Les Blank, Always For Pleasure. Part Four.
GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN, LES BLANK, 1987
Again, we have a Les Blank topic that comes completely out of left field. Who would dream of filming a movie about something as minute as a slight wedge in between someone’s mouth? Les Blank was that man, and based on what other topics he approached, he must have been unusually attracted to women with the dental distinction.
The big question is whether there is some mystique to gap-teethed women. Are they sexier than girls with a block of bright and shiny whites? That’s probably in the eye of the beholder, just like some people with find various imperfections attractive.
Blank takes the topic further and uses it explore the concept of beauty and self-image. He opens with a girl who bites into an apple with her gap-teeth, and proudly leaves her ‘signature’ in the piece of fruit. Chaucer is referenced aplenty, and sometimes in the manner that he adored gap-toothed women. The Wife of Bath had gapped teeth, and she also had five husbands and countless other lovers. Her affliction did not leave her for wanting. Others have studied the term and traced “gap” back to the word “gat,” which meant lecherous, casting not the most favorable shadow on Mrs. Bath.
Some women are self conscious about their gaps. A lot of dentists consider it a flaw and aggressively will try to convince women to close them (or maybe they just want the business). They are more common in other words, such as Indian, where one lady says “half of India has gap teeth.” That could be due to a lack of dentistry as well as any cultural preference.
To balance out those with image problems, there are plenty of famous individuals that are considered beautiful. Lauren Hutton made a living out of her gap-tooth, and appeared in the movie doing street interviews. Madonna, also gap-toothed, is likely also proud. At last check, she still had the gap, but she did not choose to appear in the movie. Hutton’s message is to accept one’s own imperfections and turn them into your own uniqueness. Others take it further, such as one lady who screams for “Gap Pride!”
Blank gets some points for pursuing a topic that most could not even conceive of, and using it to explore the incomprehensible topic of women’s self-image and male attraction. Well done, Les.
Film Rating: – 8/10
Mind the Gap – This piece shows his office, cluttered with stuff he loves. Includes gap-toothed women, garlic, and red headed women and was going to make a movie about the latter. Susan Kell talks about his fascination of Chaucer, and the wife of Bath.
They had a Casting call advertisement and had the phone ringing non-stop. Who knew there were so many people with gap-teeth and eager to show the word? Te gist was that most women were excited about celebrating what had been seen as a flaw. They unsuccessfully tried to get Madonna. They also tried for Whoopi Goldberg, who was local to Berkeley and not as famous. She probably would have done the film, but her career blew up during the filming and she was no longer available.
YUM, YUM YUM! A TASTE OF CAJUN AND CREOLE COOKING, LES BLANK, 1990
Les Blank has some great titles, and this one fits the subject the best. I would say the vast majority of his documentaries have some element of food, even if it is not the primary topic. He just loves food.
This time he returns to Cajun country to focus exclusively on the cuisine. We meet up again with an older Marc Savoy, who we first met on Spend it All. He throws a bunch of ingredients in a pot that are then cooked over a country wooden fire. It is called “Goo Courtboullion,” which means absolutely nothing to me, but looks like the most delicious thing anyone could taste.
The guys out in the wilderness haven’t heard of Paul Prudhomme, which turns out to be a good time for a transition, and they then show him signing books in New Orleans in the next scene. He is the owner and celebrity chef of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. What’s interesting about Prudhomme is that this is ages before the Food Network, Top Chef, The Cooking Channel, and the concept of celebrity chefs. Prudhomme was one of the originals, and he along with others (Justin Wilson, Emeril Lagassee) popularized Cajun cuisine in the kitchen. When one watches this documentary — and perhaps many TV executives had — it is easy to understand why.
They cook a variety of dishes, with a focus on whole foods and nothing manufactured. One lady dismisses garlic powder, saying, “that’s the new stuff they got. No good.” Blank, ever the garlic aficionado, would most definitely agree.
Many more dishes are made, including a variety of Etoufees, each looking more delicious than the last. I seriously challenge anyone to watch this 30-minute documentary and not eat something during or immediately after.
Marc Savoy reappears to presciently comment on Louisiana cooking from outsiders. He ordered Cajun fish at Disneyland. The fish itself was fine, but they covered it in a black pepper that made it inedible. He actually took the fish to go, removed the pepper and ate it. I wonder what he would make of all the Cajun restaurants that have sprouted up all over the country? Would he take their finest dishes, eat a bite and then customize the rest later in his hotel room? My guess is yes.
The best quote is:
“What’s better than a bowl of gumbo?”
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Marc and Les – When recruiting Savoy’s participation, they called him up and said “come on over, making gumbo.” Marc credits Les for meeting his wife Anne, which was sort of a half-truth because he met her at a festival that he wouldn’t had attended if not for Les. Les would remain friends with a lot of his subjects. Savoy was no exception.
THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS, LES BLANK, 1994
The overall theme of “Cowboy Artist” Gerry Gaxiola is that he does not paint for money. Like with Anton Newcombe, made famous by Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, he is not for sale. The continual reminder for Gaxiola in the film and the features is that for him, art is a religion and not a business.
What’s odd about Gaxiola is that the grew up in San Luis Obispo. Even though he grew up in a ranch, southern California does not exactly scream cowboy country. He speaks without a southern accent and his values are more common in Berkeley, where we resides, than say, Texas or anywhere else in the deep south. Yet he travels with a Cowboy getup, complete with the hat, boots, and even utility belts that he creates himself to holster his “guns,” which would be paintbrushes. Is he an artist or a gimmick? If you ask him, the answer would indubitably be artist, but Les Blank’s portrayal leaves the question on the fence.
He began having a Maestro Day, which would be a daily celebration where he would invite crowds to see him perform. He would do some artistic endeavors, like a “Quick Draw” where he would paint at warp speed. The rest was more performance, including singing and dancing. He would get the crowd involved, awarding best-dressed cowboy. There would be treats, and it sounds like a fun day for the family. Despite the success of Maestro Day, he quit it after 13 years because he was moving more in the direction of entertainer than artist and that is not how he wanted to be seen.
The man was not without talents. I’m not art expert, but I could tell that he was well versed in painting a picture, constructing buildings (like his own art studio), clothing (all of his boots), and various other items that could be used in art. He could paint, use ceramics, and sculpt.
The problem was that he never got the respect of the art community. He thinks that is because he chose not to sell his paintings, and the community respects economy over talent. Whether that is true is not clear. Perhaps they saw him as a gimmick just like many would at Maestro Day. He challenges successfully recognized artists such as Andy Warhol and the Christos, all to no avail. Warhol passed away, and the Maestro thinks that given time, he would have given in. From what I know of Warhol, I sincerely doubt the Maestro would have been paid any mind.
He appears to be able to live thanks to an inheritance of some sort, and so he self-importantly lives the Van Gogh life, constantly reminding us of that. Even though Van Gogh had a benefactor in Theo, he lived in misery and desperation. The Maestro, with his massive arsenal, choice studio, and slick Cadillac lives with a smile on his face.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
The Maestro Rides Again, 2005
In this follow-up work, the Maestro shows more of his work, including his first set of boots, a piece of luggage that has the state of California and all its counties. He paints a series of famous landmarks, which for the documentary his subject is the Mission of San Gabriel. He wanted to paint the first McDonalds in Downey, but does a “drive by” painting because it is too dangerous a neighborhood for him to stand all day.
This time his inspiration is Howard Finster, famous artist who rendered many REM covers and was proficient with folk art cutouts. The Maestro makes his own version of cut outs, with popular figures like Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Howard Finster and unpopular figures like George W Bush, who the Maestro dubs “Inferior Man.” He is not a conservative cowboy. That much is clear.
Cinephiles should appreciate his artistic series on a number of films, such as a painting about Fitzcarraldo, although the painting makes it look to be more about Blank’s documentary about the project, Burden of Dreams since both Kinski and Herzog are in the frame. He also painted other Les Blank images, such as the polka film with Blank in the audience. He was clearly a Blank fan, but was that because of his respect for the man’s craft or to serve his own ego since he was a Blank subject. 5/10
The Maestro – Interview with Gaxiola in 2014. He thinks Blank hit the ‘high spots’ and the cowboy stuff and not as much the artist. He thinks the film portrayed him without any depth, and again laments that he thought of himself as a Van Gogh, but the art establishment did not want that. He said the process was frustrating because the filming took 10 years and Les Blank was not a guy with a plan. He just filmed. Blank pretends he’s not interested until you start doing something, and then he would turn on cameras.
He seems to regret the Cowboy caricature, and he especially complains when people call him out for “dressing” as a Cowboy, because it makes him feel like a phony. My question is, does he rustle cows?
He is not altogether proud of the film and complains some, but then catches himself and tries to sound grateful. He is happy that the “Art is a religion and not a business” was the principle theme and has on.
Art for Art’s Sake – This is a brief feature about the process of putting the film together. Chris Simon saw an ad about Maestro Day, decided to go and had a great time. During the show, Maestro mentions Burden of Dreams. Wow! He and Les were like two peas in a pod. Lots of films took five or more years, mostly to let the material develop, but also editing. Maestro is an example of one that took a long time.
They discuss the Christos incident, which I found very interesting. Blank was not happy with this situation because he thought Gaxiola wanted to deface Christo’s art by spraying paint on it with his gun as part of his challenge. They argued about it, and compromised by having Blank shoot the challenge as if Maestro is shooting the umbrellas, but he does not. There is even a disclaimer that “No Umbrellas Were Harmed in This Film.”
SWORN TO THE DRUM: A TRIBUTE TO FRANCISCO AGUABELLA, LES BLANK, 1995
It is fitting that the final documentary on the box set is of a musician, and more fitting that it’s of a fringe, obscure and culturally immigrated genre. Francisco Aguabella is a Cuban percussionist who plays Latin Jazz and Santeria music. He emigrated Cuba in 1957. Even though he never made his way back to the homeland, he has stuck to his roots and helped bring his culture and Afro-Cuban to the states.
This is not the type of drumming that people would think of after seeing Whiplash. It is almost in a different universe. When you see it being played onstage, it is doesn’t appear to be as impressive. Aguabella is one of many percussionists, and he seems to be doing less actual drumming, but he is actually the mastermind that determines the beat. He translates via his big drum to the other drummers and creates a conversation with the other drummers. The sum of the entire process is magic, and nobody would argue that drums are not an important, if not the most important, factor in Afro-Cuban music.
There is plenty of exposition about the music origins, Francisco’s personal history, and the way the music works. The cultural history is fascinating even if they race through it, but it is the images that are the most powerful. There are certain key images that are unforgettable, like when Aguabella is playing at a religious ceremony and the camera freezes at the moment when someone becomes “possessed” by the music.
The colors that are painted on his face represent different Gods. He us a devout Religious person, and that can be seen through his playing. Carlos Santana says that when they are playing, the walls begin to sweat. People are always dancing, sometimes energetically, sometimes hypnotically. Like a lot of the music that Blank portrays, it inspires people to move.
Film Rating: 9/10
A Master Percussionist – This feature has more background info on Aguabella. He was a master Jazz drummer, but could also play Santeria. Back then he was one of few that could play in the states, although now many can play due to the popularization here. Latin Jazz was his love, but he was at his most powerful during the Santeria ceremony. It was just powerful.
They didn’t film him talking about his origins in Cuba before the revolution, where he would carry huge bags of sugar. After revolution, he was afraid if he left he couldn’t come back. He was a remarkable man.
Posted on February 17, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged always for pleasure, carlos santanta, criterion, emeril lagasse, film, francisco aguabella, gap toothed, gerry gaxiola, justin wilson, lauren hutton, les blank, paul prudhomme, the criterion collection, the maestro. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.
Gap pride! Talk about from out in left field. So why do I find it so intriguing? Well done!
We all have imperfections, so why not be proud of them? Gap-teeth was refreshing and enjoyable.
I think this is the best review of The Maestro King of the Cowboy Artists I have read so far. It is more in depth than most reviews. Thank you for looking beyond the obvious.
Maestro – Thanks for maintaining your credibility and not selling out. And thanks for stopping by and making my day. Maybe I’ll see you in Berkeley some day.
FYI San Luis Obisbo is cowboy country adjacent. While the average person doesn’t think of California as cowboy country, the center of the state away from the coast is farmland and houses a huge number of people who moved west from the South. Bakersfield is just a hundred miles away and is a Country Western hub, so being from SLO and liking singing cowboys is not at all weird, esp for the Maestro’s generation.
Interesting. I actually grew up in San Fran and have lived in LA, and remember there being some rural areas when you get out of the cities, but we didn’t spend much time there. That is an interesting cultural anomaly.
It’s pretty interesting – people in Bakersfield have southern accents and everyone listens to country music. A whole style of country (“the Bakersfield sound”) was invented there – it’s where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are from and later Dwight Yoakam, just to name a few.
Cool that the Maestro himself replied! I think I liked him more than I liked the doc – these final four were a little conventional for me.
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