admired the culture and life of the Eskimo and the Samoans. He made one of the greatest collections of Eskimo art and superb photo portraits that are preserved in Canada. He also admire industrial workers in Britain and oil workers in Louisiana while Helen van Dongen express great admiration for Moa Tse Tung and other Communist movements as did I and many others. Who was Naive?
Barsum talks a confusing jumble saying among other things, that Flaherty was not a documentarian. It was on seeing Moana that John Grierson first used the term in his review so one could say that Moana is by definition a documentary. Flaherty never claimed to be documenting and he never claimed to be an "anthropologist", or "scientific" or "objective". Is it a sin to depict the past as you and your subjects see it? I was trained as a Physicist so I do have a notion of what we mean by "objective truth" and can assure you that there is no such thing in the social "sciences". Flaherty had a view and it is holding up very well. He was a superb film maker.
To claim that Flaherty disregarded editing and sound is nothing short of grotesque. Why is it that Nanook and Moana both filmed and edited by Flaherty on his own or with his wife, stand up today as almost no films of 1921 and 1925 do? I have described how complicated location sound recording was even in 1947. One of the best parts of Louisiana story is the drilling scene, no music; direct sound! Take a look at Eisenstein's "The General Line" 192? or Vertof's "Man with a Movie Camera" 1929 both made years later and they look freakish at screening today.
Both HvD and I got credit as associate producers; this was a generous but meaningless gesture on Flaherty's part. Neither of us were involved in any of the responsibilities of Producer. Every single important decision was made by Mr. Flaherty. Virgil Thomson had nothing to do with making the film and several other composers were considered toward the end of the filming. He then composed a magnificent score.
The last paragraph lists what HvD brought to RJF's way of working and it is sheer nonsense. He, not she, was the one that looked and looked at the rushes. It was he that regretted our not doing our own lab work so that we could see the rushes sooner. She had nothing whatever to do with the recording of sound, It was Flaherty who spent days with us out in the marshes with this clumsy recorder cutting recordings of the sounds of alligators. HvD wasn't even with us when this was done. She was and is a very competent editor, no more, no less.
To claim that Flaherty was a "confused" director is nonsense. She wanted everything to be done her way, neat, simplistic and unimaginative. Her diagrams of how we should shoot are grotesquely naive. She was obsessed with a phrase in the script "as seen by the boy" and this she took literally as from the boy's point of view. What the phrase was meant to convey was that we see it imaginatively, without having to explain everything. Far from having a "major role, in planning and shaping the film" she had no role in doing either and nor did I.
I am referred to as having said that "when he got behind the camera he shot anything that seemed even remotely relevant to what he had in mind" but this is sited as a criticism; it was not.
"it seems clear to me that Flaherty did not participate in any significant way in the editing of Louisiana Story"
This is breathtakingly idiotic ! Grotesque! Utterly untrue. Barsam has been taken for a ride and obviously didn't do his home work. How come Louisiana Story has the total feel of Flaherty? Hvd worked on Joris Ivens films (and claims that she was the controlling major force on them) take a look at the only film I know of that she wrote, directed and edited "Of Human Rights' USA 1950. Where is the poetry? where is the imagery? Where is the sound? and her previous films with Ivens were straight political propaganda films!
The drilling scene described here was from the reshoot which was made after HvD left for New York and it was done solely because Mr. Flaherty insisted and as usual he was right. HvD had nothing to do with it.
Hvd did not "insist" on direct sound recording. It was Flaherty, our sound man Bemji Donneger and myself that went to endless trouble to get the sound. Flaherty was hugely intrigued by sound . He had a ear and shot Moana very much as if he had sound. (See Monica Flaherty's sound version of Moana, made without changing a single frame of the film)
Department of fatuous remarks "The achievement of Louisiana Story suggests that Flaherty as auteur was more successful when working with artists such as Leacock, van Dongen, and Thomson than when working alone" Helen and I worked hard and we eventually managed to achieve what he had in mind from the start. In my opinion, if she and I had never been born it wouldn't have made a difference. RIP !
Flaherty shrugged off by Barsam as a person "stubbornly dedicated to an innocent, outmoded way of film making"
If HvD with "her artistic genius for giving it structure, a rhythmic balance of sight and sound images, and an aesthetic unity..."
We have ample examples of Flaherty's work "alone" WE HAVE ONLY ONE FILM BY HVD "ALONE" LOOK AT IT !
Step by Step by Eva Orbanz
All but one of the errors in this chapter are somewhat trivial, for example I was hired as cameraman but listed in the final credits as "Associate Producer" and then as "Photography" and my salary was doubled during the filming period. Remember that in 1941 a Cameraman was paid $50 a week which was good money, a hamburger cost 10c ! And tuition at harvard was $3000 a year.
The "Christmas Tree" script shown here was a rewrite from well into the shooting where we had already shot the scenes described of JC and his coon in the pirogue etc.
Flaherty decided to use the Arriflex because it had a reflex viewfinder; you looked through the lens, not a "view finder". I had filmed combat war an Burma as a combat Cameraman using a hand held Eymo but, like all professionals, I had always used a tripod when not filming "news-reel" footage. Everyone used tripods. Even Dziga Vertov used a tripod!
The catching of the alligator was entirely faked and was filmed on the McIlhennys pond. We had no intention of killing it. This sequence was from its inception, a crowd pleaser.
The film shot was 250,000 ft of 35 mm film. I shipped it via Railway Express, there was no Air Express, what happened here is that they added the 30,000 ft of sound track transferred from the discs then , in order to convert it to minutes, divided by 36 ft per minute but that is the speed of 16 mm. film. 35 mm. film travels at 90 ft per minute.
250,000 ft divided by 90 gives you 2,777 minutes or 46.3 hours (not 138 hours), since the film is about 80 minutes long gives you a ratio of 31.5:1 call it 32:1. When Hollywood made"The Yearling" which involved a young boy and a deer they found out that it wasn't easy; they went through three boys, God knows how many deer and millions of dollars.
What HvD says about rerecording the sound is nonsense, The disc recorder was used instead of the normal optical sound on film, (separate from the camera) because we could play it back on location. In order to be synchronous the recorder had to have a synchronous motor which can only run on 60 cycle AC current so we had to be close to a power source. This sound was then transferred to optical 35 mm. film soundtrack at Reeves Sound Studio. The mix was done by Dick Vorisek.
Additional Comments :
It might be helpful to outline the huge gap between the real Robert Flaherty and the Robert Flaherty that emerges from the considerable writings on the subject. He is frequently described as a romantic humanist unaware of the real problems faced by "primitive" people, subjugated by "imperialist" powers. Keep in mind that most of the film makers writing about him during the 1920's and '30s were left-wing activists who saw documentary films as a way to change the world; believers in various forms of "Socialism".
Flaherty had grown up as the elder child, spending much of his youth with his father who managed a gold mine in Northern Manitoba. His playmates were mostly American Indians. When he was finally sent to an elegant Canadian boys school, he was teaching his school mates the ways of the real world and was asked to leave. He became self educated and was one of the best read people I have ever worked with. I remember an evening at dinner in Louisiana when Ted Conant, son of the then president of Harvard University, made reference to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Flaherty corrected him with considerable annoyance. Flaherty was trained as a mining engineer and spent years living in the arctic, traveling with his friends the Eskimo, prospecting for deposits of iron-ore, for Sir William McKensie. He rediscovered the Belcher Islands and one of them is named after him; he came close to discovering the huge iron-ore load that was not found until the 1940's and not developed until after his death but he did say to me that it intrigued him; what if he had made that discovery? What would he have become? Does this make him an "imperialist" as Brian Winston claims? Self styled "progressives" like to maintain that mining and drilling for oil is a sin. Well,our modern civilization is entirely based on this sin, whether socialist or capitalist or what ever other "ism" you choose..
Above all, Flaherty was a practical man. He knew instinctively that to get a film shown in theaters, and there were no alternatives at that time, you had to entertain, to delight, to "grab" an audience. In both Nanook and Moana he turned the clock back to before the introduction of the rifle, pipe smoking, and above all, to before the arrival of the christian missionaries with their, to him, wretched attitudes. This has also resulted in accusations that he "reintroduced the cruel art of tattooing" in Moana. I returned to Savai in 1975 with his daughter Monica Flaherty and we saw several young men tattooed just as Moana was. Also see:
Worlds Apart by Gavin Young, Pub. by Hutchinson, London, page 115, "A large, strong, overweight man, heavily tattooed from waist to mid-thigh, Tolu is a matai, one of the 10,000 elected chiefs who run life in Samoa..." July 1986.
We stayed with Pea who was six years old when the film was made. The village was largely unchanged, still no electricity or running water. The road was only passable with a four-wheel drive car. We came with a little generator and a 16 mm. projector and showed Moana on a bed-sheet in the open, with Pea providing a running commentary. They loved it and there was laughter at some , to me, unexpected places. I learned a lot. When I have shown this film to students, they are attentive and appreciative but they seldom laugh and here was a Samoan audience giggling and laughing and we realized that the film was full of hidden jokes, When Moana cuts a vine and holds it up to let the sap run into his girlfriend's mouth, he shifts it so that it goes up her nose! They roared with laughter! This is obviously something that young men do. Same with the turtle falling back into the water, the coco milk spilling onto the hot rocks and many other tiny incidents. It was always Flaherty's custom to screen the film for his collaborators, long before the term "feed back" was introduced, so he must have been aware of these reactions and assumed that audiences from our culture would react as they did. Bear in mind that Flaherty, the naive, ignorant film maker; the arrogant "imperialist", instead of doing what all other people filming in remote places did, viz, come with a crew of technicians, filming as short a time as possible, never "wasting" film; then taking the exposed negative back to "civilization" to be developed and edited with long shots, medium shots, close shots neatly arranged to explicate a progressive social theme... No! he took no technicians, but went with Steinmann tanks to develop his film on the spot. He took a generator and a 35 mm. printing machine and a 35 mm. projector. He supervised and instructed local assistants. In Samoa he experimented with a new color process that used the recently invented Panchromatic film stock to record the red image an for a bipack color system. The color was not a success but he noted that the black and white image printed from the panchromatic film resulted in a skin hue, that when sepia toned, replicated the appearance of these people far more accurately than the orthochromatic stock which was the industry standard. Moana became the first feature film to be made on Panchromatic film.
During the fourteen months of filming Louisiana Story, at the end of a long day, often beginning with breakfast cooked by Bob, fried eggs, bacon, sausage, reheated beans and plenty of tea to wash it down... we would be filming by 6:30 or 7:00 to get the low light we favored. A long pause near noon then filming to dusk. Back home, the Flaherty's would usually play, he on violin, she on Piano, a sonata by Haydn whilst I would be cleaning the cameras (two Arriflexes) developing a ten inch piece of film off every roll shot and making 8X10 enlargements to check, contrast, grain, and gama. Then pack the rolls up for shipment via Railway Express to the lab in New York then, sometimes, a well earned Scotch with plenty of soda and a relaxed chat with Bob. It was at these points that he would talk to me about film making. Mostly about what he had learned from making Moana and the development of the "sequences". And here I can only reconstruct fragments of what he said. " when you tell a story, you don't give away the punch line until the end. In making a sequence you are searching with the camera; not explaining. Often you are withholding information. The close shot is said to give you detail, and it can, but it also withholds information about the surround, like a horse with blinkers on, the camera only sees what is in front of it. So, without being an obscurantist, you involve the audience in wanting to know more and you give them more but in your own sweet time. You are constantly creating "visual tension" which is only resolved at the end, if ever."
This approach to both filming and editing was entirely at odds with the theories expounded by Jay Leyda of Eisenstein and Pudovkin (that I and certainly HvD, had grown up with) where you know what to film and you draw little picture diagrams of the needed shots and you juxtapose often unrelated images to create a shock impact and we are still shown sequences, the steps of Odessa from Potemkin, the cream separator from The General Line etc and my advice to film makers today is "if you want to make TV commercials or MTV's... study Eisenstein!" Much of the literature claims that Flaherty didn't understand these theories often referred to as "modern, scientific theories of film structure" well, of course he knew about them but he was not in favor either of these techniques nor of the supposedly "revolutionary" or "socially progressive"
Much of this approach is evident in Louisiana Story, There is not a single scene in which you see the whole oil rig. The marsh buggy is always concealed. You never see the seismograph crew... just the explosion.
All the dialogue is wooden. At that time, 1947-8, dialogue with synchronous sound, had to be filmed it a 35 mm. "silent" camera with a synchronous motor, mounted on a heavy tripod. The sound was recorded on 16 inch glass discs coated with acetate on a Fairchild disc recorder that cut a groove starting near the center of the disc and cutting outward This machine also had a synchronous motor. The advantage over optical recording a la studio film, was that we could play back the sound (once). There was no, quality, magnetic sound recorder at that time. All our sound was recorded with this monstrous heavy clumsy machine which always had to have 60 cycle 120 volt electric current available. In this book it refers to HvD having to use "synthetic" sound for the drilling scenes. It was not synthetic, it was "wild" sound since in these scenes we were filming with the small Arriflex, non-synchronous cameras.
When we screened the synchronous sound dialogue scenes, I recall Bob nudging me on the way out of the room and saying ",,, good god, did I write that crap..." but it wasn't his writing, he tried to get the "actors"to ad-lib but when you have to set up the shot, start the camera, wait for the motor to snap into synch, whilst starting the recorder and lowering the diamond stylus gently onto the acetate groove and murmuring "sound" then clap sticks and ... Action!... Long shot, medium shot, close shot, reverse angle... etc with non professional actors and of course it sounds wooden and stilted, and so does the dialogue in Night Mail and in A Diary for Timothy and all the other documentaries of this period.
Flaherty has always been attacked for being "profligate" with film. This book devotes much attention to this subject. We worked with a crew that the industry unions would not countenance so we worked non-union, Mostly our "crew" was Mr. Flaherty, often using the second Arriflex, myself on another Arriflex and Francis Flaherty taking still pictures with a Leica. Sometimes I had an assistant. Sidney Smith till he went off to college, or a local helper running the boat and carrying stuff. Naturally, when we filmed the dialogue sequences we had Bengy Donneger as sound recordist and Leny Stark assisting us both. In all my previous work I had been used to directors who knew exactly what they wanted, like Helen van Dongen. Flaherty did not. How to film an oil prospecting crew? Well, no problem so I took over in a sense and we did all the sensible things and we screened it and it was fine. But oh so boring! So how do you film an alligator? How to make it scare an audience? how to make it a crazed brute? well, try directing an alligator. So we spent weeks watching, and every time an alligator moved we filmed and on and on and after months of this I knew I had something when the alligator killed the Egret and Bob said "insure that roll for $150,000 ! that one shot will make all the rest work." It did!
Nothing in the book tells you to film a spiders web, a snake, a flock of birds wheeling in the sky.... why shoot? because it is wonderful and yes, those shots are in the film and they were not suggested by Helen van Dongen or me, for that matter. We worked hard. Helen was often at odds with Bob and rude to Francis and for days he and HvD didn't speak to each other. For his part, I have never known a film maker that screened rushes as he did. Over and over again! That is all we did on rainy days, other than Bob's extravagant long distance phone calls to his friend Jean Renoir to ask whether it was raining in Paris. But we screened and screened until I could scream! And especially rushes of things that didn't work.
Working this way, Flaherty always chose to spend what money he had on film and time. More "Professional".film makers spend their money on large crews. The BBC sent a "small" documentary crew to film an interview of Jean Rouch and myself at my two room apartment in Paris. Seven large men arrived with tripods, lights, microphone booms. They moved the furniture they ... well ... you get the point.
International Herald Tribune 18 Oct 1994 Paris - People:
Crisis time during the filming of the Sci-fi movie "Waterworld" starring Kevin Costner, who's earning $12 million to play a half-man half-fish. After four months of filming, with two to go, the movie has cost $100 million. Food (heavy on the steak and lobsters) and lodging the for the cast and crew of about 1,500 has cost more than $25 million, the New York Daily News reported, with Costner's bungalow, counting the cook and butler, costing $4,500 a day. "There's no point pretending this is a normal film" Costner says. "The money got out of hand."
And Flaherty is "profligate" with film?
My spoof treatment of a Nanook that would have pleased some of Flaherty's critics...
STORM IN THE ARCTIC
We see an Eskimo family arriving at trading post. They show the skins that they have trapped during the long hard winter, to their admiring fellow hunters. Cut to Factor, a white man listening to his gramophone. The music takes him back to good old England (the record is Harry Lauder, singing sentimental ballads), there are tears in the factors eyes. Eskimo hunter brings furs into Post store room. The factor finds fault with even the best furs, he checks his records and claims that the family owes most of the money (a tiny amount) on loans from the company. Eskimo family, downcast, leave with pittance under threat of getting nothing at all... fade out/fade in... to interior of Igloo. Nanook addresses group of dejected Eskimo, explaining that the White Man takes the furs to London and Paris and sells them for huge sums of money. This impassioned speech is intercut with shots of high life in Paris and London. The aroused Eskimo leave their Igloo and, armed with spears, approach the Company store. They are confronted by the group of white men plus two wretched Eskimo who we had seen sneaking out of the meeting to inform on their comrades. This group is armed to the teeth with rifles. They stand on the ice before the store. Just as the battle is about to begin, the white men who are still listening to the accusations of Nanook the Hunter, while they bring to the front, a heavy machine gun!!! But the weight is too much and the ice gives way under the Imperialist scoundrels and their Eskimo lackeys. All are drowned and Nanook takes over the store. The film ends with the happy Eskimo raising the banner of the Nanook Cooperative Fur Company, over the store amid cheering Eskimo and baying sled dogs...
Due credit should be given to Pudovkin and S. Eisenstein for the subtle ideas lifted from Storm over Asia and Alexander Nevsky, for starters.
Richard Leacock Page