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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Man of Aran (1934)

"It is a fight from which he will have no respite until the end of his indomitable days or until he meets his master—the sea."
- from the opening scroll

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 11, 2004

Director: Robert Flaherty

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:16m:29s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 037429163924
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B-B- B

DVD Review

You can count Robert Flaherty's films on one hand, but his landmark work established a high standard and engaged many of the critical issues for all documentarians who followed him. Is a documentary inherently more "true" than a fiction film? Ask the various partisans of Bowling for Columbine, or The Fog of War, or Capturing the Friedmans, or The Thin Blue Line, and you'll find that the answer, more often than not, is no. One of Flaherty's biographers, in the supplementary material on this disc, refers to the director not as a documentarian, but as a poet—and if that's the case, he's certainly taken advantage of poetic license. Still, his work is powerful and memorable, even if it's not necessarily journalism.

The three Aran isles are off the west coast of Ireland, and Flaherty set out to portray the lives of those who inhabit these beautiful places that present so many challenges to their inhabitants. It's clear from the jump that this isn't cinema vérité, as Flaherty's movie begins with a dramatis personae; and quickly it's clear that what he's after is not an exhaustive sociological investigation, but in investigating the struggle between man and nature, a theme that runs through all of his work. (Nanook of the North is probably the first and best example of this.) Of course, when someone starts talking to me about the nobility of labor, I reach protectively for my wallet; and Flaherty is after types and archetypes, not stories that are individual and unique. In doing so, things here can sometimes seem marginally patronizing; but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't respect that hard work and fierce ethic of these people.

In a land without soil, the people on Aran make their own, using seaweed beds and crumbling bits of rock to create something in which potatoes, then the staple of the Irish diet, could grow. These are still the early days of sound pictures, and Flaherty doesn't use sync sound; the film is heavily scored, and layered in with the chatter of the folks on the island going about their business. And while the land is unforgiving, the sea is even more so—much of the documentary is devoted to the men of Aran waging battle with basking sharks, which inhabit the Irish waters, in swarms. This isn't Jaws, though there's obvious danger inherent in the work; it's all workmanlike, another day on the job, though replete with great big dangerous swimming animals and a ferocious sea. The pastoral is emphasized throughout; we see almost as many close-ups of farm animals (sheep, usually, and of course the occasional Irish setter) as we do of people, tending to anthropomorphize the other species, witnessing the work of the noble men of Aran.

Some of it borders on Hemingway territory, men displaying grace under pressure, performing the tasks necessary for survival; happily, unlike Hemingway and many of his heroes, the men of Aran seem to be neither fat nor drunk nor violent. The sea is shot with particular care, in what seems like an effort almost to anthropomorphize it, too—it doesn't quite become another character, but it is something to fear, the aquatic manifestation of the great unknown. It's a visually rich movie, and if it doesn't provide a thorough portrait of its subjects in all their particulars, it will give you a certain respect for the people of these islands, and especially for the intrepid documentarians who set about to capture their world on celluloid.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfer seems to have been done from a damaged print—no doubt this was the best one available—but it's got more than its share of scratches and tears.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The Irish music is a bit overdone in the scoring, but that seems like an aesthetic choice on Flaherty's part, not a fault of the transfer, which sounds reasonably clean.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. photo gallery
  2. insert booklet with an essay by Frances Flaherty
Extras Review: The extras do a fine job of situating the feature in aesthetic and historical contexts; they're in many ways just as interesting as the feature, and shed all sorts of light on Flaherty's work. In 1977, documentarians George C. Stoney, an American whose grandfather emigrated from Aran, returned to the islands to find out How the Myth Was Made (58m:25s), in which he asks the overarching question about Flaherty's work: "What are the consequences when life becomes myth?" It's stunning to see the islands in color, to see how modernity has begun to come to the islands, and to visit again with some of Flaherty's cast members, all pushing on toward old age. We learn, among other things, that the basking shark hunt that Flaherty shot was archaic even in the 1930s, and seems not entirely unlike shooting Civil War re-enactors and passing it off as the present. Flaherty wasn't the first poet to take Aran as his subject, either; the great Irish writer J. M. Synge shot photographs of the islands, which are lovely, and now the spots are overrun with tourists looking for Flaherty's genuine article. (Flaherty died in 1951.) Also included is an interview with Flaherty, called Looking Back (04m:55s), in which he reflects on the shoot; big chunks of this are cut into Stoney's own film.

The widow Flaherty takes center stage next, first in Flaherty and Film (16m:24s), a 1960 interview with Frances Flaherty conducted for National Education Television. It's more or less just an oral history of the project, with clips, and lacking any sort of critical examination. Mrs. Flaherty is candid about her husband's intentions, though: "It was more than a documentary—it was an archetype, it was an old Irish tale." Hidden and Seeking (29m:44s) is a 1971 visit with Mrs. Flaherty, in Dummerston, Vermont, where the locals are up in arms over a proposed nuclear power plant—she's a tough old New England doyenne, talking to young people about Vietnam, and it's she who does most of the talking. It's a bit too ruminative, almost as if the filmmakers, Tom and Peter Werner, didn't want to muss with the halo over the first lady of the documentary. The accompanying essay is more of Mrs. F reflecting on the shoot; and finally, Outside the Frame is a collection of location stills, sketches of cast members, and photos from the film's premiere.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A landmark film that may not be as well known as Flaherty's Nanook of the North, but with a package of extras that will intrigue any aspiring documentarian or student of the form.


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