Gates of Heaven, 1978, Errol Morris
Early on in Gates of Heaven, one of the interview subjects gives a quote that summarizes much of the film: “The love that people have for their pets is tremendous, something that is very, very difficult to explain.” As a pet owner for most of my life, I identify with this statement. When each pet has passed, it has been a difficult period –- almost to the level of losing a family member. For some people, losing a pet is worse than losing a family member.
At a recent film festival, we saw a short film about Cherry Pop, a Fort Lauderdale show cat with wealthy owners that lived during the 1980s. Her “parents” would buy her jewels, gave her a Rolls Royce, and spoiled her to high heaven. It was estimated that they spent $1 million on this cat. It was a neat little film with archived video footage from home movies, and I can think of fewer examples of someone loving a pet as much as this family. It was ridiculous that they spent all that money, but the feeling in their hearts was genuine. When they lost Cherry Pop, they were devastated.
The opposite is also true. There are many who see animals as packages of flesh with no real purpose. Since they are not human beings, they do not deserve to be memorialized or even treated humanely. These are the types who would raise no objection about rendering a deceased pet’s remains into a raw material.
Gates of Heaven is about this dichotomy. It explores the levels of which people love and care for their pets, in this world or the next, and those who think of them as garbage that needs to be processed somewhere. It is also about more than just the pets, but how people can turn these emotional connections into business enterprises, and whether they do so out of compassion or in order to line their own pockets.
The film begins with Floyd (or “Mac” as he goes by) talking about losing his Collie to an accident. Devastated, he wanted to find a piece of land to bury the remains of his loved one. When he found the land, he had a dream and eventually it led to the creation of a pet cemetery.
Mac is a man of compassion and his business interest is more about his love and respect for the deceased animals and the families who mourn them. He lambasts the rendering companies who have no respect for the deceased. There is another interviewee who talks about people being upset when a zoo animal’s remains went to rendering company. He admits that they lied and said that they buried them.
Mac realizes that there are more economic ways to maintain a pet cemetery, but he claims that his is “not a fast buck business.” He could have efficiently dumped a number of animals into the same burial plot and that would have likely brought him more profits, but it went against his moral code. Unfortunately, because he focused too little on the business aspect, he lost his shirt and his buried pets were forcefully evicted from the cemetery.
Mac when talking about the failings of his business and any culpability: “The only thing I’m guilty of is compassion. And that’s all.”
These pets were transferred to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Contrary to Mac’s endeavor, Bubbling Well is a successful pet cemetery because it is built upon solid business practices.
While the father and two suns that run Bubbling Well see it more as a business, does that mean it is exploitative? That is up to the viewer’s interpretation. There is one scene where a couple are putting to rest their loved dog Caesar. They are memorializing him with the patriarch of the business, Cal Harberts. He asks to see a picture of Caesar and compliments the dog for having such a gorgeous coat. He then talks about what great pets mixed breeds make. His tone is respectful and it comforts the mourning couple, but you have to wonder whether it is genuine. It could be superficial and a variation of what he says to every client, or he could have been playing to the cameras. Mac would share similar words, but we can imagine that he may emotionally empathize more with his clients.
Harberts leaves the operating of the business to his two kids, Phil and Dan. Dan dresses in 1970s, post-hippie fashion, and aspires to be a rock star. He admits that he partied during college, yet feels that he learned things and gives an odd explanation as to why, which shows that he basically did not learn. His brother Phil is his opposite. He has experience in the insurance industry and has good business sense. He compliments himself on his great memory and how it is necessary for the business that he uses it to keep up with all his veterinarian contacts. When he speaks, he is all either business or affirmation. He wants to even expand the business, and when talking about his father’s success, “he read the same textbooks as me.”
Phil is creative. He builds a “Garden of Honor,” which is a resting place for service dogs, whether they are police or seeing eye dogs, and they are buried for no price. Other owners can bury their pets in the same section, but at a higher price because of the prestigious land.
Bubbling Well still exists today. Here is a recent article the facility and its history.
Dan is neither Phil, Cal or Mac, and his appearance towards the end gives this documentary an extra quirk (although it has plenty, mostly from interviews of pet owners). He really is a slacker. We see him in his apartment listening to psychedelic music, presumably his own. He writes songs and longs to have them heard, but realizes that as time passes, that dream is fading.
The interviews with pet owners and snapshots of their interactions, like the memorable singing owner and dog, offer little to the narrative, but they are what gives the documentary its flavor. They recall the statement I began this write-up with, that people inexplicably love their pets. One lady says that she wants her pet buried because she believes they will be together again. In a sentiment that Mac would agree with, Mrs. Harberts says that the “at the Gates of Heaven, an all compassionate God is not going to say ‘Well, you’re walking in on two legs, you can go in. You’re walking in on four legs, we can’t take you.”
Film Rating: 7/10
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, 1980, Les Blank
The bet was that Morris would not be able to complete Gates of Heaven or Werner Herzog would eat his shoe. This documentary is Herzog living up to his end of the bargain, with help from friends such as culinary goddess, Alice Waters, and of course the documentarian, Les Blank.
The documentary is in typical Les Blank style. It begins with upbeat music, photography that focuses on a weird object (Herzog’s walking shoe), and of course food.
After preparing the shoe Cajun style, and boiling it for 5 hours, he proclaims the shoe edible. Herzog says that he has survived Kentucky Fried Chicken so he can handle this. Does he eat the shoe? Sort of. They cleverly intercut the famous Chaplin shoe-eating scene from The Gold Rush. He does eat the shoe, but not the sole, comparing it to the bones of a chicken.
Back to the topic of this post. Herzog is proud of Morris for making the film. While eating the shoe is foolish, he is proud that it was a motivator.
Film Rating: 8/10
Herzog at Telluride: “You can make films with your guts alone.” This is a very short clip where he complements Gates of Heaven as a very fine film that was made with no money and only guts.
Errol Morris: October, 2014 interview.
Just like with The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris proves to be an excellent interview subject.
He tells a funny story about how Douglas Sirk, a director that he respected tremendously, walked out of his movie. “This isn’t a movie. This is a slideshow.” And then he said, “There’s a danger that this film could be perceived as ironic.” What?
Morris doesn’t remember Herzog saying he would eat his shoe, and minimized the influence of that “bet.” He claims he was more inspired by Herzog’s films.
Wim Wenders saw a very rough cut, one that they were worried wouldn’t fit into the projector. He said it was a masterpiece. That was the first positive review. It was very encouraging of course. Siskel and Ebert followed suit and loved it. They were known to fight with each other, but in the case of Morris’ film, they fought about how good it was. They reviewed it three times and put it on best of year list. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you, Gene.”
This is a two-film disc with Vernon, FL, which will be discussed next.
Les Blank: Always For Pleasure. Final Thoughts.
Over the last month or so, I have tackled the terrific Criterion box set, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure. It consists of fourteen main features, countless supplements, and various other short films. It is a treasure of riches, as Blank takes us through Cajun country, up to Northern California, across the country to the Blue Ridge Mountains, up north to New England, back to California, Louisiana, and ending with a spiritual celebration in New York City. In the process we experience various different cultures, foods, music, and vibrant characters that are so far fetched that they cannot be made up. Les Blank’s world is about as far from the mainstream as possible, but it is about living life to the fullest, enjoying the simple things, and respecting traditions.
How can I summarize such a journey? I really cannot, as I’ve already written nearly 10,000 words as I rode along. You can read them here:
As a recap, I’ll look at the different types of topics that Les Blank explored, and how his vision was unique compared to so many others.
Today it seems like most musicians and bands with a fan base have their own documentary. They are relatively easy to put together thanks to DIY independent film avenues and crowdfunding like Kickstarter. The larger the band, the larger the production, and the sales are nearly guaranteed. Most of these documentaries fall into one of two categories: the career narrative and the concert film. While some can be extremely good, such as somewhat recent documentaries on Rush, Metallica and Big Star, but they follow the same formula. They talk about the band’s origins, their success, breakup, and aftermath. They show concert footage and talking head interviews with anyone and everyone they can find. Many of these are inspired by VH1’s Behind the Music more than filmmakers like Les Blank or D.A. Pennebaker, and that’s a shame.
In many ways, Les Blank was a pioneer of the music documentary, and in other ways he was completely isolated from the genre, on his own island. He started with Dizzy Gillespie (which is not on the disc), and from there, he found some blues artists in Texas and Louisiana. He ventured further away from the Deep South, and covered artists that would not be found at the top of a music chart or featured on MTV. He wasn’t interested in only the musician, but also the way that they lived, the place and culture that molded them, and, perhaps most importantly, the affect they had on others. The one common thread among all of his musical documentaries is people could dance to the music. The people who experienced and enjoyed the music were just as essential to the documentary as the musician and the music.
Les Blank’s music work predated MTV, VH1, and Kickstarter, although it eventually caught up and he worked concurrently with the transformation of audio to video. He undoubtedly saw the musical documentaries from Pennebaker, Scorsese, Demme, and others, and you would think those would influence his style. Nope. From the first documentary on the disc, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1968 to the final documentary, Sworn to the Drum, very little had changed. He had as much interest in how and where Hopkins grew up as he did Francisco Aguabella. He could not travel to Cuba to understand Aguabella, but if it were politically possible, he unquestionably would have. It is no coincidence that both of these documentaries are just about a half an hour long, feature the artist’s music as the soundtrack, show people dancing to the music, and explores the roots and ideologies that make them express themselves through sound.
Again, Les Blank was a pioneer when it came to documentaries about food. Unlike with music documentaries, food via the mass media found a home almost exclusively on television. Blank probably had more influence than he gets credit for, since it was the Cajun cuisine that became a large part of cooking television. One of his subjects, Paul Prudhomme, even had his own short-lived series on Public TV during the nineties. Other personalities like Emeril Lagasse and Justin Wilson also became Cajun celebrity chefs. As Blank demonstrated, Cajun cuisine is delectable, and until the 1990s, was virtually unexplored as a mass consumer cuisine. Today you can get Cajun food everywhere, but not the type of food that Les Blank’s subjects cooked.
Food was such a central subject with his documentaries, that it comes as a surprise that only two of the films on the disc were specifically about cuisine. He explored garlic with Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and Cajun in Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking. Despite it not being the sole subject, food is a large part of most of his documentaries. For musicians, he wants to know what they eat in addition to where they live. When he looks at cultures like Cajun or Polish-American, he spends a lot of time with their foods of choice. Even with Tommy Jarrell in Sprout Wings and Fly, he has a scene at the dinner table where they serve traditional southern food.
Les Blank loved food and it showed. In the supplements, we learned that he would run around movie theaters with aromatic dishes prior to a screening to add another layer of immersion to the experience. Can you imagine watching a movie about New Orleans while smelling red beans and rice? What about Ten Mothers while sniffing the strong scent of garlic? Even though I watched all of these movies without the hint of an aroma, I felt like I could taste and smell all of the food. And it was good …
Even though each documentary had a subject, Les Blank’s films were just about the way people lived. Whether they were laborers in the middle of Texas, hippies in California, or country folk living in the mountains, we got to see what they did, how they behaved, and we heard their thoughts and ideas on life. As I reflect on this boxset, I think back to the early documentaries where he shows gorgeous landscapes, stunning sunsets, or just people wandering to and fro. People fascinated Blank, and that fascination was not restricted to his subject. He was enthralled by people running in a field just as much as he was a crazy actor arguing with a director (from Burden of Dreams about Herzog and Kinski, which was not on the set), or an old musician talking about playing baseball in the fields as a kid.
Food and music were just two examples of the many outlets people found to enjoy life. The Maestro dedicated his life to painting hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces, not for economic benefit, but for his own passion. Blank loved to show people that were proud of something, whether it was a distinctive physical imperfection like a gap between two front teeth, or people who tried to compete with each other by wearing the best costumes at Mardi Gras. He showed people having a good time however they could. It doesn’t matter whether people were poor and lived in small Texan towns, or if they were doctors and lawyers that wanted to dance polka for a week, there was a smile on their face. If a nagging tooth gets in the way, then just pull it out and enjoy life.
Thanks Les Blank for showing us your world.
Box Set Rating: 9/10
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.
Les Blank, Always for Pleasure, Part Three.
GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS, LES BLANK, 1980
In my opinion, the best filmmakers are the ones that continually challenge themselves. Too many get comfortable making a variation of the same film repeatedly, with diminishing results. While Les Blank’s early documentaries that centered on Louisiana and Texas were brilliant, he was wise to move along and venture into new territory. While the results were not always as good as his best early work, he had a way of picking fascinating and unusual topics.
He ventured north and west for his take on … you guessed it — garlic. He uses song to set the stage for this wacky documentary, with the lyrics “Garlic is the Spice of Life … Add Garlic in your Life.”
The subject is northern California, where there was a burgeoning garlic culture. He uses a similar format as his Louisiana films, most notably Always for Pleasure, to explore the culture, geography and finally the process of producing garlic.
My primary quibble here with Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers is that it focuses a little too much on the culture and less on the production, which unfortunately is reduced to a few minutes toward the end of the movie. Blank could have interspersed images of the production as he did so successfully with his earlier cultural and musical films. He has an eye for making something ordinary like food production look extraordinary. Instead, the culture dominated much of the early part of the feature. He shows people like the gentleman in the image above, people who think that garlic has spiritual or aphrodisiac powers. One guy even mutters that if you eat enough garlic, you’ll feel high. Some of the culture elements seem to be exaggerated to make them seem as grandiose as Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans, which of course is ridiculous.
He struck the appropriate balance with food. Les Blank just cannot fail at showing great food and making us hungry, even if it’s for the so-called ‘Stinking Rose.’ Some of the finest scenes were when people were preparing and cooking dishes with garlic. The scenes of Bastille Day at Chez Panisse restaurant are some of the best in the movie, where chef Alice Waters dedicates the day garlic-themed dishes. Near the end she makes a delectable version of chicken pot pie packed with vegetables and, of course, loads of garlic.
This was a good attempt for Les Blank to relocate his style on a fringe, niche culture. It was my least favorite of the set so far, but it had potential, and I can tell from a later film that it was useful as a stepping stone.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
For the Love of Garlic: – This was a 2014 re-visitation with the people involved, including Alice Waters and Maureen Gosling. They talk about how much Les Blank loved garlic. He would keep it in his pocket and shave it into his food. Waters reveals that after seeing the film later, she realized that she was not cooking the chicken dish correctly. Gosling talks about how they inserted the cultural content before the production deliberately, which I think was a mistake. Waters reveals that Les ran through a theater preview with sautéed garlic so it would have smell, which we know he also did with Always with Pleasure. Waters likes to do the same with her restaurant.
Remembering Les – This is a conversation with Alice Waters and Tom Luddy, who reflected on their decades long friendship with Blank. Luddy saw his brilliance in filmmaking with the first few films, while Waters saw how special he was at showing the cooking of food. Waters does most of the talking here and shares some interesting anecdotes, like one time where Les took her out onto the bayou on a boat and randomly jumped in the water.
SPROUT WINGS AND FLY, LES BLANK, 1983
The Blue Ridge area is special to me, as I’ve spent many a day up in those gorgeous and tranquil hills, escaping from the hustle and bustle from city life, if only for a moment. For that reason, I thought that my impression of Blank’s foray to the Carolinas would be colored by my bias, but the opposite turned out to be the case.
Tommy Jarrell is as country as they come. He was born in 1901 on the Carolina slope of the Blue Ridge. He lives near the small town of Toast, NC, which is not far from the larger (but still not very big) city of Mount Airy, NC. He is a fiddler, but not just any other fiddley. The old man can play with a vigor of a man 30-40 years younger, and his talents are continually on display in this documentary. He begins with the title song “Sprout Wings and Fly” and the film ends with him playing with impassioned fury at a southern musical festival.
Tommy is a character, as is to be expected from a Blank documentary. He is as southern as they come, with an accent so thick that at times his words are unintelligible. Subtitles are a must. He tells various stories, some jubilant and fun, others bleak and about loss, whether friends, relatives, or others. Some of the stories do not make as much sense as others, but listening to them being told is half the enjoyment.
Drinking is prominent in this feature. As one person says, they had good mountain water, so they made good whiskey, and that helped them make good music. They make their own whiskey and drink their fair share of it, although Tommy never does appear inebriated, although I expect he was much of the time.
Like most of the Les Blank films that preceded “Wings,” there is food, albeit not as much. Their meal consists of meat, chicken, potatoes, cornbread, basically standard southern fare.
While the subject is just as compelling as most in Blank’s films, I was left slightly disappointed. Perhaps it is because he showed so much ordinary scenery in the Louisiana and Texas films and made it look extraordinary. Conversely, the Blue Ridge scenery, which I know is stunning from my own adventures, is limited in appearance. He shows his share of flower, vegetation, and water streams, but there are not many mountain shots. Toast is in a valley, which may be why, but I feel that they should have captured the surrounding, majestic landscape that the people lived under.
The ending credits are a lot of fun. Someone asks Tommy “who is making the film?” and he points to Les, who he says is from California. He then points to Alice who he says “is at the head of this thing.” He is then asked if they got a grant. Yes, he responds, but he doesn’t ask where the government money comes from. As he is talking about it, they show the list of donors that made the picture possible.
Film Rating: 6.5
My Own Fiddle: My Visit With Tommy Jarrell, 1994 – This is a short documentary that was filmed at the same time as Sprout. It gives more background information on Tommy’s life, including many older pictures. He talks about his upbringing and his large family. Most is shot in the same style as the main feature, with music, flowers, and other nature shots. One of the better shots was one that shows a bee pollinating a flower. It ends with someone in a museum giving him a Stradivarius violin and asking him to play it. He manages a good tune, but says that it is not worth the price. Meanwhile, Blank juxtaposes European images from the museum with this distinctly southern music. Film Rating: 7.5/10
Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge, 1991 – This is another short, companion feature, although the subject is Tommy’s sister Julie. Her brother’s music is the background as she talks about her life. She was born in 1902, married in 1921, and had 10 children. She sings acapella, mostly ballads and love songs. She talks about her life working in the tobacco factory, and much of the documentary is about her singing. She has a good voice for her age, and she is an interesting subject, but her story does not pack the same punch as Tommy’s. Film Rating: 5/10
An Elemental Approach – Cece Conway and Alice Jarrard were co-directors of this film. They loved Tommy Jarrell and the project was their idea. They raised money and convinced Blank to do it, but reluctantly. He took longer to edit the film. This seems apparent to me having seen it. While it is a good documentary, it does not have the characteristic Les Blank Passion. The ladies say they intentionally started the story with subjects of death, then water, and finally earth. They say that Tommy drank a lot and didn’t eat well, but worked hard, and that is why they thought he was so healthy at that age.
IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER, LES BLANK, 1984
I mentioned above how Les Blank had successfully transplanted his Louisiana and Texas formula to other unique subjects. His documentary about polka is the finest example thus far, and rivals the best of his Louisiana documentaries. Unlike with garlic, which is more of a fringe counterculture, he finds a burgeoning, popular polka in northeastern Polish-Americans. Like with the Mardi Gras participants, the polka fans also drink, dance, and enjoy themselves. The film starts with the title song, “In Heaven There is No Beer,“ which follows with the lyrics “That’s why we drink it here. And when we’re all gone from here, our friends will be drinking all the beer.” Yes, they drink a lot of beer.
Why polka? Everyone interviewed for the film gave nearly the same response. They did it to unwind, to relax, and escape from the grind of their daily lives. Many were blue-collar, but there were also white-collar professionals, including doctors. On the polka dance floor they would truly let go. Some would go further than others. One shot shows an elderly man dancing alone on a beach in his underwear, while there is another couple that does an acrobatic dance where they kick their legs out in unison.
The film covers all facets of polka culture, including the various artists that had a following like Frank Yancovik (not related to Weird Al) and Little Wally, both of whom were polka recording artists. They cover multiple locations, including Buffalo, Connecticut, Milwaukee, and other places that have prominent Polish populations. Even if things vary somewhat from city to city, the vibe is the same. They loved the upbeat music, loved to dance, and loved to drink. Even if the drinking was minimized in the film’s message, there were lots of shots of people lining up at beer stands. Even if it was not on screen, and many times it was, beer was omnipresent in the film.
Much of the film focused on Polkabration, an annual festival on Ocean Beach in CT. Dick Pillar, a polka musician, started it at first as a weekend of performing and dancing. It grew up to a week, and then they started adding days because people would come early. They settled at 11 days, which was the longest that the band could feasibly play. People would come from all over the country to enjoy in the festivities, and it still exists today. A good portion of the polka dancing shots came from the beach festival.
In addition to just showing people enjoying themselves, they give the background and origins. Polka is an international genre. It is not necessarily German, Czech, Polish, French, but it is from all of these areas, and all have their own different versions of polkas. The Polish version has become popularized in America, and subsequently has achieved a large following overseas. European polka had been fading, mostly due to the political turmoil of the 20th century. The Polish had been occupied for 120 years and their culture subdued, but when away from the political constraints and expression is allowed, they were and are prideful and jubilant. Polka is one of the major expressions of this culture (and the easiest to highlight on film), but is one of many. Of course there is food like sausage or “keeshka”, Polish chicken, and other dishes that Les Blank is happy to give plenty of attention.
Like with Always with Pleasure, Les Blank truly captures and a distinct and small, but passionately and enthusiastically celebrated culture. Even though I am not a polka fan, as I am not a zydeco fan, through Blank’s representation, I found myself toe-tapping and understanding why people dedicate themselves so zealously.
Film Rating: 9/10
Polka Happiness – This is a 2014 interview with Chris Simon who worked with Blank. The idea for the film came entirely from Les, which I think shows compared with Sprout Wings and Fly. Simon took a class on polka and her instructor appeared in the movie, alongside many other interesting people that they would pull out of the crowd. One example was the older dancer, and to the opposite extreme was a young girl who wanted to carry a boom box blasting polka image. Now there’s an image for you.
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.