Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oil and Louisiana, Part 1: The Louisiana Story

The Louisiana Story

I didn't fully appreciate the extent to which oil has figured into Louisiana's story until I got here.

I reckon it has had as much influence on the shaping of south Louisiana as have the waves of people who've made Louisiana their home, by choice or by force.

The 1948 movie, Louisiana Story, possibly captured the historic moment when two tribes - the bayou dwellers and the oilmen - intersected, both with interests in the same territory.  

You can watch the "documentary" in its entirety below.

I say "documentary" because Standard Oil funded the making of  Louisiana Story. Some call it "docufiction" or more kindly, a docudrama, but I think watching the movie in current times, knowing what we now know about the environmental effects of some enterprises, transforms the movie into a more authentic documentary experience.

The scene where the oilmen's speedboat swamps the Cajun boy's pirogue, plunging him into the bayou, is a pretty good metaphor for the cultural/ecological changes to come for southern Louisianans.

There's also an oil-rig explosion in the movie, with an unconquerable fire, which I think is a big ol' waving flag that oil in the bayou is not going to come without a cost.

But let me go on the record to say how creepy it is to watch the looks between the oilman and the Cajun boy. In these times, they come off like the prelude to sexual molestation. I'm trying hard to believe that back in the day, these nonverbal exchanges between boy and man were as innocent as the interactions between Timmy and Lassie, but I dunno.

Louisiana Story. Source: The Film Foundation

Here's what Robert Flaherty, the film director, said about The Louisiana Story's origin:
.... a note came from a friend of a friend of mine in the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. .... Would I be interested 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?

....  a series of luncheon conference.... The upshot of it was that I agreed to spend three months finding out whether I thought I could make an interesting picture about oil.

Mrs. Flaherty and I set out in our car for the southwest. We drove thousands of miles. ....
In the course of our wanderings we came to the bayou country of Louisiana. 

We were enchanted by the gentle, gay and picturesque people of French descent who inhabit this little-known section of the United States; a people who have managed to preserve the individual flavor of their culture. We were delighted with their customs, their superstitions, their folk-tales of werewolves and mermaids, handed down from generation to generation. 

But we weren't getting any closer to a film about oil.

Then one day we stopped the car for lunch near the edge of a bayou. Suddenly, over the heads of the marsh grass, an oil-derrick came into our view. It was moving up the bayou, towed by a launch. In motion, this familiar structure suddenly became poetry, its slim lines rising clean and taut above the unending flatness of the marshes.

I looked at Frances. She looked at me. We knew then that we had our picture.

Almost immediately a story began to take shape in our minds. It was a story built around that derrick which moved so silently, so majestically into the wilderness; probed for oil beneath the watery ooze, and then moved on again, leaving the land as untouched as before it came. [emphasis added]

But we had to translate our thesis - the impact of science on a simple, rural community - into terms of people. For our hero, we dreamed up a half-wild Cajun boy of the woods and bayous. To personalize the impact of industry, we developed the character of a driller who would become a friend to the boy, eventually overcoming his shyness and reticence. ...

Revisiting The Louisiana Story
In 2006, a group of students at Louisiana State University created short films revisiting the people and places of documentary maker Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story. Through short film and essay, "Revisiting Flaherty's Louisiana Story" examines both the legacy of Flaherty's 1948 film and the experience of these student filmmakers in southern Louisiana. Suchy and Catano explore reflexivity in documentary filmmaking, depictions of the oil industry and the environment in south Louisiana, and the role of documentary images in making Louisianan identities.  

The movie the students made is right here

The students' essays are here should you have an interest in a close, holistic examination of The Louisiana Story.

An excerpt from the Introduction essay (by James Catano):
The [Cajun] culture was primarily rural and under significant economic stress. While Flaherty romanticizes living conditions in Acadiana and the arrival of big oil, residents were not unaware of what oil drilling could mean for them economically. In Cajun Country, Felix Richard makes that clear in responding to a question by Lomax about the impact of oil: "Oh my god that's it. If it hadn't been for that we'd be starving just like they're doing in Mississippi right now." But if Richard recognizes that impact, he also notices in hindsight that it doesn't come without a price. As he says, the coming of big oil "kind of destroyed some of that [culture]."


Geoff Reed said...

Thank you for sharing this - I grew up in a small rural community in the prairie region just to the west and north of Lafayette. Most of the farmers were share croppers and were very poor. Most of the kids came to school bare footed until winter came. There was only one man in the community employed in the oil industry as an offshore cook.

My father was principal of the small elementary school. I naively grew up thinking that we were wealthy. Was I later to learn otherwise.

In driving out in these rural areas now, it is incredible how many mansions dot the rural landscape. The poor now seem to be congregated in the cities.

That film was certainly prophetic and your commentary was outstanding. Thank you again for the time and effort it took for you to share this Louisiana treasure.

Mzuri said...

Thank you for sharing your experience, Geoff. What changes you've seen!