Time Well Spent: Les Blank
To anyone who has seen any of his numerous documentaries—on blues musicians, Cajuns, garlic—it might come as a surprise that Les Blank self-identifies as “not a very people kind of person,” as he put it in our interview. Blank could only have been referring to a day-to-day interpersonal shyness, because his documentaries convey a passionate, romantic affection for human activity, from strumming the blues to making and enjoying the perfect cup of tea. Even in his darkest and best-known work, Burden of Dreams (82), about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, he managed to defy his subject’s almost comically bleak pronunciations on the “asphyxiation and choking” of the natural environment with serene, nonjudgmental footage of Peruvian Campa women at simple labor and of beautiful jungle flora and fauna. In an essay for the Criterion Collection DVD, Paul Arthur wrote: “Unlike either Herzog or [Robert] Flaherty, Blank clearly prefers the rhythms of collective effort, of sensuous community, over Eurocentric ideals of heroic individualism.” In his work, Blank is inarguably a people person.
Burden of Dreams
Not so far from the filmmaker’s home and the base of operations for his company Flower Films, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive are in the midst of a thorough retrospective, “Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank”—named after one of his most raucous, celebratory films, about various festivities and parades in New Orleans. Full of music and revelers in oversized and delightfully absurd Native American-inspired costumes, Always for Pleasure (78) is as colorful a portrait as you’ll ever see of that most atypical of large U.S. cities. Seeing Blank’s films in bulk is ideal; the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed them last summer, preceded by Film Forum’s retrospective in 2008. A musician who was the subject of one film might drift into the frame in another, guitar or fiddle in hand, to join in a jam. And seen together, the documentaries speak to the passions and energies that unite people as seemingly disparate as a Delta bluesman and a hammy Berkeley “cowboy painter.” Blank repeatedly returns to the subjects of music and good food, but these are so elemental that their versatility is boundless. The humane Blank canon is a tapestry that argues for a shared universal oversoul.
Always for Pleasure
It’s easy to slip into condescension when discussing the “life-affirming” nature of Blank’s work. Though his films are that, his camera is too honest and all-consuming to miss some of the shadows. In his blues documentaries, for example, racism is not glossed over. In A Well Spent Life (72), the great Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb recounts his abuse at the hands of a domineering plantation owner. In gorgeous magic-hour light at dusk, the philosophical Lipscomb laments that everything is moving too fast nowadays, which for him means kids using real bats and mitts (as opposed to the sticks and hats with which he played baseball). He’s poetic about love and his wife, though there’s a somewhat melancholy dinner scene where she’s seen eating on the floor away from her husband, which she’s done ever since he didn’t show up for dinner one night. In Dry Wood (73), about the life of Creole people in southwest Louisiana, the usually pleasant, slow scenes of rural life are turned on their head a bit; a man bleakly pokes a shovel into a flooding ditch, and for fun some of the Creole men like to get falling-down drunk and slam live armadillos onto the ground.
A Well Spent Life
Blank, a native of Tampa who studied English and theater at Tulane, founded Flower Films in the early Sixties, and all of his independent films carry that imprimatur. He has cashed some checks making industrial films, funding his independent filmmaking with that income and with crucial grants from various governmental and non-governmental cultural agencies. Collaboration has been key to Flower quality. The brilliant editor Maureen Gosling has been a partner on most of his films, and as often as not, it is the sensitive, untraditional cutting as much as the cinematography or music that makes the films so compelling and watchable, even when there’s no “action” to speak of onscreen. Other teammates include Skip Gerson and Chris Strachwitz, and all came in handy to counteract Blank’s aforementioned shyness. Strachwitz’s music obsessions helped Blank gain access to a world of underheard outsider artists. “They were able to get people to relax and open up,” he says.
God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance
Blank’s first films include the silly Bergman riff Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off (60) and a profile of Dizzy Gillespie, priceless for the rare footage of the ebullient bebop titan. Gillespie shows some exasperation with the hipsters who just want to hear him play, while he considers himself an all-around entertaining “showman,” onstage wisecracks and all. In God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (68), Blank’s camera goes snaking through a hairy, happy “love-in,” the first big one in Los Angeles, on Easter Sunday in 1967. Since Blank and company weren’t recording sound, the score is provided by the perfectly named (like something out of a TV boardroom brainstorm) psychedelic rock band Spontaneous Combustion.
Spend It All
1972’s Spend It All is a hearty celebration of the food, music, and history of Louisiana’s Acadians, better known as Cajuns. A far cry from the Southsploitation of films like Southern Comfort and Deliverance, Spend It All has more in common with the wonderful moonshine-and-fiddling scene in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry, stretched to 41 minutes. “If we need a horse, we catch one and ride,” simplifies one man, while another at a party puts a pair of pliers into his mouth and nonchalantly yanks a tooth: “Got more room now! Where’s my beer?” Another man prepares a shockingly delicious-looking fish-head tomato stew. Many of Blank’s films are food-centric and hungry-making, none more so than Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (80), a convincing and ultimately rather moving love-letter to the stinking rose, often presented in multi-sensory “Smell-o-Vision” when projected.
Sprout Wings and Fly
Blank’s documentaries are frequently about aging subjects who in some cases didn’t end up living too long after filming ceased, like the one on Mance Lipscomb, or 1983’s Sprout Wings and Fly, about the fiddle player and banjoist Tommy Jarrell. Blank denies that he seeks out subjects who are on their last legs, but admits, “If they’re old, it’s more critical . . . Before finishing the film on Tommy Jarrell, I got in trouble with the deadlines for Burden of Dreams, so I couldn’t devote much time to Sprout Wings and Fly. So I spent a year and a half doing Burden of Dreams, and Jarrell told me if he died before this film gets finished ‘I’m gonna come back and haint you.’ In Appalachia ‘haint’ means haunt. So I was able to kind of quickly finish the film and have the world premiere in Chapel Hill, and he came out and played the fiddle after the film concluded. That thrilled the audience. He passed away shortly after that.”
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
In the late Seventies, Werner Herzog promised Errol Morris that Werner would eat his own shoe if Morris ever finished Gates of Heaven. Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is the filmed result of that bet-settling. When Herzog came to make his mad labor-of-stubbornness Fitzcarraldo, he somehow managed to get dual funding for both his film and a making-of, which would become Blank’s most famous work—arguably much more interesting than Fitzcarraldo, and one of the most fascinating looks at the artistic process. Burden of Dreams features the kind of curious, naturalistic shots of natives at labor or leisure that mark most of Blank’s films. The only aberration that pulls it apart from the others is the toxic negative energy provided by an unraveling Herzog and untamable star Klaus Kinski. Blank says that he “more or less” stayed an impassive observer. “[Herzog] used a few of my shots for his film. I offered a few suggestions for how he should make his film. He didn’t appreciate that at all.”
All in This Tea
Herzog materializes briefly (and utters the titular line) in All in This Tea (07), which follows tea importer David Lee Hoffman on his travels around an isolated mountainside in China in search of the highest-quality, chemical-free tea. I never drink the stuff, but found Hoffman a passionate guide and personality. He can be short, snapping “Chemicals!” at sellers with treated leafs, and his ability to maintain his passion and sanity while running directly into a great wall of Chinese tea bureaucracy is touching. The story has drama and arc, which Blank credits to editor and co-director Gina Leibrecht.
The genesis was simple, and speaks to the curiosity and wonder that goes into all the Flower Films. Hoffman invited Blank, Blank thought he’d take the opportunity to experiment with digital filmmaking, and the rest came naturally: “I bought a little Sony camera and a plane ticket and went on and started shooting.”
How did you meet David Lee Hoffman, your tea guide in All in This Tea?
I walked down the street (with the help of gravity, because I live on a hill) and at the bottom of the hill is a public park. In the park every year they have a Himalayan Fair. He was participating in this event with his Himalayan motifs—white tent with Buddhist embroidered symbolism on it—and he had an old oak table out front and he was serving tiny cups of tea for free. And I had some tea, we had a conversation, and he found out I made Burden of Dreams which he liked a lot and he invited me out to his place in West Marin County. Very remote, like a lost community of hippie back-to-the-earth type people who managed to get property there. He has a 2.5 acre site, which is covered with “illegal structures” of all kinds of shapes and sizes—a temple, a solar-powered sauna. I was interested in his story and his life and his history of traveling around Asia. He was about to go to Asia and he invited me to come along and I thought this would be a chance to experiment with digital filmmaking.
Have you kept up with Gerry Gaxiola, subject of The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists?
He has grown out of his Maestro role, which was a self-invented role, and now calls himself the Man Formerly Known as the Maestro.
So he still maintains some sort of title.
Yes. He got rid of all of his Western clothes and he wears blue jeans and a cap like everyone else. He’s religiously into bodybuilding. If you go to his site you can find images of him flexing his muscles like Mr. America. He’s 75 and has the physique of a 40-year-old strong man. Everything that goes into his body is carefully measured and calculated. He lifts weights an hour and a half every day and has a whole regimen. Each muscle is given so much attention. He eats lots of fruits and vegetables and gives me all the scraps for my worm composting. About once a week I get a big five-gallon bucket of slop from the Maestro. He combines bodybuilding with religion. His barbells have the Chinese letter for wisdom on one end and strength on the other. He approaches it as if he were a monk in training.
I noticed that some of the musicians you documented in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Hot Pepper played festivals in the Bay Area soon before you went down to film them. Is this how you were introduced to them?
No, I met Clifton Chenier when he came to the Ann Arbor Blues Fest in 1969 with Lightnin’ Hopkins. I’d already filmed Lightnin’ and was comfortable around him so I hung around with Lightnin’ and Clifton, and got to know Clifton. I approached him to be in my film Spend It All, but he wanted too much money and I didn’t have any money at all. When I did get a grant to do a film just on the black French-speaking people of southwest Louisiana, I had a little money and was able to pay him like $1,500. That’s how he came to be in Hot Pepper.
Did you stay a more or less passive observer while covering the making of your friend Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, for Burden of Dreams?
More or less. He used a few of my shots for his film. I offered a few suggestions for how he should make his film. He didn’t appreciate that at all.
How would you contrast your style with that of Herzog’s documentary style?
I don’t know. He edits a lot quicker. He could never understand why it took me so long to edit a film. He seems to zip right through it and does a good job. A guy named Joe Bini does most of his editing. He gives marching instructions and sits in on the work Bini does.
What projects are you working on now?
Something about Butch Anthony, the outsider artist from Alabama. One on Ricky Leacock, the documentary film pioneer who died last year near age 90. I need some money to pay the editor to help finish editing. I’m mostly done shooting. I am moving to hi-def for the Butch Anthony project. I’m interested in getting started on something about the fruit that grows in Southeast Asia called the durian. It’s large, it’s heavy, it’s pointed sharply, spiked. If it falls on your head, it will kill you. It’s against the law to carry them in public transportation or a hotel in Singapore and other parts of Indonesia as well. The smell is so strong. It’s very healthy. It’s comparable to a jackfruit. Bigger, tastier, more creamy. The texture and smell are beyond any other fruit or vegetable. People either hate it or love it. When they have funerals in parts of Asia with no refrigeration, they put durians in the rooms to keep dead people from rotting. It overcomes the smell of death. And it’s also a favorite food of orangutans. Developers are encroaching upon the land of the durians and orangutans there. It’s in Sumatra. Now the airport there in the southern Philippines is shaped like a durian.
“Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank” runs through August 30 at the Pacific Film Archive.