Thursday, November 12, 2015

#737: Les Blank: Always for Pleasure

(Les Blank, 1968-1995)

The best parts of Les Blank's films are when no one is talking. In these moments, people cook, dance, sing, smile, play instruments, walk through nature. The buildings hum with their unique histories, bound by their American essence; a run down house with a man playing guitar on the porch stoop; a simple roadside tavern ignited by a neon sign advertising the music within; farms and tents; kitchens and living rooms; an occasional store selling records or repairing instruments or making sausage. Parades go by. Meals are prepared by the pound. The omniscient narrator (who never learns to talk) is distracted by another song or good soup on the stove.

The themes of music and food are consistent throughout Blank's 14 films collected on Always for Pleasure (along with a handful of shorts and some extras covering his career). Even in a film like Gap-Toothed Women, which explores conventional ideas of beauty, Blank can't help but home in on an apple or an artist's portrait of musicians. But Blank is most at home filming the musicians themselves, who make up the vast majority of individuals he profiles here and even crop up in films that are ostensibly about something else like garlic or gumbo. He no doubt does this because of his own interest in music (and it's worth noting his connection to the Lomax family, as John's son and Alan's brother John Jr. introduced him to Lightnin' Hopkins and Alan's daughter Anna helped edit on a few of his films), but it's also a conscious decision to make the various elements of each culture he explores inextricably linked, thereby creating a fuller picture of the specific element he's highlighting. Other elements, such as fashion, marriage, work, and friendship, come up frequently as well. But the two constants throughout are music and food.

Blank's films get more conventional as the set goes on, with his last few films featuring significantly more talking and something that approaches mainstream documentary storytelling. Yet there are unique charms to each of his films, while they all retain Blank's singular perspective. A relatively lyrical film like A Well-Spent Life crackles with the same energy as In Heaven There Is No Beer?, which could be a (still fairly quirky) PBS special, and both are equally enjoyable, even as the silences begin to come less frequently and with more action to fill up the space.

The biggest issue here is, of course, the cultural tourism label that has also dogged the Lomax family as their legacy has grown. Blank comes from a well-off family in Florida, but the bulk of his subjects, particularly in his early films, are poor country people, often black, dotting the backwaters of Louisiana. As someone who is unfamiliar with that world, it's impossible to know how "right" Blank got it, but his work here never feels disrespectful and always seems aware of his outsider status. Certainly a film made by someone of each culture would deliver a richer and truer portrait of its subject in both form and content. But this doesn't make Blank's perspective any less valuable, because for the vast majority of people his camera is the placeholder for our own forays into the world he is filming. We would dwell on the pig being slaughtered just as Blank does; we might delight in the tall tales and idealize the easy (hard) living of the Cajuns ourselves; we get caught up in the colors and sounds of Carnival in New Orleans to an even greater degree than Blank's camera.

Ultimately, Blank's career was spent documenting isolated American cultures at the dawn of mass media. While the pockets Blank highlights remain, their window to the outside world has grown larger and their choice to remain separate from the greater culture has become more conscious. The moments depicted in Blank's film already seem mournful and urgent, begging for a few more minutes with this time that might never come back. Just as he filmed a broad range of musicians at the twilights of their careers and lives, the music played and the food cooked feels short for this Earth, even as it seems like it has existed forever. America's future is homogeneous and bright, so it's best to get a good look before the past and present are gone.

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