• Les Blank’s Cinéma Vitalité

    By Andrew Horton

    651_161_current_large

    What do Cajun and Creole musicians, roasted garlic, New Orleans jazz funerals, gap-toothed women, polka dancing, and Lightnin’ Hopkins singing the blues have to do with one another? The answer is simple: they are all subjects of some of the forty documentaries made by Les Blank (1935–2013), a true auteur in every sense, who spent his life capturing intimate and idiosyncratic pictures of passionate individuals and cultures on the peripheries of, mainly American, society. In fact, these beautifully personal films take us beyond what it is to be “American” to a more universal vision of being human. As Blank once noted, “I try to show that the people in my films are human beings who have just as much right to be on this earth as anybody else. Maybe more right!”

    Through his own production company, originally known as Flower Films (now Les Blank Films), and with his talented collaborators, Blank emerged as one of those rare cinematic individuals who did it all, from raising funds to choosing his subjects and shooting his films, to editing and distributing them and making frequent appearances at screenings—even, at times, cooking as an added part of the memorable carnival of his cinema. Still, though he received impressive recognition in his lifetime, including career achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association and the Edward MacDowell Medal (for outstanding contributions to the arts), and his films were screened around the world, Blank avoided calling himself a documentary filmmaker.

    We can begin to understand this by taking a look at the films we have already alluded to. Cajun French–speaking Louisiana musicians and a look inside Cajun culture on all levels, from cooking and families to dancing and religious ceremonies, are the focus of Spend It All (1971). In Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980), Blank celebrates the pleasures and many uses of that at times unfairly scorned bulb, and the people around the world who love it. Yes, this is filmmaking, but it’s sharing a very human experience beyond cinema too. Always for Pleasure (1978) is an insightful voyage inside New Orleans’s cross-cultural celebrations—Mardi Gras, jazz funerals, and more—captured throughout the city’s various neighborhoods as the spirit of carnival becomes a community virtue. Gap-Toothed Women (1987) visits with all kinds of women as they delight in their differences from the clichés of what female beauty is. And Blank’s love of ethnic music of all sorts, and the musicians who keep those traditions alive, is engagingly conveyed in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968)—as well as in the polka party In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984). Put it all together and what we can appreciate in Blank’s films is how he went beyond simply documenting individuals and subjects to, as A New History of Documentary Film author Betsy McLane has written, making “a fine art out of making a personal connection with diverse people.”

    Blank’s films are in the tradition of cinema verité, combining improvisation with close observation and almost no voice-over narration. But beyond being observational in the manner of this kind of “truth cinema,” his films clearly pull him, and us, into the lives he is following, and thus we can see his work as “participatory documentary,” or as I like to call it, cinéma vitalité. Blank himself once described his approach this way: “Poetry and music are closely related, and I like to think the images I use are similar to the words: the two sort of blend together. Transitions are based on your senses rather than your thoughts.”

    Put simply, Blank’s documentaries are very personal, in his choice of subjects as well as in his unscripted approach to shooting—over usually extended periods of time (weeks or even months)—and his shaping of these journeys through the editing process. With Always for Pleasure, for example, he had a general feeling for what he wanted to explore about New Orleans, based on his six years living in the city as a student: he wanted to visit the various neighborhoods he had come to love and take a closer look at the big communal traditions, yet also portray the reality of the Mississippi River and the port culture and observe and celebrate all kinds of people in the streets, letting them say what they wanted to about their lives with the least amount of intrusion. But he approached the project without any structure in mind. Instead, he spent three months in New Orleans and shot many hours of film that he finally edited down to fifty-seven minutes.

    The editing process was very important for Blank—it was when he found the rhythms, motifs, and overall spirit of his films—and he often shared the task with Maureen Gosling, beginning in 1972 and continuing for more than a dozen of his films over twenty years. Gosling, who has become an award-winning filmmaker in her own right, considered Blank her mentor. She originally signed on with him to record sound but soon moved on to be an assistant editor, and then coeditor and sole editor, working well with him because she understood his passionate style of combining music and images, rhythms and themes of the cultures he was exploring. This vitalité editing was Blank’s effort, as he often stated, to make the audience see, feel, and experience a moment on film “freshly and with intensity.”

    *****

    Blank’s life leading up to filmmaking tells us a lot about the diversity of his interests. Born and raised in Florida, he attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received a BA in English literature and then an MFA in theater. He often commented that his years in Louisiana led him to enjoy going beyond the sorts of “touristy” interactions the region had to offer, to want to make personal contact with all kinds of different people. This would become his standard approach to documentary, and the eclectic cultures of Louisiana a rich source for his later work. But first he moved west, to study film and communications at the University of Southern California.

    Blank worked briefly on commercial film productions in Los Angeles that he said were “insipid films that promoted business and industry.” And this “practical” experience convinced him he was not for traditional filmmaking. He thus struck out, basically, on his own, beginning in the sixties with a variety of subjects that interested him. One of these projects would become God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance (1968), a visit to, and perfect encapsulation of, the pure revelry that was the first Los Angeles “love-in.” Already in the opening scene, Blank is showing his personal approach, as amid a huge crowd of young people of all sorts the camera zeros in on one woman dancing with incredible intensity of pleasure (he returns to her at the end). Blank’s camera proceeds to freely put us in touch with the whole scene. There’s no commentary at all, so it’s the images and music and flowing camera work that convey the theme and atmosphere and the power of dance. The images share a multitude of insights into “love,” both personal and cultural, playful and dramatic, building to a joyful convergence of participants that helps us feel even more like we are there with them.

    Blank’s distinctive approach is really established in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, shot in Texas shortly after God Respects Us, with Skip Gerson. The film presents us with Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912–82) and his music, pulling us into Hopkins’s world at the outset with images of his farm, before moving in on Hopkins playing and singing the blues with Billy Bizor and Mance Lipscomb. While Hopkins and his cohorts are the center of this opening, Blank edits to the rhythm of the music, with shots of children playing down the road and of baby chickens always reminding us where we are.

    Hopkins’s blues plays throughout the film’s thirty-one minutes—whether in the background or in live performances—and Blank manages to make it feel like the center of his exploration, rather than something added on, as with a traditional soundtrack. The peripheral shots, again, amplify our appreciation of the environment, as when Blank cuts to images of young men and women hanging out in town and others dancing and riding at a local rodeo, all as lively as the music and the musicians we are hearing. But Hopkins also speaks to us directly about his music and his life. Early in the film, he says, “You know, the blues is somethin’ hard to get acquainted with, just like death,” and then, “The blues comes to ya so many different ways, it’s kinda hard to explain.” Soon after, we see Bizor break down in the middle of a song and fall on the floor crying. Part of the magic of Blank’s cinema is unexpected and profound moments like this. Hopkins’s subsequent stories—of an unfortunate encounter with the police, of churchgoing—together with the montage of images and sounds that surrounds them, build to a deep understanding of the hardship and humor and joy from which he and his music arose.

    In a real sense, we can describe Blank as an American Pieter Bruegel, carrying a 16 mm Éclair camera rather than a paintbrush. Like Bruegel, who captured the spirit and nature of peasant cultures, Blank portrays, in so many of his documentaries, the spirit of basically rural folk living simply. American blacks, Chicanos, Cajuns, Creoles, Polish Americans, and Appalachians are documented through their food, conversation, celebrations, environments, and, most especially, their music. Filmmaker Taylor Hackford has gone further, noting, “You could call Blank an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist. He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it.”

    Blank playfully liked to call himself a Peeping Tom, but he was much more than that. A tall and reserved man with a full beard who could easily pass for a lumberjack or a shrimp boat captain, Blank as a filmmaker was part poet, part ethnographer, and part continually curious child. Some of his most engaging works focus on singular individuals he became fascinated with, many of them musicians, as we have already seen with The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. For that film, Blank spent weeks in and around Houston getting to know Hopkins and his community. And he returned to that area again to shoot A Well Spent Life (1971), which celebrates Mance Lipscomb (1895–1976), the legendary blues singer and guitarist from Navasota, Texas, whose name is a shortened version of emancipation, since he was the child of freed slaves. Clifton Chenier (1925–87), the Creole French–speaking zydeco accordion player, is the subject of Blank’s Hot Pepper (1973), and one of his later films, Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995), takes us into the life of the amazing Afro-Cuban percussionist (1925–2010), who drummed to folk, popular dance music, and jazz, and for Santeria ceremonies.

    But even when Blank focuses on a particular musician, he always manages to open up the world around his subject. A Well Spent Life begins with Lipscomb on his Texas ranch, speaking about his life, and we see him farming, riding horses, walking his dogs, and eating, as he continues to narrate. But we are also taken through his town, meeting his neighbors, seeing scenes of a baptism in a river, bringing in the spiritual level of his blues as well. We sense in A Well Spent Life Blank’s connection to his subject, whom he had known for almost three years and who speaks openly and intimately about his long life. Right before the film ends on a freeze-frame of Lipscomb that allows us to pause and think about this man we’ve met, he says, “I tell you, you all won’t find another man like me.”

    Dry Wood (1973), a companion to Hot Pepper, centers on two outstanding African American Creole musicians, Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin (1915–2007), an accordion player, and Canray Fontenot (1922–95), described as “the best black Louisiana fiddle player of our time” by his biographer, Paul Harris. It’s important to remember with Blank’s films from the 1960s and early 1970s that this was during the civil rights era, with all of the attendant conflicts, protests, and struggles. Blank was not overtly political in his films, but he clearly made his voice heard on these matters through his choice of subjects and by gently highlighting interracial harmony. He also made it clear that he was very much aware of being a white outsider in the black communities he was visiting, and thus saw himself all the more as an observer wanting to explore and celebrate.

    All put another way, and following from the cuisine he loved so well, Blank’s films are cinematic gumbos, full of a wild variety of ingredients. And it is often difficult to watch them without wishing to rush to the kitchen and begin cooking. Take Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) as an example. The film—one of his most “delicious” works—focuses mainly on Cajun musician Marc Savoy and his family, including his musician wife, Ann, and their children, combining Marc’s splendid tunes with images of him cooking, fishing, planting, and harvesting. Yum, Yum, Yum! would be one kind of documentary if Blank were simply demonstrating how to cook gumbo—which he does wondrously (“Is there anything better than a bowl of gumbo?” Marc asks toward the end, before answering himself with a laugh, “Yes, two bowls of gumbo!”). But here, as in all of Blank’s films, he turns it into a portrait of a culture—one that stretches beyond Louisiana—paying visits to the then best-known Cajun chef in the world, Paul Prudhomme, and his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Creole zydeco musician Queen Ida Guillory in California, among others.

    Blank often followed up with folks and cultural practices that especially engaged him, and that can be seen with regard to Marc and Ann Savoy. Initially, Blank had captured Marc and his music in Spend It All, which centers on fellow musicians the Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire (1913–81). Blank then dedicated a 1991 documentary, Marc and Ann, to delving deeper into their lives. With Sprout Wings and Fly (1983), Blank—this time at the urging of musician Alice Gerrard and professor Cece Conway—went beyond Louisiana and Texas to pay a visit to the enchanting North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountain fiddle and banjo player Tommy Jarrell (1901–85). While there, the trio discovered not just another remarkable musician but an extraordinary soul with a gift for expressing himself. Their time with Jarrell, his sister Julie, and their community resulted in the initial Sprout Wings and also two subsequent shorts, made many years later, Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge (1991) and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1994).

    *****

    But truly at the center of Blank’s accomplishment are his Louisiana films, and his loving tribute to New Orleans culture in Always for Pleasure stands out in particular. Viewers can sense the pleasure that permeates the film as Blank explores the city’s communal rituals, echoing in many ways ancient pagan religious experiences.

    It was Blank’s religion, as he often suggested, to rejoice in the pleasures of living, and he does that impressively in this film, by including such musicians as Professor Longhair (1918–80), the Neville Brothers, Kid Thomas Valentine (1896–1987), Irma Thomas, and Allen Toussaint, and even appearing in the festivities himself. Once again, the creativity of Blank’s editing is matched to the vitalité of the music, as he often breaks up time and space, combining footage from various parts of New Orleans shot on different occasions. His justification for such musical montage is simple: the scenes all illustrate the culture out of which the music developed. And this open attitude applies to his shooting as well. He simply wished to follow his heart through these jubilant shared celebrations.

    Yes, some critics have accused Blank of being a one-sided romantic. After all, doesn’t he focus primarily on pleasure among those who are not in the mainstream of American life? And don’t New Orleans blacks, Cajuns, Creoles, and Chicanos have bad days and hard times economically and otherwise? Isn’t “always for pleasure” a misrepresentation of the lives of these people? Blank’s primary response was to agree that his films were biased in favor of depicting people enjoying themselves. But his point is not to suggest that they do nothing else in their lives. Rather, he wishes us to see that, even though they may not have all the material advantages and education of suburban America, they have maintained cultures that allow for self-expression and shared group enjoyment.

    We should note that while Blank primarily made films about music, food, and overlooked cultures, he did take on other subjects occasionally. In fact, his most successful film was the ironically titled Burden of Dreams (1982), a “behind-the-scenes” documentary following his filmmaking friend Werner Herzog in the Amazon as he was making his feature film Fitzcarraldo. The winner of a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award and described by Roger Ebert as “one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie,” Blank’s film outsold Herzog’s at the box office, anticipating a new era of feature documentaries playing at regular cinemas (1989’s Roger and Me, 1994’s Hoop Dreams).

    But even here we can see that Blank followed through with this project for personal rather than commercial reasons. He and Herzog had met a few years before—through their mutual friend, film producer and programmer Tom Luddy—and came together again in a most unusual way, after another friend, Errol Morris, won a bet with Herzog over whether Morris would complete a film about the pet cemetery business in America. Herzog said he would eat his own shoe in such an eventuality. Well, Morris did make Gates of Heaven, and in 1980 Blank filmed Herzog living up to his promise. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) is fun, of course, but it’s also another of Blank’s testaments—as indeed is Burden of Dreams—to idiosyncratic individuals and their environments.

    Blank’s cinéma vitalité lost none of its intensity from his 1960s films into the 1990s, including In Heaven There Is No Beer?, the result of a newfound fascination with Polish American polka culture and yet another example of Blank’s inexhaustible, and continually surprising, curiosity and joie de vivre. His last film to be released while he was alive, 2007’s All in This Tea, codirected with Gina Leibrecht, follows an American tea importer, David Lee Hoffman, through China as he searches for the best tea. (How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at His Farm in Normandy, also made with Leibrecht, was completed in 2014, after Blank’s death.) But Blank’s attraction to individuals who take the unexpected routes through life as they follow their dreams is even more clearly seen in his 1994 The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists.

    Indeed, if we needed to point to one Blank film that sums up his theme of not being afraid to be whatever you want to be whenever you decide to be that, this engaging work, following Gerry Gaxiola as he explains the carnivalesque odyssey of his life, could well be the choice. Gaxiola tells us how, after years of working at various jobs—including as a Pan Am mechanic, a traveling salesman, and an offset printer agent—he quit to become a singing cowboy artist, combining his visual art, which is heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s, with music and performances. “Art is a religion, not a business” is Gaxiola’s message, and we learn that he has created thousands of paintings, statues, and objects that he never sells. Blank involves himself in more dialogue than in almost any other of his films, clearly reflecting how interested he was in this single-minded, uncompromised artist.

    Leibrecht, who coproduced a number of Blank’s later films and worked with him for years, is making a documentary about him, in collaboration with his son Harrod Blank, Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, which includes a quote that really sums up his whole career—and that he had put on his tombstone. We see Blank on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, standing by a statue of Aesculapius, an ancient god of medicine and healing, with the following words written across the base: “Life is short. Art is long. Experience difficult.” Les, as we should call him now, smiles and comments that, almost every day in 1966 when he was living in L.A., he passed this statue, and it spoke to him personally that “if you are going to do something, do it while you can!”

    Les Blank absolutely followed through with this throughout his career. And we should add that while his films are highly personal, he was fortunate to have a very consistent production team, including Skip Gerson, codirector of God Respects Us When We Work and Blank’s collaborator on The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Spend It All, and A Well Spent Life; Chris Strachwitz, who advised Blank on a number of films and whose Arhoolie Records is the sound equivalent of Flower Films; and Chris Simon, who took on nearly every role possible at Flower Films, including producer, production manager, researcher, editor, sound recordist, and distribution manager, and eventually became his third wife. Susan Kell and David Silberberg, like Simon, wore many hats over their numerous years with Blank, who couldn’t have operated without them. Finally, Les’s son Harrod continues in his father’s spirit, but with his own originality in his approach to documentary filmmaking. Harrod, as a young man, having grown up observing and helping with his father’s films, became fascinated with turning his 1965 VW Beetle into a pop art “canvas.” He painted it like a beach ball, with a bumper of plastic fruit and rubber chickens, a chalkboard on the back, and a TV on the roof, and it became the inspiration for his popular documentary Wild Wheels (1992). The tables had turned and father helped son on that film, as well as on a still unfinished, twenty-plus-year project about the Burning Man festival.

    How to sum up Les Blank’s diverse and strongly engaging films, made over half a century? Herzog perhaps put it best when he called Blank “the chronicler of what America is all about at its best.” And I would add that, in this increasingly digital and distracted America we live in, Les Blank’s films continue to make us smile and appreciate those among us who do their own thing.

    Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H. Smith Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma, an award-winning screenwriter, and the author of thirty books on film, screenwriting, and cultural studies.

Leave the first comment