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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

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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

Supplements:

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

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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

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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

Supplements:

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.

Criterion: Down By Law, Jim Jarmusch, 1986

The Tom Waits lyric of it’s a “Sad and Beautiful World” originated a Roberto Benigni misunderstanding of the line, but it fit better and they chose to keep it. As it turns out, this line of dialogue encapsulates and can be thought of as a conclusion to the movie. The characters find sadness, misfortune, and beauty throughout their travels.

Down By Law is Jim Jarmusch’s third film, although he would argue that the first one, Permanent Vacation, didn’t count since he was young and had no idea what he was doing. His 1986 effort has a number of similarities with his second film, Strangers in Paradise, which turned out to be his breakthrough. A significant difference is that he had $100,000 to make that film, whereas he had over a million for the follow-up. He made the most out of his money for both movies, as they both look better than most similarly budgeted independent productions of the time. In fact, Down By Law looks far better than many more expensive films. Jarmusch was always good at making the most out of his limited resources, which was a skill that would continue throughout his career.

Like Stranger than Paradise, there are three central characters that become companions based on circumstance and whim. Two of the actors were talented musicians that were popular in independent/alternative music circles. John Lurie was a member of the Lounge Lizards, and Tom Waits was … well, he was Tom Waits – basically an icon of his genre. Both are good actors, and you can tell they have good chemistry together. One of the better scenes with the two was when they are both in a jail cell and Lurie’s Jack gets Wait’s Zack to demonstrate his DJ abilities. To Jack, who was a grimy pimp in New Orleans, being on the radio was another world, and he takes a liking to his cellmate.

Both men are innocent in a sense, victims of a vindictive setup by someone in their life. They had the intent to commit crimes, and Jack’s profession was a criminal. Zack was simply down on his luck and would do anything to make a buck. He encounters Roberto in an early scene, where he is playing music and lamenting being thrown out by his girlfriend. That’s when the “Sad and Beautiful World” song occurs.

Jack and Zack are not the ideal prison cellmates. While they initially find common ground and friendship, that devolves into animosity and anger. They get sick of each other quickly. They fight. Fortunately a new cellmate interrupts their bickering. Roberto is the same person who encountered Zack earlier, although neither of them men make that connection. Roberto is not innocent, but you could argue that he was justified in his crime and that it was self defense.

Roberto, played by the young, exuberant and affable Roberto Benigni that Hollywood would fall in love with 10 years later and then forget in 20 years. He basically plays himself here, an Italian immigrant who has very little command of the English language. Roberto is engaging and plays intermediary between his cellmates. Roberto, a stranger to the country, is the one who initiates action. Jack and Zack have little ambition. It is fitting for their characters that they would later pedal around in circles when Roberto, who cannot swim and is petrified of water, is helpless to guide them. Benigni continues to guide them, even catching food, which at first the quarrelling friends are too stubborn to eat. He is the one who takes the initiative to enter the only building they encounter, while the other two wait outside for something to happen. They are literally lost and out in the woods without him.

Down By Law is a more accomplished and mature film than Stranger than Paradise. It is clear that Jarmusch has learned a great deal in the intervening two years where he first achieved success. The beauty is thanks to the gorgeous Louisiana locations and the cinematography of Robby Müller. He had previously worked with Wim Wenders on his major works, including The Road Trilogy and Paris, TX. As we learn in the supplements, Jarmusch gave him the freedom and respect to shoot as he desired, and the end product was mesmerizing. There are many examples of some great shots, but the one that stuck with me was when the trio are running through a tunnel/sewer that’s light is textured by mirroring shadows of the shimmering water.

Because of the excellent photography, the performances (especially Roberto Benigni), Down By Law is among the best of Jarmusch’s work.

Film Rating: 9/10

Supplements:

Audio from Jim Jarmusch. It is unusual to have a lengthy speaking track on a Criterion disc that is not a commentary track. This supplement has Jarmusch discussing the film with only his picture on the screen. Perhaps he just doesn’t like audio commentaries, as he is a little picky with how his films are represented. At a 1:15 running time, this was a little much to get through.

Robby Muller Interview. He talks about his collaboration with Jarmusch. The only direction he got was that “it’s just a fairy tale” and he made Louisiana his canvas. He was allowed to follow his instincts. One surprising portion of the interview was that, of all the director’s he’s worked with, he has the most respect for Jarmusch. They had a long collaboration, but he has also worked with directors like Wenders, Von Trier, Friedkin, Winterbottom, and others.

Cannes Film Festival Press Conference. This was an interesting press conference because they revealed some details about the film, yet also it was something to see Jarmusch interact with the audience, some of whom asked terrible questions. He said so at times, and refused to answer. One of the most hilarious questions was near the end of the conference. Someone asked whether they felt the film was too long. They also asked whether they felt Paris, TX was too long. The questioner sais that while she enjoyed the film, she fell asleep during the early portion, partly because she had seen numerous films during Cannes. Jarmusch didn’t take the bait about whether his film was too long, and didn’t seem to take offense either. He shrugged it off. As for Paris, TX, he wouldn’t be so bold to re-imagine a work he respected. He said that if anything, he would make it longer, and snipped that “you would have fallen asleep earlier during my version.”

During the interview he sticks to his guns as a true independent spirit. He was not interested in big budget films, and has mostly stayed true to that in the years since (although Only Lovers Left Alive had a large budget). At the time he had already been offered larger budget projects, and had been offered larger budgets for his own projects, but he did not believe in having more money just to have it. He felt the cost should be dictated by the content of the movie.

While a lot of the attention was dedicated to Jarmusch, Roberto Benigni got his share. He was just as as hammy and energetic as we’d see during the Oscars for Life is Beautiful, although his command of the English language was not as strong.

John Lurie Interview. This was a short interview and Lurie looks tired, yet was frank and revealing about how it was on set, and what his career was like. He was offered lots of parts and turned them down, which was fortunate because a lot of them turned out to be bad movies. Like Jarmusch, he had an independent spirit and wanted to work on the right project, whether it was in film or music.

John Lurie Commentary on his interview. It was funny that he even did this. Years later, Lurie did a commentary track for this short interview. “Who is that guy?” he asked. He shows some self consciousness as he reflects on his younger self, and a little bit of embarrassment because he had been up all night when giving the interview and it showed.

Deleted scenes. The majority of these scenes were deleted for good reason. There were only a couple that really added much to anything. There was one where Zack is complaining about being innocent to a fellow prisoner in a nearby cell. The prisoner responds with laughter. “I’m fucking innocent!” he says, although obviously he isn’t. He is mocking Zack, who really was not innocent. He was just set-up.

There was another scene where Roberto is trying to coax Jack back from stewing after a fight with Zack. He had just cooked the rabbit and was using it to lure Jack back. “Buzz off!” Jack says, recalling the earlier scene where Zack says the same thing to Roberto.

It’s All Right With Me. This was a Tom Waits cover of a Cole Porter songs. Jarmusch directed the music video. It was a little more experimental than his cinematic work. It had jarring camera movements with Waits dancing in his own way.

Jarmusch Audio Q&A: This was more interesting than the audio conversation because the questions were better. It was the same format, with Jarmusch’s picture on screen as he talks. We finally learned to pronounce Jarmusch’s last name. Another answer was that Tom Waits was not drunk, which means he’s a good actor. They had some wild times while not filming. Jarmusch laid down the law and wouldn’t let drugs or drink on set, but didn’t try to control what happened off set. Influenced both by French New Wave (Godard, Rivette) and NY Punk scene, which he grew up in, and that shows. He talks about books and music that he’s into, and is very literate, very well read, and ensconced in independent pop culture of the day. This contributes to the quality and cynicism found in his films. He’s a punk, but a smart one.

Telephone conversations: This is more of a novelty, as Jarmusch calls the three leads and records their conversations. Roberto is shot out of a cannon, just like he always is. Hardly spoke English during the filming, but speaks well now. John Lurie and Jarmusch name dropped all the music they saw down there, most of which I’ve never heard of. Jarmusch cannot watch the movie, which may explain why he chose not to record a commentary.

This is a great film and stacked release with plenty extras. The only thing lacking is a commentary. I’m tempted to give this one a perfect score, but I cannot justify giving that to any release without a commentary.

Criterion Rating: 9.5/10