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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Louisiana Story

The idyllic life of a young Cajun boy and his pet raccoon is disrupted when the tranquility of the bayou is broken by an oil well drilling near his home.

A young Cajun boy named Alexander Napolean Ulysses Latour spends his time on a Louisiana bayou. There he plays, fishes and hunts, worrying only about the alligators which infest its waters. The boy's innocent routine changes forever when his father signs a lease agreement with an oil company which brings a derrick into their corner of the bayou.

It is strange that I have always come to the movies of Flaherty indirectly, through works of other filmmakers. Cooper and Shoedsack's Grass, A Nation's Battle for Life sent me to Nanook of the North (the two movies being neatly different in their approach). Ivens's Philips-Radio sent me to the Louisiana Story. This time the connection was made through a blog, authored by Dennis Grunes: the two movies were compared with the intent of finding in both the dystopian dimension brought by industry. Here is what Dennis Grunes says about Louisiana Story:

The commercial technology that Flaherty shows competes with the natural environment in order to subdue it—Standard Oil’s idea of harmony. There is no getting away from the fascination of this technology. Indeed, Louisiana Story is as engrossed with complicated apparatus as are Sergei M. Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s metallic, gear-grinding Enthusiasm (1931)—two works that illustrate the mythopolitical Soviet equation of technological progress and human fulfillment. This is not Flaherty’s attitude, however. Consider the horrifying shot of birds suddenly flooding the sky in flight—it’s apocalyptic—at the exploratory explosion which itself chokes air with dark gas, dirt and debris, the effect of which no number of company prologues would ever succeed in neutralizing. In Flaherty’s film, the machinery itself is represented in unsettling terms: it’s agitated, smoke-belching, and busily overloaded with lines and chain belts that seem almost capable of attacking. (Compare the sanctified treatment of the cream separator as a huge, shining object of awe in The Old and the New.) But Flaherty and his spouse, Frances, who co-authored the story, go further yet: the machinery fails. Oil is not released; instead, a blowout makes necessary the capping of the well. The drillers are thus portrayed as hapless and impotent, as pure spoilers, for all their advanced gadgetry.

Well, I would only partially agree. Even Philips-Radio is up to some point ambiguous in awing / denouncing the technology. As for the movie that Flaherty made in 1948, it leaves to us the judgment. It is (as one reviewer on imdb noted) Huckleberry Finn meeting Standard Oil. We have the universe of a Louisiana bayou, with water, plants, animals and people, competing and cooperating, fighting and balancing each other. We have the universe of industry, intruding the bayou, based on the logic of profit and forgetting of any balance. As I said, Flaherty leaves to us the judgement. Maybe we know today the answer, and maybe it's too late. Or maybe we are too caught in the logic of profit to realize that we should look for balance. Anyway it's too late. We descend no more from Huckleberry Finn, we were cloned by Standard Oil.

Okay, forget about all this. Watch the movie and let yourselves be charmed by the poetry of the bayou. Joseph Boudreaux, who played the boy, still lives there. He is about eighty years old, and his grand children maybe live again the miracle, canoeing among fabulous trees over shallow waters, playing with raccoons and dreaming at hunting crocodiles.


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