Louisiana Story

1948, Movie, NR, 79 mins

Review

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Pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty's last feature film, LOUISIANA STORY is a portrait of a bayou boy and his relationship to his habitat and the oil derrick that has sprung up within it.

A Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux) is poling his small boat through the marshes of the Petite Anse bayou when he is surprised by loud sounds of excavation. He returns to his cabin, where his father (Lionel LeBlanc), a trapper, is signing a contract authorizing an oil company to drill on his property. After the oil derrick arrives, the boy becomes friendly with the men who work it.

One day, the boy happens upon a nest of alligator eggs, and his curiosity almost costs him his life when the mother gator makes a sudden and unexpected appearance. He returns to his boat to find his pet coon missing, assumes it's been eaten by a gator, and swears revenge. In an attempt to trap the alligator, the boy gets into a tug-of-war with the beast, a battle he is on the point of losing when his father rescues him.

Suddenly, the well blows out and shoots a wild shower of salt water and highly inflammable gas into the air. As a result, the immediate area is closed and work is suspended on the derrick. The boy sprinkles some magic salt down the well's bore-hole and, sure enough, the gas problem is solved the next day, and the well begins producing again.

With some of the money he has earned leasing his land to the oil people, the trapper buys his son a brand-new rifle. Simultaneously, the boy's coon returns--it hasn't been killed after all. Their job finished, the oil workers leave the bayou, taking their derrick with them, as the boy waves goodbye.

In 1944, Flaherty received a note from a friend employed by the Standard Oil Company asking him if he would be interested, as Flaherty told it, "in making a film which would project the difficulties and risk of getting oil out of the ground--admittedly an industrial film, yet one which would have enough story and entertainment value to play in standard motion picture houses at an admission price." After scouting the American south and southwest, Flaherty made a dream deal: Standard Oil would finance the project in full and he would pocket the receipts--the oil company didn't even want its production costs back.

Flaherty chose the picturesque bayou country of Louisiana as the setting for his movie, cast his story with locals, and shot the entire thing on location at a cost of $258,000 ($83,000 over budget). The finished film enjoyed small success with the paying public, but it bewitched the critics. Literally. Iaian Hamilton, writing in the Manchester Guardian, called the film "undiluted poetry ... the very essence of romanticism .... Works like this redeem the cinema." To read LOUISIANA STORY's original reviews and subsequent critical evaluation is to read psalms to a film that isn't there. What is on the screen--nature in motion and industry at work--is often beautifully photographed, but what it comprises is almost formless and is ultimately bland. The fabulous fable-poem-elegy that the critics thought they saw lies ever hidden behind the swamp trees' low-hanging foliage, waiting in vain to be called out.

The source of most of LOUISIANA STORY's problems was Flaherty's habit of shooting first and asking questions later. Most of the picture's sequences were blueprinted not before but after shooting, causing no end of narrative headaches for editor Helen van Dongen. At one point, she walked off the project, but returned three weeks later to furnish the film with much of the energy it possesses.

The nonprofessional cast is lame. Practically everybody smiles practically all the time, probably in nervous embarrassment or because the director told them to--in sharp contrast to the spontaneous smiles of Flaherty's first assemblage of amateur actors, the Eskimo family of NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922).

As adept as it is in photographing nature, LOUISIANA STORY is weak in capturing culture. Those seeking a closer and more authentic look at Louisiana Cajun life are directed to three zesty shorts by Les Blank: "Dry Wood," "Hot Pepper," and "J'ai ete au bal."

Virgil Thomson's fine score for LOUISIANA STORY won him a 1949 Pulitzer Prize for music.

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