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.