Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cinema Masterstroke #1: Night photography sequence in “Louisiana Story” (1948)

This blog entry will be my first in a series of ongoing irregularly posted entries highlighting “Cinema Masterstrokes.” There are countless lists of top movies, performances, and individual achievements, but what of the individual flashes of brilliance in movies? Whether it’s a line reading, a camera movement, an edit, the staging of a scene, a sound effect: these are the “moments” that contribute to making films classics.

Naturally, each masterstroke discussed, is, by it’s very nature, a SPOILER. So you might only want to read entries about the movies you’ve seen.

Robert Flaherty is the father of the documentary film. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) established the feature film documentary. It holds up too. Flaherty had a late career milestone with Louisiana Story. As noted in the film’s opening titles, the film is “…an account of certain adventures of a Cajun (Acadian) boy who lives in the marshlands of Petit Anse Bayou in Louisiana.”

My first masterstroke entry is about an inspired decision during the filming of Louisiana Story, unplanned by Flaherty, in shooting the oil rig sequence.

Louisiana Story contrasts the natural beauty of the Louisiana bayou with the intrusion of industry in the form of an oil rig. We see the young Cajun boy, who is our “star,” encounter the rig while in his boat going about his day, and as he looks up at the rig, the point is clear. This unnatural sight has disrupted the pristine environment we’ve come to see from the first 25 minutes of the film.

However, the decision to shoot the oil rig at night in the subsequent sequence, is a cinematic masterstroke. The oil rig becomes an iron beast. Shot against the black sky, the rig is seen against a backdrop of oil. The shots of man and machinery are completely foreign to, not only the bayou, but even the daytime scenes of the oil rig. This is the bare truth: night and day the rig churns. The disconcerting metallic sound of it erases any of the night sounds you’d expect to hear on the bayou.

In The World of Robert Flaherty by Richard Griffith (1953, p. 151), Flaherty is quoted: “We worked day after day, shooting reams of stuff. But somehow we never could seem to make that pesky derrick come alive. We could not recapture that exhilaration we had felt when we first saw it slowly moving up the bayou. Then we hit on it. At night! That’s when it was alive! At night, with the derrick lights dancing and flickering on the dark surface of the water, the excitement that is the very essence of drilling oil became visual. So we threw our daytime footage into the ashcan and started in all over again to shoot our drilling scenes against a night background.”

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