Louisiana Story

Director: Robert Flaherty
Screenplay: Frances Flaherty and Robert Flaherty
Features: Joseph Boudreaux (The Boy), Lionel Le Blanc (His Father), E. Bienvenu (His Mother), Frank Hardy (The Driller), C.P. Guedry (His Boilerman)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: U.S.
Louisiana Story

Robert Flaherty was never a conventional documentary filmmaker, and his films, although routinely referred to as “documentaries,” were often highly fictionalized works that used real-life settings and people for the purpose of evoking deep, primal mythologies. Although they often appeared spontaneous, his films are thoroughly constructed to achieve exactly what Flaherty wanted. To a journalistic purist, this is a highly questionable, if not downright contemptible, practice, as it maintains the illusion of transparent documentation of “real life,” but is in fact a carefully constructed fiction. For those who accept that objectively documenting “real life” is an inherent impossibility—a fiction in its own right—his films are fascinating exercises in myth making.

Flaherty’s second-to-last film, Louisiana Story, keeps in line with his cinematic obsession of observing primitive cultures, usually through the eyes of a child. In this case, his camera is trained on the lives of rural Cajuns in the Louisiana bayous, but he adds a twist by exploring what happens when the modern world crosses the worn pathways of a primitive way of life. The modern is represented by a massive oil derrick that has been erected in the Petit Anse Bayou, its clean, functionalist aesthetic standing in stark contrast to the untamed, swampy landscape around it.

What is interesting about Louisiana Story is the way in which it struggles to maintain a largely neutral tone in looking at the meeting of past and present. This is no environmental diatribe in which the oil derrick is positioned as an intrusion on the noble world of the Cajuns, but neither is it a celebration of the modern machine age. The film was funded by the Standard Oil Company, so it’s tempting to read it as celebrating the enterprise of drilling for oil, but Flaherty refuses to be that simplistic.

Granted, there are numerous borderline fetishistic close-ups of the oil drilling machinery at work, but there is just as much time spent documenting the wilderness and the teeming life within it—from crocodiles, to cranes, to raccoons. Flaherty’s gift as a filmmaker was his sense for how to portray cinematically the power of natural surroundings, whether that be the Arctic in Nanook of the North (1922) or the barren islands of Aran in Man of Aran (1934). Here, aided greatly by the Pulitzer Prize-winning score by Virgil Thomson, he gives us lyrical images of swampland that make them seem enchanting and mystical, even if in the back of our minds we realize they are hot, humid, and filled with blood-sucking insects.

Louisiana Story has been hailed as a masterpiece, and in 1994 the Library of Congress inducted it into the National Film Registry. It displays many of Flaherty’s great strengths as a filmmaker, but it also showcases some of his weaknesses, which makes it an uneven film that is not in league with his earlier works. Perhaps because his earlier films were silent, he could get away with using real-life people as “characters” in his narratives. In Louisiana Story, one is constantly and awkwardly reminded that the people on-screen, while “real” in the sense that they fill the same role in their lives outside the film that they do on-screen, are clearly being directed and have been fed dialogue that they recite woodenly. Where Flaherty’s visuals are stunning and refuse to take sides in the struggle between machine-driven progress and the maintenance of the natural world, his shoehorned narrative and hammy dialogue practically sink the film.

Whereas many of his earlier films better conveyed a sense of spontaneity, virtually everything in Louisiana Story feels canned and processed, particularly the relationship between the central character, a rough-and-tumble, but sweet-faced Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux) and two oil workers who befriend him (Frank Hardy and C.P. Guedry). In this relationship it is hard not to sense the intrusion of Standard Oil into the film, as the oil workers are portrayed as good, clean, decent, hard-working men who don’t mind taking time out of their busy routines to befriend the locals, who they regard with cheerful bemusement. While “lyrical” is a word often associated with Flaherty’s films, the one that comes to mind here is “cute,” in the same way those hokey educational films produced by Walt Disney in the 1940s and ’50s were “cute,” which is far beneath the skills of a gifted and pioneering filmmaker like Flaherty.

Louisiana Story DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsThe Land 1940 documentary directed by Robert Flaherty
Excerpt from 1971 documentary Hidden and Seeking
“Study Film”: Audio commentary on the opening scene by Frances Flaherty and Richard Leacock
“Flaherty and Film”: Interview with Frances Flaherty
“Letters Home”: Excerpts from Richard Leacock’s correspondence
DistributorHome Vision Entertainment
Release DateMay 20, 2003

The transfer for this disc was made from a print that resulted from a restoration of the film conducted in 1998 by the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archives. The result is absolutely gorgeous, with a clean, pleasantly filmlike image that is marred only by the occasional and barely noticeable vertical hairline. Otherwise, the image is clean of dirt and damage, and the wide gradation of grays assures a wealth of visual detail.

The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix, and Virgil Thomson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning score sounds clean and rich. The sound effects and dialogue have a somewhat canned sound to them, but that is a result of the film’s original postproduction mixing, not the transfer.

As with their DVD presentation of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, Home Vision has included a similarly nice array of supplements for Louisiana Story. The first is the inclusion of The Land, a 20-minute documentary directed by Robert Flaherty in 1940 for the Department of Agriculture. Presented in a somewhat scratched and faded print, it is a rather dreary look at modern agriculture and the effects it has on both the land and people who work it. Also included is an excerpt from a 1971 documentary titled Hidden and Seeking that features Flaherty’s wife and collaborator, Frances Flaherty. She is also interviewed in a 1960s television show titled Flaherty and Film. Audio interviews with her and cinematographer Richard Leacock have been edited together into an optional audio commentary during the film’s much praised opening sequence. Finally, there is a supplement in which an actor reads excerpts from Leacock’s letters home to his wife during the film’s production. This also included production stills and clips from the film.

©2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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