Robert J. Flaherty is best known for his documentary Nanook of the North, which famously combined real ethnographic studies of the Inuit with staged dramatic sequences to create the first docufiction. Flaherty never repeated the success of Nanook, but he repeated the process with other cultures, from Samoa to the swamps of Louisiana. For Man of Aran, he studied the lifestyle of those living on the inhospitable Aran islands off the western coast of Ireland. As with his other films, he felt no qualms about changing the facts of the islanders’ story to suit his own vision of it. The family portrayed in the film is not actually related — they were chosen because they were the most photogenic of his subjects. And the scene of a dangerous fishing expedition for basking sharks featured techniques that hadn’t been in use for decades at the time of filming.
As scientifically and ethically dubious as it is to send a team of fishermen out on an outmoded and dangerous shark hunt for the benefit of your film, Flaherty created some stunning images in Man of Aran; it’s full of poetic black-and-white representations of man’s struggle against nature. It could also be argued that Flaherty’s method itself illustrates questions about the line between fact and fiction and the moral obligation of the storyteller. In addition to the opposing forces of man vs. nature and reality vs. narrative, British Sea Power create a new dialectic by adding a post-rock soundtrack to a decidedly pre-modern story.
What makes Man of Aran different from similar soundtrack projects, like the Boxhead Ensemble’s Last Place to Go, is the tremendous amount of time that has lapsed between the film and the music. Putting modern, electric guitar-based music over 75-year-old film inevitably makes the music seem more like a commentary upon a bygone era than a supporting element to the story. There is an odd dissonance that occurs when, in the middle of a feedback-driven crescendo, the visuals change abruptly from a victorious shark hunt to a woman lighting an oil lamp. Obviously, the music takes precedence here, with the film merely providing a series of jumping-off points, but that distancing effect makes for an unpredictable watching experience. Sometimes the visuals and music come together in stunningly dramatic ways, and sometimes they hardly seem related.
Although there is an unavoidable tension that is created by using electric guitars to soundtrack decades-old black-and-white film of a lost culture, there are also some intriguing overlaps that resolve the conflict. As guitarist Noble said, “It’s a film that’s also relevant to the current era — a time when the idea of living a simpler life is in the air.” Thematically, the film is still pertinent to the ongoing anxiety about man’s relationship to nature. If the film is taken as a supporting backdrop, contextualizing the music’s rises and falls while not necessarily mirroring them, it informs and enriches the songs considerably.
The music considered on its own merits is basically what one would expect from a mostly instrumental British Sea Power album — sometimes gently transfixing, sometimes overly dramatic post-rock. In fact, three of the songs here are versions of previously released BSP tracks, “North Hanging Rock,” “True Adventures,” and “The Great Skua.” The fact that British Sea Power was able to retool their own back catalog to soundtrack film taken in the ’30s is indicative of their peculiar aptitude at this type of historical interpretation. They may play noisy guitar rock, but they also wear military uniforms in concert and write songs about Czech history. Man of Aran illustrates both the successes and shortcomings of that dichotomy.