28 JUNE 1963, Page 17

Wind in the Rushes

ONE of the compensations of life in the film industry in its picaresque heyday was the remarkable array of vivid characters one got to know. The most remarkable were not, as inno- cents might suppose, the so-called creative types but rather the financial types, the men who could really swim in these wild waters and survive. I think always of Korda as a prince among them—Korda, of whom Grad Sears once said he could 'do more with a buck than a monkey with thirty feet of grapevine.' But over and above, he was a charmer, in conversation a fount of ideas, a host in the grand manner; and most impressive of all he had a wonderful feeling for paintings. What he actually achieved in the cinema didn't seem to matter, certainly not to me. I have never thought his work half so important as himself.

I now say much the same for Flaherty. He too was even more important in himself and in his influences thari in his actual work. He too was a host in the grand manner, a fount of ideas-and a very guru among gurus; and over and above, he was a splendid figure of a man and just about the best story-teller of his time. But there was a vital• difference. He could not swim a stroke in these wild waters and, as for prospering in them, every time he wok a header he had to be brought to the bank for artificial respiration. There have been, many such in the history of the cinema but Flaherty was so much the most striking example of the creative—and simple—man's difficulties in a bemillioned box-office industry that this bio- graphy by Arthur Calder-Marshall has an importance beyond its subject and beyond itself.

Flaherty was a director of documentary films, story documentaries. The most widely known are Nanook of the North, Moana, Man of Aran and LouLiatut Story. In all, he didn't make many. Some will say that he wasn't allowed to and it was a great shame on the film industry that so fine a creative spirit should have been thwarted. Others like myself, with equal sympathy and sympathies, tend to put it differently. We think he was tilting at windmills: it wasn't on the cards from the beginning that an artist such as he could expect to be nurtured.

He wanted to be free from every trammel of supervision but, come to think of it, it is not in the nature of a million dollars or even a quarter of a million to go on the loose. Partly because of Flaherty's own early difficulties with Para- Mount in the making of Moana and partly because of the experience of the French avant- garde, this appeared to me an axiom from the beginning. 1 myself decided to by-pass the financiers of the film industry—not despising them or deploring them but, quite simply, reckoning that so far as my own approaches to the cinema were concerned they were not likely 10 be my natural partners. So, we contrived an economy for the cinema, based on the Sponsor- ships of governments and other responsible Public authorities; and it has had a great pro- gressive success all over the world ever since.

Much is said or suggested in this biography of the differences between Flaherty and myself. This has seemed to some peculiar because we were known as good friends. The differences were, of [course, all rooted in our difference of economic approach. Much as I loved him, I was totally Unsympathetic with his quixotic hope that he Would get from the industry what I knew it could not and would not give him. I hated waiting for

the inevitable disturbances and the inevitable crash. The trouble was that for all his good taste he liked being in the big time and was therefore vulnerable. Other troubles too. One was that the story-telling talent of the great raconteur failed him as soon as he became exposed to the discur- sive pleasures of the camera-in-itself. Worst trouble of all, his approach to a budget was haphazard to say the least. He had an appkently innocent belief—I didn't think it was innocent— that there was always more money where that first lot came from.

So the story, which Arthur Calder-Marshall so excellently reveals, is largely a hard-luck story. Almost always there came a point where the impatience of the sponsor arrived at breaking point. The rushes were superb to look at- always—but the leaves from the cameraman's sketchbook grew pile on pile on pile, and still no story line to establish box-office conviction or thematic consequence. On the other hand, the growing conviction that maybe Flaherty really didn't want to finish at all but was sketchbook crazy which, I whisper, was largely true.

once went through it all myself as Flaherty's producer. Calder-Marshall makes a bit of a mystery of what happened. There was none. It was a Treasury budget and Flaherty spent it and that was that. The irony of it was that when, with a new financial year and Flaherty off and away on Man of Aran, we got down to the job of making something of his disparate but superb sketches, we made not one film out of them but six, and in fact got far more from our turn with Flaherty than anyone else ever did.

This proves, some have said, how unnecessary his Laocoon troubles really were, how rich a creative life he might have had inside our more modest and more disciplined economy. But Calder-Marshall will not have this at all. He seems to think that we debased our documentary medium in taking it from the highly personal approaches and wilder freedoms. He calls us somewhat scornfully 'propagandists' and would appear to think that our choice of sponsors in the public domain was somehow less worthy of artists than a choice of sponsors among the financiers -and salesmen of the film industry. 1 have known unlovely people in both worlds but will insist that' I would sooner have a Prime Minister behind me than any movie mogul I ever encountered. In any case one need only press the fact that in our approach many many beautiful things have been made in the docu- mentary forms and are still being made. The other approach has no significant record.

Where Calder-Marshall scores is in his constant reminder that Flaherty, for all his foibles in practice, represented the beautiful in observation and always sought it. Michael Arlen once said of himself that he might not be a great writer but by God he was a born one. So of Flaherty. He was, I think, idyllic in his cinematic approach to the point of naivete; he was no great master of shape; but in the matter of poetic documentary he was a truer proponent than any of us and a constant reminder, as Calder-Marshall emphasises, of that 'timeless' quality , of which the cinema is as potentially capable as any other art.

Even if, in my view, many of the things in this biography 'ain't necessarily so,' it is a wonderful study of the personal perplexities which can attend a mass medium under com- mercial conditions. I congratulate Calder- Marshall on so successfully facing up to a diffi- cult work of analysis.