Les Blank's intimate documentaries are staged when time slows and music, food, and community come together.
VariousDirector: Les Blank
Cast: Mance Lipscomb, Tommy Jarrell, Lightnin' Hopkins
Distributor: Criterion Collection
US DVD release date: 2014-11-25
A decade ago, filmmaker Les Blank entered the Criterion Collection with Burden of Dreams (1982), his documentary about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). Burden of Dreams is a feature-length exploration of the years-long effort to realize a cinematic feat few sane men would attempt. Herzog is the man obsessed with executing the drama as authentically as possible, becoming involved with border wars, isolating his cast and crew deep within the Amazon jungle, and risking many lives to stage "Fitzcarraldo"’s (Klaus Kinski) dream of building an opera house.
Yet the lens through which Blank views Herzog is not overly concerned with these conflicts. Blank counterpoints the conflict with observations of cultural preservation, local traditions, open spaces, nature and creatures. It could be said that Herzog and company pose a threat to all of these, but Blank does not force that interpretation. Eventually, Herzog admits his feebleness amid the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” When the subject of a documentary sums up his dramatic situation so clearly, a perceptive filmmaker need not elaborate.
That is one way into understanding Blank’s place in the tradition of American documentary filmmaking. He did not share or exhibit the objective-minded idealism of Direct Cinema because he didn’t attempt to become a blank presence in his constructions. Instead, he calmly established his place within, and relationships with, the places and people in front of his camera and allowed that familiarity to guide the process and the results.
Blank, who passed away in April 2013, did not live to see the bountiful package that the Criterion Collection has now created in celebration of his work. The 2014 “collector’s set” Les Blank: Always for Pleasure includes 14 of "his best-known works and eight related short films.” Included is an excerpt from Harrod Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s film Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, in which Herzog gives a speech and says that Blank’s films “define America”. In all, these films exhibit Blank’s career-long interest in cultures, traditions, and characters at risk of being lost to modern times. His films blend observation with interviews to allow his subjects to show and tell the stories of their lives.
The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), directed by Blank with Skip Gerson, establishes a signature opening-credits technique that attests to the way in which the filmmaker related to his subjects. Within this traditional place for introducing the main cast and crew are splashes of text such as "the people of Texas 1967" and "Porter Houston's BBQ". In Blank’s world, or rather the worlds he visited, no person or place was too small to receive top billing.
Nor was any individual sacrosanct. There is no denying the blues mastery of Texas musician Sam John Hopkins, and the film showcases his talent in performances on country roads, in houses, and other locations. But as is appropriate to the musical genre, a tinge of sadness coats the film. Blank shows us a scene of Hopkins drinking to alienating effect. In this instance he is not enjoyable company, and it is to Blank’s credit that this unpleasant reality of the character remains in the finished film.
“The people of Texas 1967” interact in the street. We cannot hear their conversations. However, Blank frames them in such a way that the subtext of the interactions is more interesting because the details remain a mystery. On these same streets, kids walk to school. Rain falls on them. This moment, like many of the images in the film, serves Hopkins’ point that the blues “dwell with you every day and everywhere.”
Overall, though, the tone of the film is light enough to elicit a smile of recognition about the way life is. And there is at least one laugh-out-loud moment, when Hopkins delivers a classic anecdote about a run-in with a judge who asks him, "You ever been up before me before?" Hopkins' response: "What time do you get up?"
God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968), also credited to both Blank and Gerson, is a document of "Los Angeles' first love-in. Easter Sunday, 1967." This film shares the visual approach of many of Blank’s other films, observing music and movement and occasionally cutting to close-up shots of faces looking directly into the camera.
There is much for the camera to see, as Elysian park is full of people, balloons, bubbles, colors, and any number of other signifiers of “good vibes”. Flowers, present in every Blank film, are on conspicuous display in this place and time of flower power. All of this is set to a non-diegetic soundtrack of rotating guitar rock styles, which provide the backdrops to corresponding visual movements/acts.
Despite the visual vibrancy of the love-in, the documentary is largely lacking in substance. A hokey, quasi-meditative section near the end aims for profundity, but it merely amounts to people staring off into space, openmouthed. The film does have value as a time capsule piece, but the comparative shallowness of this slice of life, when viewed next to Blank’s other films of the period, evokes Wyatt’s realization from Easy Rider (1969): “We blew it.”
The next film, Spend it All (1971), is much more insightful and purposeful. Whereas God Respects Us offers sights of hippies in the act of creating something, anything, different from their middle-class lifestyles, the Southwest Louisiana “Cajun country” of Spend it All is an established subculture rich with tradition. One of the major themes of the film is the endurance and preservation of the culture, stretching back through time and space to the Acadians. Blank’s film could be considered an extension of that act of preservation, documenting a people in order to keep their traditions alive for successive generations.
One man interviewed cites the law and formal education as having diluted the community’s focus on agriculture and music. We also hear about the influence of money and how the necessity of “working for that dollar” has cut into the spirit of community as it relates to coming together for things like building houses or fences. Yet the spirit of community remains, and music is central to that spirit. Once again, Blank’s credits resemble homespun storytelling rather than merely deliver obligatory information. Here he cites “the music of Dewey Balfa and his brothers Will, Rodney, Drew and Rodney's son, Tony plus Nathan Abshire" in the opening credits.
Spend it All treats hard work and enjoyment as inseparable forces. The musicians have day jobs. The kids, who enjoy horse racing, also must go to school. The fishermen exert themselves to bring in fish for the cooking. The picture that emerges of the Cajun lifestyle is summarized in dialogue from an interview that also gives the film its title: "Work like hell to make some money and you spend it all havin' a good time."
Blank was an adroit editor, as evidenced by this one-two punch from the film: A man demonstrates healing a woman’s mouth by touch, then a different man pulls his own tooth with pliers, in part to see how the women around him will react. The effect is shocking and funny. More importantly, though, the scene resonates with another of the film’s themes, namely the Cajun appreciation for space and freedom.
Elsewhere in the film, someone comments that the city does not offer space and freedom, and neither does jail. So Blank’s cinematic attention to space has a distinct meaning for this particular community. The film plays with the motif when we hear the tooth-pulling man remark that he feels better because there is now more space in his mouth.
The highlight of this quartet of early films is A Well Spent Life (1971). Blank’s portrait of renowned blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb positions Lipscomb as a farmer, musician, husband, and philosopher. He recalls his early life, working for the “big man” with money, a man who stayed at a distance and was therefore both untouchable and indisputable. Presently, he dreams of a world in which young black and white people cooperate to share land and resources.
Blank frames Lipscomb’s face against the trees and against the sky as the musician talks about the importance of love. These interview setups are interspersed with a scene of his wife cooking and then explaining why she eats alone: 50 years ago he went away for work and didn’t come home for dinner, so she vowed to stop waiting. She now eats alone, even when he is home.
Anticipating a perplexed reaction to this scene, Blank cuts back to Lipscomb’s interview about love and he says, “Love makes you take things.” This is a quotation that both excuses and complicates the previous scene from a marriage. Besides, their marriage is positively functional compared to another story Lipscomb tells, of a woman who shot her man’s leg off and in doing so made a better man of him!
A Well Spent Life acknowledges its subject’s status as a top blues guitarist, but Blank is more interested in the man behind the musical legend. Like so many other individuals profiled in Blank’s documentaries, Lipscomb says he does not like the effects of the contemporary “fast age”. He uses biscuits to illustrate his point, comparing his wife’s good home cooking to that of the cafe, which wants to push customers out quickly and “sell the next person something.”
He reckons he and his wife made it to their 70s because they “take time with what [they're] doing.” There is also a sort of spirituality to his character that becomes more defined as the film progresses, culminating in a beautiful scene of baptism in a river. Lipscomb cites God as the force at work in the life and spirit of the people, adding another dimension to Blank’s ongoing project in observing/preserving the lifeblood of community.
Blank returns to Southwest Louisiana (with Maureen Gosling) in Dry Wood (1973), a film that immerses the viewer in activities surrounding Mardi Gras, 1972. The film is a parade of costumes, masks, Zydeco music, and Creole cooking. Many of the most sensational interactions happen on the fringes of the action, which is a common occurrence in Blank’s event-centered sequences and films.
In this case, the beginning of a meal preparation (preparing sausage casings) includes a scene of women discussing their friend, Lenore. We hear that she just got out of the hospital with a baby. That good news gets twisted when they say the baby’s father is a murderer, and Lenore “burned that man’s car.” The film moves on, more focused on the sausage than the gossip.
Dry Wood's Eva Fontenot longs for old days to return, echoing a sentiment often repeated in the films of this box set. She says life is too fast for the old traditions of family gatherings. The television is always on. There are too many cars. Life moves too fast. She is aware that the economy is partly to blame, as the lack of jobs causes the young people to leave “one by one.”
Hot Pepper, set “in Lafayette, Louisiana and surrounding towns”, somewhat plays against the idea of modern times as a negative force by focusing on a few positive developments. The attitudes on display in Hot Pepper are forward-looking. One man says pithily, “people is people; progress is progress.” Others extol being true to oneself. A young woman discusses integration. A barber articulates a vision of integration, one people, the American people.
“King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier introduces us to his 108-year-old grandmother. He tries to get her to talk about her childhood, but she goes quiet. Blank does not intervene. He just keeps the camera rolling, and (as at other times in his filmography) the act of documentation makes verbalization unnecessary. To see her face is to know her. To preserve that face on film is to keep her alive.
Hot Pepper frustrates towards the end, as it juxtaposes one of the most aesthetically pleasing shots of all of Blank’s films -- a mesmerizing shot of trees against a sunset, reflected in rippling water -- with out of left field interview tangents about sex and sickness. Perhaps Blank was trying to include all aspects of life in his documentation of zydeco, but even when judged in that context the stories seem out of place.
The namesake of this Criterion Collection release is Always for Pleasure (1978), a film about New Orleans. In “Celebrating a City”, a bonus feature included on the disc, frequent Blank collaborator Gosling says Always for Pleasure “was the name of the Social and Pleasure Club of New Orleans.” She says that Blank was interesting in “getting across the feeling of New Orleans, which is pretty unique” and that the film especially examines the city’s “sense of celebration” and “cultures that were more honest about death.”
Indeed, the first act of the film is organized around life and death, specifically how to live and die in a celebratory environment like New Orleans. We see a funeral procession that is musical and characterized by performance. A street fills with dancers, creating a visual synthesis of distinct street and dancing scenes from earlier in Blank’s filmography. Over this activity emerges a text, “The End of a Perfect Death”, which segues into Allen Toussaint’s interview about second-line bands marching for funerals and “laying the dead away with a band.”
In many ways, Always For Pleasure varies themes that by 1978 had become signature territory for Blank. Music and food come together in the presence of Irma Thomas, who gives a recipe for a “gorgeous pot of beans”. There is also instruction in the cooking and eating of crawfish.
A St. Patrick’s Day celebration is this film’s springboard for exploring space and freedom. A celebrant observes that, here he is able to “drink beer in the street, throw cans on the sidewalk” and that he is “free to live, you know.” The depiction of New Orleans is as one of the last places in the United States where that degree of freedom exists.
The Mardi Gras experience is also explained in terms of freedom: a free period before a time of constraint. One interviewee says the events are designed for “having to have a lustful time and then the time without.” He explains that the mask hides one’s identity while acting on that lust, before being respectable again, which in this film is identified as the “real false front”.
Although the tale is well told, this sure sounds like a lot of trouble to go through in order to cram wildness into one’s life before Lent. Moreover, the religious associations of this time invite a critical response of the futility of "hiding" from God. Nevertheless, these characters take it all very seriously, and the film does inform on the matter, even if the allure of Mardi Gras remains difficult to ascertain.
Somewhat similar in its mission of demystification is Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980). A variety of garlic enthusiasts offer opinions on the pleasures of the bulb, whose divisiveness is represented on one side by mothers who banned it outright and others who included it in everything they cooked.
Some of the opinions are more grounded in reality, such as the health benefits and the historical importance of garlic (and tomatoes) to the “poor country people” of Spain. Less credible is the assertion that garlic is becoming more popular in America because puritanism is crumbling.
One woman says that garlic is for those “passionate about life and not imprinted with too much civilized behavior,” which sounds a lot like the characterization of Mardi Gras in Always for Pleasure. Some of the claims and behaviors come close to what might be described as garlic-worship. Yet Blank maintains a tasteful position that neither uncritically affirms the cult nor ridicules them.
And there is a cult. These “Lovers of the Stinking Rose” are passionate in their devotion to garlic, and there appears to be no end to the products, uses, and means of celebrating it. Even the soundtrack of the documentary is garlic-laden, with one number that sounds comically similar to the sounds of Dr. Fünke's 100% Natural Good-Time Family-Band Solution from Arrested Development.
Ultimately, Blank treats the subject of garlic as he does so many other earthly pleasures: as something that makes a lot of people happy and harms no one. A combination of footage and text at the end of the film encourages social action. As we watch the workers who bring the garlic from the soil to the consumer, the film reminds us to “support the people who grow the food we eat.”
Sprout Wings and Fly (1983), co-directed with Alice Gerrard and Cece Conway, is one of the most outstanding films in this collection. A profile of old-time music legend Tommy Jarrell, the documentary observes Jarrell’s life in Toast, North Carolina and takes in as many of his stories as possible in its 30 minute running time. Though his skill with a fiddle is beyond compare, Jarrell is equally skilled at storytelling, both in interviews and in song. Blank, Gerrard, and Conway create a compelling fabric of both story and song in this continuously musical film.
In the tradition of teeth being pulled out and legs being shot off, Sprout Wings and Fly includes Jarrell’s story of a horse trader whose toe was bothering him so much that he cut it off and fed it to the dog. This is another of the unbelievable true stories that Blank was so gifted at eliciting. It is also emblematic of the matter-of-fact approach to life that connects many of the characters and communities in these stories. A more contemplative iteration of that same attitude occurs in Jarrell’s recollection of his wife’s death. He says, “when your time comes to die, you’re gonna die,” and then he declares that his wife’s death made him a stronger believer.
Sprout Wings and Fly also contains the single strongest visual metaphor in all 14 of these films. A family member demonstrates the layers of tablecloths and newspaper that remain stuck together on top of the antique family table. As she peels back one after the other, the revealed history is as powerful in its effect as the tree ring scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Here a generation passes into the next, and so on.
In a bonus feature called “An Elemental Approach”, Gosling discusses how she edited the film. She identifies earth, water, fire, and air as having provided her “underlying structure”. When viewed with that structure in mind, Gosling’s technique appears to be a subtle but vital contributing factor to the film’s attention to a natural order of existing and moving through space and time.
Blank was not a formalist, but his use of certain techniques, such as strategically employed close-ups, did become more multifunctional as his filmography grew. One could make the argument that his fixation on the cinema frame as portraiture, developed into an effort to retrain viewers’ eyes concerning conceptions of what is and is not appealing. Following his many entries that oriented the viewer to unique cultures and cuisines is his film on Gap-Toothed Women (1987).
Gap-Toothed Women (1987)
The close-up is so essential to what this movie is about. In a studied fashion, Blank’s camera focuses (and occasionally freezes) on the titular gap. However, not once does it seem that the women are being exploited for this physical feature. We’re introduced to individual and collective histories and interpretations of what it is to be gap-toothed. Heredity is a factor. Some associate the trait with a certain “mystique” or luck. Quotations from and/or about Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath's Tale see these women as “very fond of travelling,” “wandering by the way,” and possessing an “amorous disposition.”
The film mostly examines the perennial problems of body image. Many of these women, already made uncomfortable by the distinguishing feature, resent the (sometimes well-meaning) attention others give them in ascribing to the gap things like "happiness" or "attraction". The existence of famous examples of gap-toothed women, such as Lauren Hutton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, seems to do more to alleviate the self-consciousness. The good-natured Hutton shows up in a couple of scenes, at one point entertainingly roaming the streets looking for gaps.
The conclusion of the film wisely resolves the insecurities of looking “different,” as a woman who has fought sickness compares scars, wrinkles, and grey hairs to life-threatening diseases. Her articulation of what it is to keep gaps in perspective widens the conceptual scope of Blank’s film. That is to say, we all have our “gaps”, and almost all of them could be much worse.
Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) is another film set in Southwest Louisiana and features accordionist Marc Savoy. Music is a part of the story, but as the title suggests, the film is primarily about food. Savoy and his family and others demonstrate their cooking, which is done without recipes or cookbooks. Instead, “watching” and “experience” are the means by which one becomes a good cook.
For Blank to spotlight this sort of food is to risk its appropriation by viewers outside of the culture. As if predicting that outcome, Blank and editor Gosling make that very issue a thread within the story. The cooks are asked if they’ve ever heard of Chef Paul Prudhomme. None of them admit to knowing who that is, which is an irony given his fame and the popular association of his face and name with the culture and food.
Savoy tells a story about ordering so-called “Cajun Fish” at Disneyland. It was peppered into oblivion. His reaction to the popularization of Creole dishes is not to resent that such food is getting more popular. But to someone who lives and breathes this cuisine, the least these newcomers could do is to learn what Creole cooking really is and try to get it right.
The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994)
Authenticity is also a main theme of The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994), a film that achieves a complex shift of character uncommon among Blank’s “plain folks” filmography. At the beginning of the film, Gerald Gaxiola appears to be what the Criterion Collection booklet calls him: a “profoundly likable renaissance man.”
His likable qualities seem to be endless in supply. This cowboy artist sees art as a “religion, not a business” and gives his art away for free. He’s charitable to children. He credits his skill for sewing and designing to “passion”, swearing that it “brings its own talent.” To hear him tell it, his path to becoming a cowboy began with a boyhood fantasy that he turned into a reality.
Here is an idealistic and confident man who is also fixated on appearance and craves validation. This combination of qualities makes him a sort of forerunner to Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). As he and others discuss all of the professions and identities he cycled through on his way to becoming a cowboy artist, a reaction of suspicion sets in.
As a viewer, I’ll admit to feeling cynical and then feeling guilty for that reaction of cynicism. After all, isn’t Blank in the practice of celebrating salt-of-the-Earth types, in which case the radiant positivity of Gaxiola’s cowboy persona makes him a perfect figure for a Blank film?
Blank and Gosling’s masterstroke in The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists is to let the true character emerge at this precise moment of uncertainty. There are some hints that not all is what it seems, such as the references to years ago when Gaxiola quit his job and exposed his wife and young daughter to hardship. Yet that sort of leap of faith squares with his belief that art and commerce are in conflict with one another. In other words, if true art must be free, then this true artist needs freedom.
But it’s all an act.
Like the Club Silencio scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), there is a palpable shock when the artifice is revealed, despite the fact that we’ve been told about the artificiality in no uncertain terms. Blank and Gosling allow the viewer to get swept up in the character of the cowboy artist, but they stick around long enough to document what that created character masks.
Gaxiola, who previously said he admired Andy Warhol, creates an insane game called “Beat the Top Gun”, in which he shoots paintballs at Warhol’s face. He says he resents Warhol dying before he could come to see one of “the cowboy’s” art shows. Then he wants to go shoot his gun at artist Christo’s “The Umbrellas”. Blank, normally a relatively passive figure when we hear him speak off camera in the films, questions Gaxiola’s plan to shoot at and destroy another artist’s work. He plainly does not want to participate in his subject's act of derailment.
So the true conflict of The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists is not, as Gaxiola says, art versus commerce or entertainment versus art, but rather Gaxiola versus famous artists. By the end of the film, the character is like a tumbleweed of contradictions, hiding under an immaculate cowboy costume of his own design. The credits reveal that he wants to conquer the world with his art, painting the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, and Russia’s Red Square.
Included on the Criterion Collection edition are a follow-up film called The Maestro Rides Again (2005) and a new interview with Gaxiola. This interview confirms the impression created by Blank’s original film. In it, Gaxiola says he feels that Blank missed out on who he was as an artist. Exhibiting a lack of self-awareness, he accuses Blank of pigeonholing him by subtitling the movie “King of the Cowboy Artists” -- never mind the fact that Gaxiola devoted decades of his life to creating and playing that persona.
He explains that his goal in life was to be liked by the art establishment for having an “art for art’s sake” attitude and regrets that such an embrace never came. He believes he is a “living van Gogh” and that the art world turned down a man who “became” van Gogh for the sake of art. It is rare for a DVD featurette to become such a significant postscript to the narrative of a decades-old film, yet Gaxiola's demeanor in this 2014 interview proves that Blank and Gosling were benevolent in their depiction of the man, if anything.
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure is a collection of documentaries about what time does to people and what people do with their time. If Blank’s tendency to accentuate the positive feels like a barely surviving relic of yesteryear America, then individuals like Mance Lipscomb and Eva Fontenot are proven to be prophetic in their warnings about the modern condition. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Blank’s films carry on, and with them the wisdom to appreciate the fellowship that’s possible when time slows and music, food, and community come together.
Splash image from Hot Pepper (Les Blank, 1973)
Thumbnail image from The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (Les Blank, 1968).