Saturday, 25 June 2011

Films about islands (part 1)…Man of Aran (1934), The Edge of the World (1937)…the Isle of Arran…

A couple of weeks back, I spent a few days on the Scottish island of Arran. This was my first western isle and it was stunning: rugged and beautiful with a landscape and atmosphere made that bit more intense by its isolation. It's not that easy to get to and when you get there you want to stay. When you leave you want to go back. Is it instinct?

There's something about islands...

Robert Flaherty’s 1934 film, “Man of Aran” is one of the main claims to glory of the man who largely invented the documentary or, more accurately, the docu-drama.

Filmed over a three-year period in the uncompromising wilderness of the Isle of Aran, off the coast of the Irish Free State (as it was then known) the film purported to be an accurate representation of island life as Aran Man eked out an existence from a land with no soil and a sea with no mercy. It has been controversial ever since.

Once the locals could be persuaded, three were chosen to represent the family at the core of the film: Mickleen Dillane as the boy, Maggie Dirrane as the woman and one Coleman Tiger King as the man of Aran himself. They played their parts admirably well as Flaherty had them pitted against the trials of brutal existence…transporting large baskets of seaweed and precious soil to create growing patches for potatoes smashed from the rock itself, literally clinging onto the rocky shore as they pulled their boats and fishing nets from the hungry sea and battling for days to capture a mighty basking shark.

The scenes involving the hunting of the shark are amongst the best. The sharks were a vital source of oil and sustenance for the beleaguered islanders and could take days to catch. Even though, apparently, this method of fishing had stopped half a century before the scene is real, a desperate struggle between men, the elements and the doomed shark.

Whatever the level of artifice in Flaherty’s film, he captured a way of life that was still in living memory then. Eighty years later this is an amazing slice of celtic memorabilia. This is how some of us used to live. Really.

Filmed four years later, Michael Powell's "The Edge of the World" was undoubtedly influenced by "Aran". Powell's first full-length feature, the story was inspired by the evacuation of the Scottish island of St Kilda in 1930 when the local way of life could no longer be sustained as mechanised trawling rendered local fishing uncompetitive.

The film encapsulates the conflict within the community in the relationship between the Manson and the Gray families. Should they stay or should they go? Robbie Manson (Eric Berry) is a gifted engineer and wants to use his skills in the wider world; he thinks the time is up for the islanders of "Hirta". His sister Ruth (Belle Chrystall, possibly the only woman with plucked eyebrows in the whole of the western isles...) is being romanced by Andrew Gray and both want to stay. Their fathers are also contrasted, the great Findlay Currie plays James Gray, a pragmatic man who feels the time for change may be near and the inflexible and proud Peter Manson played with gaelic intensity by John Laurie.Laurie is magnificent and deserves wider recognition for his craft from those of us more used to his turn as private Frasier. Looking a little like a rugged David Tennant, he tears up his scenes as the islanders' divisions lead to tragedy.

Andrew and Robbie race each other up the rock face and the latter pays dearly for making the wrong choices on the climb. Then it is Andrew who leaves the island prevented by an unforgiving Peter from marrying Ruth who, unknown to him is now carrying his child.

Andrew joins one of the hated trawler crews and finding out about his unexpected fatherhood, returns just in time for the ship to bring his baby to the mainland for medical help. Finally realising that the game is up the islanders decide to evacuate en masse but, as the last ship is due to leave there is time for one last tragedy as the last man "goes over".

A beautiful film to watch with highly-skilled cinematography, consistency of tone and vision, "Edge" is infused throughout with Powell's trademark mysticism. It clearly features many of the signature elements that would underpin his wonderful career. Made over many difficult months in the remote and inhospitable environment of the island of Foula, having been refused permission to film on the deserted St Kilda, the making of the film was an epic adventure in itself. ("200,000 feet on Foula" was Powell's original title for his book on the making of the film and references the immense amount of footage shot.)

The excellent BFI DVD includes a 1923 travelogue, "St Kilda - Britain's Loneliest Isle" showing fascinating footage of a boat trip of the western isles which culminates in a visit to Kilda. The tourists run a film show for the islanders who are astonished by their first sight of cinema. The comparison between the well-healed leather coat wearing mainlanders and their island brethren - still dressed as nineteenth century - is startling. Not many Belle Chrystall's amongst them. These people, as with those of Aran, had no time for fashion just the relentless focus on survival.

The DVD also includes a precious 20 minutes short from Powell which details his return in 1978 to the island with some of the surviving actors and crew from "Edge". This is a delight and shows that, almost two decades on from "Peeping Tom" he had lost none of his wit, good humour or positivity. John Laurie is also a wonder, revelling in their return and meeting up with some of the same islanders featured in the original film..."these were the golden days, Michael" he says to Powell as they walk the cliff ways. Indeed they were.

The "Edge of the World" is avilable direct from the BFI, whilst "Man of Aran" is on Amazon.

There should be more films about islands!

But, if you want to see a real island and not just a film...I'd heartily recommend Arran. Loads of enticing details on (our island guide) Lucy Wallace's excellent wildonarran blog!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Elmer Booth - original gangster! Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is a 1912 short widely credited as the first gangster film. Written by DW Griffith along with Anita Loos, it is notable for the ground-breaking direction of the former and Elmer Booth's defining role of the gangster, The Snapper Kid.

This is a very controlled movie from Griffith with consistent use of space and place. Filmed using authentic New York locations, people go in and out of the Saloon and the adjoining tenement so often you soon know the place like your own back yard.

Most significantly, there's an early use of "follow focus" and some fabulous, famous, close ups of Snapper and the gang as they skulk around Pig Alley in pursuit of and being pursued by a rival gang.
Snapper isn't a plain and simple tough guy. He takes a shine to lovely Lillian Gish's character even though she rebuffs his advances - she's as tough as anyone in the Alley. This doesn't stop Snapper mugging her musician husband and taking the last of his money. It's dog eat dog on the Lower East Side.

But Snapper intervenes to stop Lillian ("The Little Lady") being drugged by a rival gang member at a local dance and sets off a war that results in a shoot out in the alley. During the confusion, the musician wrests his money back from Snapper as the bullets fly.

Snapper avoids capture and seeks sanctuary in the couple's apartment. In the end Lillian provides him with an alibi that saves him from arrest..."One good turn deserves another"! A surprisingly pragmatic conclusion given Mr Griffith's reputation for simplistic morality.
In this movie Elmer Booth creates the prototype for all the Cagneys, Rafts and even Bogarts to follow. His performance is marked by alert cunning and restless energy, hands stuffed in his jacket pocket, constantly checking his pistol and hyperventilating on his cigarette - he's just waiting for it all to go pop!

Sadly Elmer Booth was killed in a 1915 car crash at the age of just 32. Griffith had a big role for him planned for "Birth of a Nation" but we never got to see how big a star he could have become.

I watched this film twice today and I salute Elmer for his energy and craft! He woulda been a contender alright and has his place in film history.Musketeers is viewable in hazy youtube glory or in far more defined DVD on the Griffith compilation "Biograph Shorts: Griffith Masterworks", available from Amazon here.