Thursday, 28 July 2011

1,001 Films: "Tabu: A Tale of the South Seas" (1931)

Tabu forms a collaboration between practitioners in very different fields of fiction-making, and the debate it habitually provokes centres around the extent to which the aesthetics of Murnau (in what would turn out to be the great German director's final film) were enhanced or compromised by the involvement of Robert Flaherty. Certainly, the romanticism that made Murnau's Sunrise the masterpiece it was looks to have survived intact, transplanted to the Pacific island of Bora-Bora. Though Tabu heads towards a downbeat conclusion that must have been as devastating for 1931 audiences as Titanic's was for everybody's mum in 1997, it wouldn't have nearly the force it does if Murnau hadn't previously come down, firmly, enthusiastically, on the side of earthly love, as witnessed in the camera's rapturous observation of these shirtless natives swaying in the breeze.

The tale all this swooning imagery is attached to is but a bronzed and garlanded variant of those tragic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl melodramas being plotted back on the mainland. (Indeed, the leads are introduced in the credits as simply "Boy" and "Girl"; it may be a sign of the times that the same credits rather bluntly point out a couple of supporting characters as "Half-Castes".) This pair meet one another in a leafy corner of their tropical idyll, only for the Girl to be given away, against her will, to a rival tribe, in order that she might be worshipped as a goddess, in a way that unfortunately precludes any touching or longing, lustful gazes (the tabu of the title). The lovers elope, upping sticks in the middle of the night and making for civilisation, where the Boy takes a job (as a pearl diver) and together they settle down (in a hut on the beach) only to find themselves - as lovers do - with bills to pay, and getting in deeper and deeper to pay them.

Is it patronising, the stock adjective critics of Flaherty's work tend to reach for? A little, yes, especially towards the periphery: Murnau perhaps overdoes the relationship between the relationship between the Boy and his younger sibling, the latter a spot of casting as cutesy as in any Hollywood comedy of the time. Yet the direction is nowhere near as patronising towards its central couple: its true focus, whose happiness it delights in, whose despair it shares. Though evocative use is made of score and sound effects, the whole has the wordless eloquence and fluidity of the best silent cinema - it may, in fact, be the last notable instance of "pure" cinema before things got talky, and how fortunate Murnau was, in a way, to pass on before he was obliged to compromise his images with chatter. (If you were a real, Thomson-ish stick-in-the-mud, you might see the whole film, and not just its second half, as a paradise lost.)

As for Flaherty, well, at a moment when cinema was still essentially an expanding cottage industry, his contribution may have been on the production side: to make credible and feasible the idea of shooting with locals in exotic, far-flung climes. Tabu's authenticity resides not specifically in its narrative (which is self-evidently a construction, a legend that may or may not have been passed down from one generation to the next), nor indeed in its
mise-en-scène (though there's a definite sense these characters are inhabiting actual places, and not sets). Rather, it lies in performance: these Boys and Girls look like they know exactly what they're doing in climbing palm trees, sliding down waterfalls, and rowing conicles out to sea.

Tabu is available on DVD from Eureka Entertainment.

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