Robert J. Flaherty
An Impression of the Man Who Sailed for the South Seas to Make an All-Color Silent Motion Picture in the Face of the Talkie Vogue
by Harry Carlisle
“Nannok of the North”— Robert J. Flaherty — “Moana of the South Seas” — and now — Bob Flaherty is on his way to the South Seas to make another picture, this time in color, and with F. W. Murnau as co-producer and director.
Flaherty’s name has always been associated with beauty in pictures, just as Murnau’s has been significant of advanced technique and dramatic effectiveness.
Flaherty is a ruddy, hearty individual, mentally and physically active almost without pause. Seldom does he seem quite relaxed. He cannot sit still for long, but rises from his chair and strides the room constantly. He smokes cigarettes with the same hurried tempo that he unfolds his thoughts — thoughts that are keenly analytical, pungently witty, informative, stimulating, and covering a wide assortment of subjects in an incredibly short space of time. It is typical of him that he flies to extremes in thought as he hitherto has flown to extremes with regard to picture making locales. He admires the mechanical aspects of civilized life in themselves but damns them for their effect on the human being. He identifies the unspoiled primitive with the highly civilized, and echoes the thought with satirical and refreshing phrases anent the inhibitions of mass life, patriotisms, dogmas, and general inanities.
He pays little attention to his clothes, which are a mere matter of convenience: he terms handsome leading men “drug store clerks out of work.” From a discussion of Eskimo amours at sixty below zero, he swings to an interpretation of life in the Antipodes, pointing out that it is “sexless” in the sense that civilized people know it because it has none of the false trappings and romantic delusions with which we surround it. And in the next sentence he has seized another conversational cue and is dissertating upon the possibilities of color as a dramatic medium, and the stupidities perpetrated by the general run of producers.
He is seldom conscious of “proper” decorum, and when at the lunch table is apt to lounge forward, leaning heavily upon his elbow while discussing the most abstract forms of art. He has nothing but scorn for the type of “social vacuity” and nicety so much a part of Hollywood life, and is equally indifferent to Hollywood’s commercial aspects. He has no money sense, spends freely, is embarrassingly generous and gives presents on the slightest provocation; and, by that token, is easily imposed upon.
Flattery makes Flaherty flush. He shuffles uncomfortably when his work is praised, albeit he knows his own worth as a creative artist — and also knows his limitations. For the latter reason he never ceases talking intensely of the ultimate technique of picture making— a technique which was dimly being grasped just prior to the advent of talking pictures, and which has been temporarily thrust into the discard.
“Fluidity — the essence of the medium,” he declares, “has been abandoned in favor of static dialogue. To my mind talking pictures, unless they discover a more advanced technique than is evident in present productions, should be confined to society drama.”
This does not mean that the old silent form was near its ultimate goal. On the contrary, Flaherty points out that the real, the ultimate values of screen expression as an art form have not yet been achieved. A handful of people have come near to dim recognition of essential technique. Chaplin, for instance, though in many of its aspects he, too, is groping.
The interviewer had in mind Flaherty’s own film of New York, a picture confined entirely to the nuances of massed buildings, atmospheric overtones, mechanical pulsations; there was not a human pictured throughout, and the whole was as interpretative of a definite mood of the city as a sonata is descriptive of mood. And yet, the picture was generally dismissed as “a news – reel of New York skyscrapers.”
Flaherty would be the last man to claim thorough understanding “of the ultimate technique which he desires. Nevertheless he has contributed to the screen a form of beauty which is largely abstract, and indicates his leanings. Music can be expressed by motion; drama may be expressed without using the human agency —such is his premise.
He hopes some day to undertake the picturization of that very baffling subject, New York in all its moods and phases.
He is alive to beauty and all about him. He finds compensation for the insignificant phases of life in the shreds of imaginative expression such as the names Indians give their children, and the simplicities of unspoiled people. He is, by force of circumstances, an iconoclast. But no weariness is evident; his iconoclasm is vigorous, healthy, and — creative.
His present mission to the South Seas is not that of a wilfully blinded egotist. He knows that many people are already wearied of the novelty of talking pictures, and that many of those who formerly declared forcibly that the silent picture was dead, now welcome the relaxing influence of silence and rhythmic movement. Furthermore, granted the standard of previous pictures, his new one is assured a genuine welcome by people of artistic appreciation.
His choice of color is based upon careful experiments. Further experiments will be made on locations with a portable camera, before actual shooting with Technicolor cameras is done.
Although the color medium is far from perfect, it nevertheless permits rich gradations. Its most stringent limitation is perhaps that of photographing skies, which always come out with green-blue. With the sea it is a different matter due to association of thought-impression, as the sea varies- in shades of green-blue, and in this connection permits, artistic license. Cloud masses will be substituted for the gaping sky, as splendid blacks and whites are gained with the color camera. Reds are obtained with ease, though care must be taken in composition because of their visual dominance; they too easily detract from the dramatic tableau.
Smiling reminiscently, as we had been discussing his hectic days at Culver City when a story was “missing,” Flaherty declared: “We have a story. A love story. We intend making Papeete our cable base, and for two months will experiment with cameras and prepare the production. I expect the entire operation will take about six months.”
With the addition of a few more creative artists such as Flaherty and Murnau to the picture field in America we would be assured general advance and worthwhile accomplishment.
Flaherty is frank, genuine, and a delightful contrast with the numerous sycophants attached to the picture industry. That he is not a good business man is to his advantage as an artist. We look forward to his forthcoming picture with a great deal of pleasure.
(Hollywood Filmograph, June 23, 1929)