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The Essentials: 7 Films You Should Know From Acclaimed Documentarian Les Blank

The Essentials: 7 Films You Should Know From Acclaimed Documentarian Les Blank

If one were to speculate about fiercely independent filmmaker Les Blank’s politics, via the worldview presented in his wondrously luminous documentaries, it would quickly come down to one option: libertarianism. Distilled down to their essence, Blank’s offbeat, yet inconspicuous and low-key documentaries, indebted to cinéma vérité without being purist about it, were often concerned with capturing the natural simplicity of unencumbered life, following those with the liberty to explore the fundamentals of existence and to self-express. Perennially fascinated with music, food, and marginalized cultures, Blank’s casual, unobtrusive films are primal in the sense that they seem built for the very reason the camera was invented: to capture images that would otherwise be unseen for the purpose of communicating back something new and vivid to the rest of the world.

Perhaps best described to a newcomer as a kindred spirit to Werner Herzog—a friend and colleague he would document twice—Blank was his own singular figure, but we can think of much worse gateway drugs to help you get hooked. Employing an intuitive, free wheelin’, but intimate style, eyewitness accounts of Blank’s approach usually describe the same version of events. He was a silent, almost invisible observer who usually had a can of beer within reach, such was his sly, unhurried, and relaxed presence. If first-person everyman documentaries, the trend popularized by Michael Moore and adopters like Morgan Spurlock, are the new tour guide form of modern documentary, then Blank’s approach was the polar opposite, especially as the notion of tourism feels like an anathema to the filmmaker’s authentic, lived-in style. Blank uncompromisingly eschewed almost all forms of narrative convention. Context? Who needs it when you have such intoxicatingly fascinating subjects captured moment-to-moment.

Peripatetic and restless with curiosity, Blank’s ethnographic wanderlust found the filmmaker/cinematographer/producer exploring myriad sidelined cultures—the Cajuns of Louisiana; the Native Indians of Peru; the fringe communities of New Orleans; Appalachians, Creoles, Tex-Mex cowboys, et al— but the enthusiasm he vividly portrayed always suggested a man who dreamt of giving everything up just to live amongst the vibrant peoples he felt lucky enough to stay with for a time. There’s a temptation to see Blank as a champion of the idiosyncratic outsider voice, but even that would be too much of an agenda. He was simply there to observe life and in doing so his still, subdued, quiet camera would often simply soak in peculiar wonders that a more goal-driven filmmaker might well have missed.

With sincere apologies to the Maysles, Blank was the premiere documentarian of American life, a transient-like figure who traveled the entire nation in search of the lost, forgotten voices who made this country beautiful and unique. Perhaps as eccentric as his subjects—though you’d never know it from his work as the man rarely imposed a discernible will on his films aside from assembling footage into a vague shape—ultimately Blank inevitably returned to the same fixation: the various pleasures of life through music, food, and art, and through it all rang out a clear love and admiration for people living authentic lives.

Over the course of five decades, Blank made over 40 films, almost one a year for four decades until he started slowing down in the mid-’90s (he passed away at the age of 77 last year). Long admired, but with very few films available for commercial release, his work until recently have been sorely underseen. This all changes with the Criterion Collection’s new boxset, the aptly titled “All For Pleasure which collates 14 of his best films. To celebrate the release of this selection from this undersung national treasure we thought it the perfect excuse to look through Blank’s essential works, these utterly invaluable time capsules of American life.

Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers” (1980)
There isn’t any one of Les Blank’s films that distills the full scope of what made him such an invaluable chronicler ofand contributor tothe American 20th century, but “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers” is a perfect example of how Blank was able to stretch a flavor into a three-course meal. A 51-minute plunge into the all-encompassing world of garlic lovers, ‘Ten Mothers’ isn’t just a fine representation of Blank’s unobtrusive style, it’s also a prime example of the sincerity that made his subjects warm to him, and the palpable humanity that compels contemporary viewers to respect the kind of eccentrics that most documentary filmmakers reduce to comic relief. The premise is simple: Some people really love garlic. Like… a lot. And while their devotion to this most beloved step-child of the onion family is initially hard to swallow, their affection is soon justified (and not just because culinary pioneer Alice Waters, one of the high priestesses of food, is shown at Chez Panisse wearing a wreath of garlic around her neck). Intercutting footage from the Gilroy Garlic Festival with a wide array of evangelical intervieweesincluding Blank’s good friend Werner Herzog, who speaks of the use of garlic in “Nosferatu‘Ten Mothers’ affirms what one of its most wide-eyed subjects has to say about the eponymous plant: “Whether you like garlic or not, you have to have an opinion.” As always, Blank is eager to explore and preserve the hidden cultural touchstones that make his topics so much more important than they might seem. One recurring figure is a Spanish man whose face looks like it was cobbled together from a thousand years of lost traditions, who urgently tells the camera about how garlic sandwiches kept his people alive during the leanest of times. The man embodies Blank’s lifelong obsession with history’s place in the modern world, with the filmmaker determined to prove that every idiosyncrasy has a real story behind it, and to tell that to a modern world that sees every interesting wrinkle as a defect. There’s a reason why this film’s title only represents half of the old saying: “Garlic is as good as ten mothers… for keeping the girls away.” [A-]

God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance” (1968)
A short, kaleidoscopic look back at Los Angeles’ first love-in, “God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance” is a broadly affectionate time capsule of Easter Sunday, 1967. A wordless 20-minute portrait of the Woodstock-like event, ‘God Respects Us’ takes its cues from the music that draped over the day, Blank abandoning any diegetic sound and stitching the film together with the forward momentum of a medley. It’s hippies as far as the eye can see, thousands of people of all colors, shapes, and sizes undulating to endless waves of the most generic acid jams. This is freedom at its finest, or at least it’s most uninhibited, and Blank is right there in it with the rest of them. His camera picks out a few faces from the crowd, returning to them throughout the film in order to provide the thinnest strand of a narrative. While the emphasis is on the crowd as a collective, the stars of the show are undoubtedly a young couple who are mimicking sex to the rhythm of the music (at least, we think they’re mimicking sex—but then again, who says docs can’t be ambiguous?). Blank loves these people, and if our hindsight renders them somewhat naive, the film closes with an excerpt from the Divyāvadāna that forces modern viewers to surrender their perspective: “What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour.” [B]

“Gap-Toothed Women” (1987)
If ever there was a film that delivered on its promise, it’s “Gap-Toothed Women.” A celluloid version of Buzzfeed’s “16 Reasons to Be Proud of Your Gap Teeth,” made years before every possible variation of the human race had a listicle of their own to make them feel normal, ‘Gap-Toothed Women’ is a 31-minute ode to “the teeth of happiness” and the women who wear them. Again unpacking how this one small detail has shaped the lives of those who share it, Blank reaches all the way back to Chaucer, who may not have understood the damage he was doing when he wrote that gap-toothed women were “fond of traveling” (that’s Middle Ages-speak for “loose”). While that particular prejudice may have faded away, Blank is obviously compelled by the bullshit of beauty standards, training his camera on a trait that they have never really favored. More than just a simple message movie about how people would be happier if they just embraced the way they lookthough it is certainly thatBlank’s brief inquiry distills testimony from more than 100 women (including gap-tooth poster child Lauren Hutton) to demystify the assumption that a diastema is something to be ashamed of. But what makes the short so universally compelling is how Blank’s narrow focus always manages to point to the world beyond those crippling millimeters of self-doubtall of his films, this one included, exist to show just how much there is to enjoy in the world when you’re not too busy worrying about what someone thinks of your teeth. [B+]

Spend It All” (1972)
Of all of Blank’s anthropological, fly-on-the-wall portraits of those on the peripheries, the colorful and charming “Spend It All” might best encapsulate his work and raison d’etre. An endearing portrait of the Cajun lifestyle in Southwest Louisiana, it’s as off-the-cuff and effortless as can be, like the clapperboard was just the hiss of a Coors being opened during a savory dinner. Blank depicts the joie de vivre all around him: the aromatic meals, the rollicking whole-hearted music, and the self-reliant, self-sufficient people (one particularly resourceful individual plays the role of home-trained dentist, removing a painful tooth with a pair of pliers). One imagines Blank in heaven and never coming back. The Cajuns’ principles are simple: work hard, love your life, live it to the fullest, and enjoy what you have. The film derives its title from an observation Blank makes of these fun-loving people. Most of them are broke because they spend all their money in order to have rich, satisfying lives, even if that means losing it all on horse racing and other forms of entertainment. Featuring salt-of-the-earth people with gloriously impenetrable accents, Blank is perhaps so enamored with these genuine folk he even breaks his soft rule of context, explaining—if only briefly through title cards—how the Cajuns were the descendants of French Canadian Acadians who were driven out of their lands when the English took over. Intimate and exuberant, Blank’s docs are also always succinct and at 42 minutes “Spend It All” never overstays its welcome. Herzog regards the picture as his favorite Blank movie and was so smitten with the home-remedy tooth-extraction scene, that he got the filmmaker’s blessing to appropriate it for his 1978 narrative film “Stroszek.” [A]

The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” (1970)
If future historians were to ever look back on culture for (perhaps unintentional) examples of time travel, they could do much worse than to start with the films of Les Blank. One imagines time travel might be as disorienting as Blank’s films often are: suddenly you are dropped without context or explanation into a foreign culture from 40 years past. One of the many beauties of Blank’s unconventional films is his utter disregard for acclimatization of any kind. In fact, one could speculate that Blank must have detested context because his films are almost 100% free of voice-over, exposition, or situating frames of referencethey just begin and the viewer catches up along the way. The economical 30-minute “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” is no different, porting you into a world of cigarette-stained teeth, shanty houses and the soul and gospel of elemental blues music. History or conventional storytelling isn’t even attempted, instead Blank’s film soaks up mood, essence and spirit. Hopkins plays the blues, Hopkins smokes cigarettes, and Hopkins sermonizes poetically about the blues, but the doc is mostly wordless. Hopkins wasn’t lightning in a bottle you captured and contained and harnessed for electricitythis Blank seemed to intuitively understand. He was a current you simply watched for as long as the collective electrons allowed. [B]

Burden Of Dreams” (1982)
Arguably one of the greatest documentaries ever made about the making of a movie, up there with “Hearts Of Darkness” and “Lost In La Mancha,” as the title suggests, ‘Dreams’ has nonetheless much more on its mind than the mere chronicling of Werner Herzog’s 1982 opus, “Fitzcarraldo,” starring the always unpredictable German actor Klaus Kinski. “Fitzcarraldo” is often best remembered for the tumultuous relationship between Kinski and Herzog, but ‘Dreams’ reminds us he was one of many problems the production faced. And it’s perhaps one of Blank’s most conventional docs using contextual voice-over, non-diegetic music, staged interviews, and more, but perhaps they are needed to really gain a sense of the Sisyphean task (or misguided fool’s errand) that faces Herzog. The challenges are myriad: the unforgiving elements, political unrest between natives and opportunists (one of his production camps is burned down to the ground), and sick actors—original lead actor Jason Robards falls ill with dysentery and Herzog is forced to start again despite having shot 40% of the film (co-star Mick Jagger dropped out shortly thereafter). Unbowed and perhaps manic with his insane fever-dream resolve to complete the film, Herzog starts over with Kinski nine months later with a rash of taxing, near-insurmountable obstacles, and always teetering on the razor’s edge of catastrophe. And all the while, Blank is curiously disinterested. Possessing a Malick-ian sense of curiosity and wonder, ‘Dreams’ becomes absorbed with the myriad jungle beauties surrounded the picture: ants on logs, various exotic wildlife, the dynamics of the restless Native Indians on set, and other color that doesn’t seem exactly relevant to Herzog’s picture until it totally does. Throughout the documentary it becomes clear that Herzog would rather take the impossible route and this includes actually dragging a 300-ton steamboat over a mountaintop. The plastic solution of miniatures, combined with cinema wizardry, will just not suffice. And this is Herzog’s madness, his burden, to fulfill the demands of his picture at any cost. But through this touching, comic, and moving portrait, Blank demonstrates in his poetic study of perseverance, how through sheer force of unwavering will and commitment Herzog is able to complete his film, four years after it first began. It’s interesting to note—since the two films do blur together—that many of Kinski’s notorious tantrums do not appear in ‘Dreams.’ Blank decided to not to trivialize the doc with these potentially sensationalistic sequences, but Herzog would eventually employ them for “My Best Fiend,” his 1999 tribute to Kinski and their fraught love/hate relationship. [A-]

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1981)
If “Burden Of Dreams” is Les Blank’s most famous film then “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” is his most notorious. All of 21 minutes in length, the short doc centers on a now infamous bet that Werner Herzog made with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris. The German filmmaker would have been around 35-ish years of age and Morris approximately 30, and they had already met five years prior when Morris was an undergraduate student, through Tom Luddy, the co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival (and the man who many credit with discovering Blank, not to mention bringing Herzog to American attention, who acts as the master of ceremonies here). The uber-connected Luddy also linked Blank and Herzog together around the same time realizing they would be kindred spirits. Morris had already aborted a documentary about serial killer Ed Gein which Herzog had tried to support, but which had floundered along with several other unrealized projects (Herzog also says Morris could have been a cellist and gave up a promising science career). In a moment of frustration while Morris was discussing the difficulties of a new project, Herzog vowed to eat his own shoe should Morris ever complete a film. And so with the completion of 1978’s “Gates Of Heaven,” Morris won the bet. The film is a witty little bauble and time capsule, but it also captures the essence of Herzog’s utterly sincere, almost humorless, conviction. “I hate cowards,” Herzog says to the audience, noting he’s cooked the same leather shoes he wore the day he made the bet and dared not cop out with sneakers. The doc is simple, featuring interviews with Herzog on the way to the Berkeley theater where they’ll screen ‘Heaven’ and where the filmmaker will publicly eat his shoe, interviews the next day (where Herzog hilariously declares a fatwa on television and all it stands for), and the preparation of the cooking of the shoe (which of course features Garlic connoisseur Alice Waters). Curiously enough, Morris isn’t even present, but Herzog professes his love and support for his friend’s movie, and his touching pride that this odd form of encouragement helped “Gates Of Heaven” become fully realized. Cinema is full of wild legends that sound too good to be true, but thankfully Les Blank was there to capture this one in all its lunatic glory. [B+]

A final note, 10 of Blank’s films can be streamed on HuluPlus. Maybe start a free trial to watch a few? —Rodrigo Perez and David Ehrlich. 

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