Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Documentary, Essays, Silent Cinema

Robert Flaherty: The First Poet of American Documentary


In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty’s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.

But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”

Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Documentary, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: The Blood of ‘Byzantium,’ the Dreams of ‘Tabu’

ByzantiumThe timing of Byzantium (IFC, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD), arriving two days before Halloween, is not coincidence, but Neil Jordan’s take on the vampire genre (from a play by Moira Buffin) is not a traditional horror film. There is blood, of course, and there is sex, but it’s less eros and more survival here, with Clara (Gemma Arterton) walking the streets (on in this case, the boardwalk of a British coastal town in the off-season) to pay the bills for herself and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an eternal sensitive teen pouring out her soul in unread letters cast to the wind. It’s a Gothic tale with a twist of conspiracy and a radically different take on vampirism as ancient earth force tightly controlled by a male cabal who treat the transformation like a patriarchal right. Only men can birth eternals and Clara has broken the covenant by giving immortality to her dying daughter. Which makes her a target.

Jordan keeps returning to themes of fairy tale and myth and Byzantium is rich with metaphor and sexual politics, almost overwhelmingly so. Set in a seedy coastal town, where Clara has dragged Eleanor after escaping an assassin, and peppered with flashbacks to a life of degradation at the hands of a British officer (a proudly debauched Jonny Lee Miller), it plays with tropes of the female vampire as icy seductress. Clara is more of a tigress protecting her cub from a hunting party of male predators and her victims are, for the most part, predators in their own right while Eleanor, locked in transition from girl to woman for a couple of centuries, is the eternal innocent who only feeds on the willing like a melancholy angel of death. Clara’s feeding can get a bit messy but Eleanor takes only by consent and leaves them in a state of peace.

You won’t find fangs or wooden stakes here (they draw blood with knife-like fingernails) and sunlight doesn’t sear the flesh. Jordan creates his own rituals, notably the transformation as sacrificial offering to the Earth itself that is sealed in blood running over the black rocks of a forsaken island off Britain. That’s a primordial image as resonant as any classic vampire movie and it gives the film a foundation stronger than the script’s Masonic conspiracy of loyal eternals hunting down our heroines. (If souls are the cost of eternity, then men give them up willingly to the cabal in this version.) For all its darkness (literally as well as figuratively) and blood, it’s quite lyrical and evocative and elemental. Vampirism is both a gift and a curse, a kind of priesthood bestowed by the Earth and corrupted by the men who would try to control it. These women offer an alternative moral approach. The discs features interviews.

TabuMiguel Gomes’ Tabu (Kino Lorber, DVD), not to be confused with Murnau classic, almost defies description. It’s a film split in two parts, the first half set in present-day Lisbon where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) falls into a routine that includes checking in on her elderly, deteriorating upstairs neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral). She calls for a Mr. Ventura as she dies and, as he tells Pilar the story of their past in colonial Africa of the early 1960s, “Paradise Lost” shifts back to “Paradise,” a dream-like remembrance told in voice-over. There no dialogue in this impressionistic recall of a lugubrious life out of time where days run into months without a change in routines or even weather, but ambient sound (and a soundtrack including Portuguese takes on Phil Spector music) adds to the spell this poetic picture casts.

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