Les Blank, Always for Pleasure. Part Two.
This next trio of Les Blank documentaries fit together well. They are all about Cajun culture, with the first two about the rural and backwoods Creole population, with the boxset’s namesake documentary, Always for Pleasure, a narrative of the types of celebration that can only take place in New Orleans.
DRY WOOD, LES BLANK, 1973
Dry Wood features the Zydeco music of Clifton Chenier, although he is directly profiled in the sister film, Hot Pepper. Like with the prior documentaries, this is a meditative illustration of a mostly ignored yet fascinating culture.
Set in Mamou, Louisiana, Mardi Gras 1972, Dry Wood begins with a group of people in various, outlandish costumes, singing along to Zydeco music in Creole language. It is fitting for this trio of films, as they begin and end with celebration, albeit the latter is on a far grander scale.
In this picture, Les Blank does what he does best. He captures the character moments. The day after Mardi Gras, he shows the Catholic ceremony of people getting ash placed on their heads for Ash Wednesday. From there he shows people living their lives, whether that is a man digging ditches, catching frogs, or kids playing their own version of baseball with a cylindrically squared stick as a bat (not too dissimilar to the type of play that Mance Lipscomb reminisced about in A Well Spent Life.)
Like with many Blank films, there is not too much dialog, and there does not need to be. The first person that speaks directly to the camera and seems aware of being photographed is a gentleman talking about making his first violin, and how he used various natural items that could be found anywhere, either in the house or outside, and it worked. This was 15 minutes into the film, and Blank only features someone when they have something to say.
The latter portion is about food and entertainment, another reoccurring Blank theme. My favorite scene is an outdoor gathering at night, where a number of locals talk about the type of meat they prefer to eat, and what sort they absolutely will not eat. Their opinions are mixed on deer, armadillo and possum, but they ate whatever was being served on that evening heartily. They drank too, and that’s when the fun begins. As the night progresses, the men start dancing and then play fighting, falling down all alongside each other. These are grown men, but this is the type of roughhouse play behavior expected of most kids. It is the booze that binds them together, and they are absolutely plastered on this night, as they likely are on many nights. It speaks to Blank’s talents as a filmmaker that he was able to capture them so relaxed and in their element.
Some of Dry Wood is not for the faint of heart. The day after the men have their fun, they kill and butcher a hog, while the women prepare it. At one point they saw the snout off of the hog, and later it goes into a meat grinder to later become headcheese. A baffled youngster wonders, “is this what is in headcheese?” He doesn’t like the response, and won’t admit whether he liked it or not.
Film Rating: 8
A Cultural Celebration – Taylor Hackford gives another interview and talks about how culture is cuisine. It is first infused into food, and then into music. His piece is about both sister films, with Dry Wood being about the cuisine and Hot Pepper about the subsequent music. Hackford talks about how Blank was looking for the so called “golden moments” where people are captured with their guard down. One such example is the scene where the grown men are dancing around drunk, and there are many others
HOT PEPPER, LES BLANK, 1973
Blank goes back to the well with this follow-up documentary, which is a profile of Zydeco accordion musician and “King” Clifton Chenier. It begins with him playing a concert in Lafayette, Louisiana, and this is the music that scores the film. They cut back and forth between the concert and Louisiana life, like they do in Dry Wood. The great scenes are again when people are unaware or apathetic about the camera, and do their own thing. One cute scene has a girl playing by hanging around a street sign. There are other people that just walk by, minding their own business, some working on the railroad, some going about their day.
The best scenes are the landscapes captured with the Chenier music in the background. There is one sequence that shows a beautiful country sunset, followed by a dark night with the only visible object a pair of dim headlights. This is what Blank excels at, making the mundane appear magical.
Much of Chenier’s music is upbeat, but the most beautiful song, “Coming Home,” is peaceful and serene. It is a scene that Clifton wrote for his mother before she died, yet she unfortunately never was able to hear it. You can hear the emotion in his voice as the accordion slowly and poetically follows along. Blank focuses on landscape scenes for much of this somber scene and it becomes a meditation. We see sky scenes, birds flying, and a number of engrossing landscapes. It is easy to get carried away into this world.
While Hot Pepper has its moments, it is uneven and occasionally jarring, For example, it has a lady speaking frankly and randomly above her vagina parts. The major failing is with Chenier, who is not as captivating a subject as Lipscomb or Hopkins. The only time we see him away from the stage is when he is playing on the doorstep of a house, sitting with some friends, but he does not reveal much about himself or his world view. He just plays.
ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE, LES BLANK, 1978
As one subject says midway through this celebratory documentary, New Orleans is the “city that care forgot.” By that he means that is the last place in America where someone can truly be themselves be free. They are free to dance around in public, drink, sing, shake their body, chant, or do whatever they desire.
The film begins with a slow funeral march through the street. As Allen Toussaint puts it, the march to the funeral is slow and that’s when the mourning takes place. The way back is when people cut up. Life goes on, and people enjoy themselves. The band members are the main line, and they perform the somber music on the way up, and the upbeat, party music on the way back. The second line are the dancers and singers, who give their old friend a send off with spirit and revelry.
The majority of this documentary shows people partying in various ways. There are people drinking up a storm on St. Patrick’s Day, with overhead shots showing a sea of green. People laugh and sing along Bourbon Street, hooting and hollering, meandering through the street moving to the rhythm of the music.
A Les Blank documentary would not be complete without food, so he takes a break from the partying to show the staple meals of New Orleans, red beans and rice being made. One expert talks about the proper way to eat a crawfish. You shouldn’t break open the shell, but just bite off the head and squeeze the meat into your mouth.
The title cards share a bit of history. Many of these traditions originated with slaves. Initially the owners would let them have Sundays off of work to celebrate. Eventually that permission was curbed, but slaves would find ways to get outside and enjoy themselves. Mardi Gras was a free-for-all, and that was when all slaves were allowed to celebrate. Thus begun the tradition that continues today of yearlong merriment with the party of the year every May.
Always With Pleasure ends on a high point, with the wild, rousing traditions of Mardi Gras. People march in the street. He shows people with percussion instruments, singing and dancing. Some people are dressed up for the occasion, while others are dressed in regular clothes, having fun just being there and singing along. “Ooh-na-nay!” they chant as part of a call-and-response mantra as they march along.
The main attractions are the Big Chiefs, some in pink feathers, some in white, some in blue. They even show a young kid wearing an elaborate costume in white, probably having more fun than he’d ever have in his life. These are the Indians and they are serious about their Mardi Gras presentations. They make their own costumes anew every year, and destroy them afterward. They are also always trying to outdo the other tribes. In doing so, they entertain themselves and everyone around them. New Orleans, at least some of the time, is where “care truly forgot.”
Film Rating 9/10
Lagniappe – This is a short film of 25-minutes with additional footage that was cut out of Always for Pleasure. It begins with a street band marching through Bourbon Street to a predominately white crowd, which is contrasted with much of the main feature that showcased African-Americans. We see more of musicians, like Professor Longhair, who also appeared in the main feature, who plays the shit out of some piano. A singer and guitarist do a duet together, with racy lyrics like, “if you want to feel my thigh, you gotta go up high.” Finally, there are more shots of the Indians singing. There are never enough shots of the Indians.
Celebrating a City – Interview with Maureen Gosling, who did just about everything else on this project. During the shooting, they stayed with Michael P. Smith, who was a famous New Orleans photographer. He gave Blank a lot of ideas on where to shoot. Blank was more interested in the celebrations off the beaten path, which is probably why much of the Bourbon Street parties were cut out of the main film in favor of more time with the Indians. New Orleans has parades everywhere, and they only captured a small portion of them. On the day of Mardi Gras, they spent an exhausting 10-12 hours walking down the street with heavy equipment, getting as much coverage as possible, and practically collapsed afterward.
My favorite story was how they cooked red beans and rice for people involved with the film. They even did this for special screenings. They would cook the meal and fan the scent towards the filmgoers as they watched. Their reward was they got to eat it afterwards. Now that would be the ultimate way to experience New Orleans without actually being there.
Les Blank: Always For Pleasure. Part One.
I’ll be tackling the Les Blank movies in the order they appear on the discs, which is mostly chronological. The first post is starting with four movies and their respective supplements, but it will probably be a mixture depending on the length and significance of each movie. Since there are fourteen in all, I expect about four long posts to cover the entire box set.
THE BLUES ACCORDING TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS, LES BLANK, 1970
This is actually Blank’s second musician documentary. The first is about Dizzy Gillespie, which is not included in the set. His portrait of Lightnin’ Hopkins is a fitting intro to his style. It is scored with the subject’s music, and there are a few interviews, but a lot of time is spent exploring the world in which he lives. There are scenes of people simply walking down the street, or people dancing to the music, riding horses, or doing many other activities that would not seem noteworthy to most, but fit in here.
While this is a portrait of the musician, it also explores the nature of the blues, hence the title. According to Hopkins, it is “hard to get acquainted with, just like death.” When you get a sad feeling, you can tell the world with song that you have the blues. To him and his friends, it is a deep, guttural expression of one’s misery. In one instance, he has his friend sing a blue song, who is literally crying when he sings.
These are not fake tears. The blues consumes him.
Blank just observes and listens to these people as they live through the music that is part of them.
Film Rating: 8/10
The Sun’s Gonna Shine, 1969 – This is a shorter, similar film about Lightnin’ Hopkins. It has more images of the small town of Centerville, TX set to his music. There are various, random faces, that are saying little or nothing to their camera, but they say plenty about their surroundings. For instance, there is one Gulf station employee sitting quietly and looking pensive. Blank explores the scenery more with this film, focusing on flowers, barbwire, and the landscapes. Another moving sequence is when a kid is running through sunflower fields with a guitar in his hand. He eventually reaches the train tracks and sits there. This child is behaving probably like Hopkins did at a young age.
Mister Charlie – Hopkins tells introduces and plays a song about a man whose mill burns down. This is good, singular example of how Hopkins can tell a story with a song.
Lightnin’ Les: Hopkins made up this song and performed it for Les Blank after deciding to make the documentary. They played cards the entire night before. Hopkins narrates the night and the decision making process. We know that he likely made up the words on the spot.
Making “Lightnin”: This is a brief documentary about the making of the film. They showed him the Dizzy Gillespie film to get him interested. At first he was skeptical, but they bonded over that card game. Of course Les let Lightnin’ win because the card game was not as important as the movie.
An Appreciation by Taylor Hackford – Hackford is not one of my favorite directors, but he has explored this type of filmmaking with his experience making Ray. He relates story from Ray about how Charles cared only about getting people out to their seats to dance. They gotta enjoy themselves “get drunk, dance and fuck” is what Ray said. While Lightnin’ Hopkins doesn’t say such a thing in the Blank documentary, you can tell that’s what he is going for. Hackford talks about how documentaries weren’t considered art back then, but Les Blank’s films were art and capture the essence of America.
GOD RESPECTS US WHEN WE WORK, BUT LOVES US WHEN WE DANCE, LES BLANK, 1968
This is a film about Los Angeles Elysian Park Love-in that took place in March of 1967. There is no dialogue in the film, just images of people dancing, playing, discretely engaging in drug use or sex, blowing bubbles, and just having a great time. As always, Blank’s documentaries capture a culture, and this is among the best representations of the hippie culture.
Blank is interested in the people. You see dozens up close, maybe even hundreds of them, but for short amounts of time. He gives different sorts of profile shorts; some from up front, and some from the side where they are oblivious to the camera.
The score begins with a harpsichord tunes that does not seem to fit the vibe, but it eventually transforms into hippie psychadelia. People are playing music in the park, whether as individuals (horns, whistles, saxophones) or as a collective (rock bands), but no audio from the actual event is shown on screen.
I would wager that 99% of the people captured in this film were high as a kite. He captures some of that. There are some profile images where you can just tell that someone his high by the vacant, lips widely parted stare. There are other scenes that you can tell from their behavior. There is one person who is looking at the crowd through a kaleidoscope, and then Blank’s camera captures that same visual, showing a distorted view of the people.
He primarily wants to convey the images of love, dancing and enjoyment. The movie is bookended by a brunette dancing girl wearing a red shirt and carrying flowers. Perhaps Les thought she was attractive or just that she embodied the culture. He shows her at the beginning, during the middle, and at the end. He shows a lot of signage, most of which has words of love. He shows many shots of flowers and as much dancing as possible. Probably half the film is just people dancing. In some scenes they are dancing aggressively, wearing face and body paint with hippie imagery. At other times they are dancing playfully, like when groups of people are holding hands and running around, which maybe shouldn’t be considered dancing at all. Regardless of one’s opinion of the short-lived hippie movement, Les Blank captures its essence.
Film Rating: 8/10
Flower Power, 2014 – This is a short documentary about the hippie film. Harrod Blank, Les’ son, said he filmed flowers and women his whole life. This short was originally made for a PBS station. As Skip Gerson, producer, retells, it was shown once on TV and then re-cut to the movie we know today. He said that all historical documentaries about the 60s include a shot from the Les Blank short.
SPEND IT ALL, LES BLANK, 1970
Of the documentaries I’ve seen thus far from Les Blank, this is my favorite. It is about the Cajun culture of Southwest Louisiana. The film begins with title cards telling the history of how the Acadia people from Canada were exiled from their homes and re-settled in Louisiana. They were a peaceful bunch and preferred not to fight, and that tradition continues with much of their culture intact, even if some of it has been lost to modernity.
Just about every American knows about the delectable Cajun foods, but probably few understand its culture. I thought I did, having studied some in college, but seeing it from Les Blank’s perspective taught me more than any class I could ever take.
These are people that can live off the land. They are shown engaging in numerous activities involving food, from harvesting oysters, shrimp or fish from the waters, to butchering and cooking a pig. Food is a major part of their culture. In one scene a man talks about a homemade dish of venison sausage, rabbit meat that is cooked in a red sauce and later poured over Cajun rice. He said this is their version of spaghetti.
There are two major themes to be found in this documentary. The first is that the people are kind-hearted, peaceful, and brotherly. One of them proudly says that he has “yet to meet a stranger in my life.” They watch out for each other, and most importantly play and celebrate together, and those festivities usually involve music and food of some variety.
The other theme is about the trappings of modernity. These people are unique because their land is rich enough that they did not have to work, at least not in the modern sense. One of the subjects spends his time and money participating in local horse races. He says that he makes nothing out of it, because he has to invest so much in the horses, but he is not doing it for money. He is doing it because it is what he enjoys it. That is the Cajun way – to spend your money doing what you love.
The times are changing. The older people did not have to work or go to school. They lived off the land, but many have to work out of necessity. One subject drives a bus and sells life insurance, but he still engages in the culture and celebrations on the weekends. Another is a musician that has his own music shop, but this is something he enjoys Even if it is considered working, it is something he enjoys. What he likes about Cajun culture is that they are free. He had been in prison for one day and had distaste for losing that freedom. Working for someone else is also a way of losing that freedom. He cannot think of living in downtown New York City, wearing a suit and working in an office. That would be tantamount to being in a prison.
One of the most memorable and shocking scenes is when a group of Cajuns are sitting around, getting ready to enjoy a nice meal, when one of them takes a pair of pliers and pulls his own tooth out right on camera. He spits the blood out and says “I feel better already.” The tooth had been bothering him for days. “Now I have more room in my mouth,” he says joyfully, showing that he has other dental vacancies in his mouth. Even though a lot of people would see a lack of dental care and other facilities as a shortcoming to this lifestyle, they do not seem to mind.
Film Rating: 9/10
An Appreciation by Werner Herzog – Herzog was influenced by Les Blank, specifically the Spend it All film, and he borrowed the tooth-pulling scene from one of his narrative films. He likes that Blank filmed people on the fringes of society, not in the mainstream, and you can see that Herzog has carried that tradition to a certain degree in his own documentary filmmaking. He shares one example where they were filming in Antarctica, and someone wondered how to describe and explain this place to America and elsewhere. Borrowing again from Les Blank, he said nothing needs to be explained. It can just be shown.
Blank famously shot the documentary Burden of Dreams, which is about Herzog working with Klaus Kinski on the Amazonian epic, Fitzcarraldo. Blank would just quietly observe. At one time, Herzog told Les that they were about to have an eventful scene, and Blank responded that “I’m not here to film events.”
A WELL SPENT LIFE, LES BLANK, 1970
This time Les Blank looks at another Texas blues musician, Mance Lipscomb. Mance is an engaging and peaceful interview subject, and shares some of his story. He was 75 years old and had lived his life as a farmer and sharecropper. Some time passes before we learn what a fantastic musician he is, although his music is the soundtrack the entire time. He is a friend with someone named “Peg Leg” who, as you might guess, is missing a leg.
Mance talks less about his music and more about his feelings on life. He has two Greyhound dogs, which might be considered a rich breed, but they catch rabbits, which he can then sell for $1 apiece. He said that the hunt is the fun part, so if he catches six or seven, then he gets $6-7, but for $100 worth of enjoyment.
Just like with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blank shows random scenes while the music plays. For example, one time he shows a lady just checking her mailbox. Again, he makes the ordinary look extraordinary. He shows another scene with a construction crew digging a hole to put in a telephone pole, while the lyrics from his music says “the bossman works me so hard, cannot even sleep.”
For the last 11 years Mance has been pretty free, enjoying life, able to play where he wants. It is not revealed in the documentary, but we find out from the supplements that this is due to him being discovered in 1960 and getting a record contract. Mance clearly does not see this as getting rich or successful. It is just a means to do what he enjoys.
Recalling a theme that came up in Spend it All, he talks about the trappings of modernity and the speed of life. “We living a fast life now.“ This is in the context of Mance talking about how they would play baseball in a field and make do with ordinary objects rather than using mitts and balls. This wouldn’t change how much fun they have. Today, in this fast life, the equipment is necessary and kids don’t play with it anymore. The only time we hear Blank speak is when he asks Mance to place a value on the speed of life. He responds without hesitation that the fast life is a negative thing.
Many of Mance’s musings are philosophical. He thinks and talks about his own mortality. In the final, unforgettable scene, he tells the, that “you won’t find another Mance.” He is in extreme close-up for this shot, and we see his eyes wander, ruminating on the gravity of what he just said. He then looks directly at the camera, and it freezes on him.
Film Rating: 7.5
No Man Like Mance, 2014 – This is another behind-the-scenes look at the documentary. Again, Blank captured the people and the environment as much as he did the musician. Skip Gerson said that they spent 4-5 weeks for the Cajun film and this one took 2 weeks with Mance. Mance was different than Lightnin’. He was a preserver of songs, whereas Lightnin’ made stuff up as he was going along. They did not have a plan for the documentary, but instead played it by ear. Gerson says that Blank shot a lot of film, and especially a lot of B roll, He tries to capture what resonated for him.
Meeting Mance – Chris Strachwitz, who was a friend of Blank’s and founded a Texan record label talks about meeting Mance in the 1960s. He drove out to country to find blues singers. “Do you know of guitar pickers in these parts?” They sent him to Navasota, TX. Was sent to look for “Peg Leg,” who introduced them to Mance. At first he was not crazy about Mance because he played traditional songs and not the guttural, mean blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, but the musicality was there and he gave Mance a contract. That was in 1960 and was the beginning of the 11 years that Mance speaks fondly of in the movie.