Friday, April 15, 2016

#805: A Poem Is a Naked Person

(1974, Les Blank)

It says Leon Russell's name on the cover, but A Poem Is a Naked Person might as well have "A Snake" in its place (or any one of the other myriad characters here) for all the movie is about Leon Russell. This might be chalked up simply to the style that Blank has used in his many shorts, most of which can be found on Always for Pleasure, the superb retrospective Criterion released a few years ago. But as that collection showed, Blank was more than capable of giving a subject its proper due, most notably on Sprout Wings and Fly and The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, the latter of which was likely the film that got him this for-hire gig after Russell and his business partner landed on a wild idea that was likely matched with equally impressive amounts of illegal narcotics.

The more likely reason Blank drifted away from Russell says little about the nature of Blank's talents and more about where his interests lay. Most notably, Blank was a student of tradition and the dying micro-cultures of America. Music was one of his major pursuits, and this is why his pairing with Russell made at least some sense. But Russell's primary musical success came with a very trendy at the time style of blues rock merged with gospel and country underpinnings, something that likely horrified Blank more than it interested him. It's easy to see where Blank's interests overlap with Russell's: a full George Jones acoustic performance (and a superb one at that) is given its due, as is a rousing session musician rendition of "Goodnight, Irene," a standard country song. When Blank talks to Ambrose Campbell or the man the film's press release claims to be a suspect in the famous D.B. Cooper hijacking case, you get the sense he really wishes the movie was about them, not Russell. On the other hand, Russell's concert performances are often shot haphazardly and rarely played out for more than a short beat. If you didn't know the movie was supposed to be about Russell, you wouldn't know watching the film, though you might think Blank was a little more into the guy than it seems considering he was ostensibly paid to film him.

Like Blank, I won't be taking much Leon Russell away from A Poem Is a Naked Person, despite enjoying the film very much. I have mixed feelings about Russell, who wrote some great songs and did a lot of session work for great musicians, but never seemed like much more than an average performer for his times. He was often susceptible to the common indulgences of the times both in his recordings (which are uneven) and his live performances (which are dated). Still, I do think he comes off well enough here, and as mentioned the performance of "Goodnight, Irene" that he leads is one of the highlights of the film. What's most memorable about the movie is the infusion of Oklahoma and Texas, particularly the balance of traditional conservative middle America and the offbeat revolution that was sweeping the country in the early 70s. It's wonderful to see the crowd at Willie Nelson's performance at Floore's, priceless to hear from the everyday folks coming out to see buildings get taken down in the city, and the way Blank balances it all on the precipice of art and commerce, yesterday and tomorrow, makes the film more than just a movie about someone it doesn't want to be about.

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