The Quiet American

Celebrating the career of film-maker, Les Blank
by Gordon Campbell

A few weeks ago, the great documentary film-maker Les Blank died at his home in Berkeley from bladder cancer, which he attributed to a three-packs-a – day cigarette habit he gave up in his 40s. He was 77. In person, Blank had an almost balefully shy manner. His unblinking quietness could be intimidating, yet it made him usefully invisible. It was sometimes hard to tell if Blank’s subjects consciously developed a tremendous amount of trust in him, or whether they simply forgot he was there.

Whatever the chemistry involved, there was no mistaking a Les Blank film. Some were about music and some were about food, and most were about both at once. He made a point of celebrating not merely the art, but the communal culture that (literally) sustained it, all of it interwoven ( partly thanks to long-time editor Maureen Gosling ) with romanric flair and wry good humour. Yet there was always a serious foundation as well. As an obituary in the New Yorker suggested, it probably wasn’t accidental that the film that first got Blank interested in making movies was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which Death plays a leading role. As the New Yorker added, a dancer Blank once interviewed (for his film about women with gaps in their teeth) managed to sum up her own worldview in a way that fitted him equally as well :

I’m two years out from acute in remission from acute leukemia. I read the magazines about people [who say] “I got cancer and then my life fell into place.” Well, that’s a bunch of trash. I mean my life is still in the state that everyone else’s is—searching for what works for you, searching for what really means something to you. And it is a day-to-day struggle. It’s not something that falls into place when you are threatened with death. And I think that just being aware of your own mortality creates a poignant romance in your life. You know? It’s like this could be the last day that I’m around. And there was always, “What if I strained my ankle,” or “What if I get a scar on my stomach?” But hey, that little scar on your stomach? What’s that to death? It frees you up from those things. You get stepped on by a horse? Fine. You got a scar on your leg, oh well. You got a gap between your teeth? Hey, no problem. I started looking at myself as a young person now and thinking of myself as getting older and saying, “Hey, I might get gray hair! I might get arthritis or something. I might have wrinkles. I’ll be old. God, won’t that be neat!” It’s kind of, “Hey, this is going to be great.” Instead of, “Oh my God,” and there’s another one there! You see yourself in the mirror. “Should I get them straightened?” What are you going to do? So you dance and you love life and you do what you need to do to survive, and I think that that’s all there is. That’s really all that there is.

During the early years of the NZ International Film Festival, Les Blank’s films were a regular attraction, and they played a big part in the Festival finding its feet. “He was the first really exciting guest we had in my time at the festival,” says current Festival director Bill Gosden. “Those films helped to define the times, to some degree.” From the outset, Blank focussed on the musicians from the backroads and regional niches of Amertican culture who had managed to escape what he once described to me as the “ big suburban blandout.” He started out making films about the Texas blues singers Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe, made two terrific films about the ballads and the dance halls of the Texas/Mexican border (Chulas Frontreras and Del Mero Corazon) and three films about the Creole/Cajun people of the Lousiana bayou, the region where he’d done his schooling.

There were more. He shot films about an Appalachian fiddler, about a tattoo attist, about the Polish diaspora that created American polka music, about the Wild Tchipoutalas Indians of New Orleans and its Mardi Gras…There was also a film about the charms of garlic, and the film devoted to women with a gap between their front teeth ( In medieval times, Blank discovered, a gap between the front teeth was believed to allow moonlight to enter the soul.) There was also a virtually unseen rock’n’roll film called A Poem Is A Naked Person about the musician Leon Russell and his entourage, which Russell took legal action to prevent from being shown to the general public.

Most famously of all, Blank made two films about the German film director Weerner Herzog. The short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe delivered exactly what the title promises, as it filmed the consequences of Herzog losing a bet. The 1982 feature length documentary Burden of Dreams traced Herzog’s journey to the edge of madness in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, as he struggled to finish his film Fitzcarraldo. Blank’s film recorded Herzog’s Peruvian folly in all of its many astonishing and disturbing facets – including the director’s mental disintegration under the weight of his self-inflicted trials. A brilliant key scene, in which Herzog raves about the depravity of nature can be seen here.

A lot of people ended up thinking Blank’s doco was better than the Fitzcarraldo epic that had inspired it. Blank and Herzog were somewhat alike, in that both were attracted to larger than life characters – Herzog to do battle with them overtly onscreen, Blank to package them invisibly for our response. As Blank said to me in the course of a 1980s interview, he refused to judge Herzog, either in the film or outside it. “I don’t make films for grade school children. The context, the issues are all in the film. You have to see both films [Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams] and figure it for yourself. Whether it was worthwhile is up to you, not me.”

Right. But in his Tex-Mex films he’d been upfront about the oppression faced by border people. What about the impact on the jungle Indians from being sucked into the modern cash economy of the film set….? “No one knows that [impact],” Blank replied. Sure, some effect was going to be inevitable. “This stuff has no easy answer,” he insisted. “ What can you do? You either go in and pay normal rates for labour, which would be gross exploitation, or pay more, which gets their values screwed around.” When further pressed, Blank cited the one shot in Burden of Dreams he was most proud of : an ant carrying a red parrot feather five times its size, up, around and back down a piece of wood. “You‘ve seen an Indian kill the parrot and cut off its wings. As the ant goes back and forth, a bird called a wizwinchi makes a very haunting, melodic sound.” This happened, Blank added, “just after Herzog has made his very Richard III soliloquy about the horrors of the jungle, the vileness of nature and lack of order and harmony in creation.”

Was making movies like life? Given his low-key personality, Blank could easily slip in and out of the lives of his subjects with barely a ripple. At a human level though, that privileged access had its painful aspects for him. It is a feeling common to any documentary film -maker, to any journalist – of identification on one hand, alienation on the other. You leave, their lives go on. On the Clifton Chenier film, Blank told me by way of example, he had eaten, slept, walked the fields behind the plough and become one as much as he could. “But finally…That’s one of the most painful things you can think as you’re making a movie, that you might be finally just a distant observer to them, and nothing more.”

If we’re honest, that same ambivalence – are we participants in and champions of this art, or cultural tourists – is something the audience finally has to consider as well. From the Mississippi Delta to the Andes, the poor have made works of beauty out of generations of hardship and oppression. Can you regret the loss of such artistry without wishing an end to the conditions that created it ? It can be a tough call. Near the end of my conversation with him, I mentioned a crack made by a friend who once described Blank as “politically liberal, but with conservative instincts.” How then did he feel about the way social change was sweeping aside the indigenous cultures that he admired in Central and South America – cultures which, despite their riches, were also the response to centuries of colonial oppression ?

“We’re no ones to judge,” Blank replied. “How can you say we’re better off joining the big blandout and having food in your stomach and a nice house, social security? Maybe that is better than a shack with no food to eat, having to hide from the white man, and the Army, but still having great music, and loving friends and family. Its just not for us to say.”

Herzog himself once described Blank as being not so much monosyllabic as “ zero syllabic.” So quiet as to seem hardly there. Looking back, his obvious forerunners were probably people like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith – the collectors who unearthed and anthologised the folk, country and blues heritage that has subsequently inspired so much popular music since the 1960s, right on through to more recent bands like White Stripes and the Black Keys, and performers such as Kurt Vile.

Blank worked much the same territory. Supposedly, the blanding out of America’s musical culture had begun in the 1920s, with the invention of the phonograph and the widespread dissemination of recorded music. Steadily, this served to erode the ‘old weird America’ of regional cultures and idiomatic forms of creativity. All of which have now virtually disappeared into the maw of the great US entertainment industry blender. Cultural expression has become homogenised from coast to coast and increasingly, the whole wide world around.

Luckily, that process has taken a while. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, Les Blank and his contemporary (and occasional collaborator) Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie Rccords were still finding remnants of that ‘old weird’ culture and the feasts and rituals that sustained them from the Texas cane fields to Mardi Gras. One of the lasting values of Blank’s work is that he caught on film some of the last great performers of America’s traditional musics. It wasn’t a role he entirely embraced. To me, Blank fiercely resisted the notion that this made him some kind of “pastoral romantic.”

“I don’t like that term at all,” Blank told me. “ I show things that I find to be meaningful and valuable, and I don’t want to take that time showing a lot of the other stuff. There are plenty of political film-makers dying to make those sort of films. Let them.” Yet his Australian distributor, I pointed out, had described his film about Mance Lipscomb as being ‘unabashedly romantic.” “Now that’s a load of crap, too. That’s idiotic. Mance tells the camera about the bad times he’s been through, about blacks being exploited by whites. You can tell it just by looking at him. You just have to have a bit of sensitivity to figure it out. I do super-impose the Brazos River one time, across his face as he’s singing and that looks pretty. But he’s singing a song about a man getting his leg blown off with a shot-gun. Its real. Its expressive of some other reality.”

Blank knew first hand, a bit about that other reality. He was born in Tampa, Florida and went to school in New Orleans. Something of an unlikely hellraiser and streetfighter in his teens, Blank took a while to find his true vocation. After a few failed career attempts – including a shot at creative writing and a flirtation with the military – he went to the fateful screening of The Seventh Seal and set his mind on becoming a film-maker. After learning his chops making short educational and industrial films, he made his first major film – a documentary about the jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie – in 1965.

The hell-raising instincts never quite went away, though. Blank once said of the people at the heart of his films, “I become them.” Which as I’ve indicated above, can be just wishful thinking. At times in his life though, it became more than that. A former camera operator on Easy Rider, Blank was part of an early 1970s generation that did a pretty good job of turning self-destruction into an art form. His Leon Russell episode in the early 1970s was part of it.

During the months just before Blank’s death, there were some suggestions that the Russell film A Poem is a Naked Person might finally see the light of day. Blank was plainly proud of the film which – under the terms imposed on him by Russell – could only be shown if Blank was sitting in the audience, screening it himself. Blank stubbornly did what he could to promote the film, regardless. When he showed up in Wellington in the early 1980s to screen Burden of Dreams for instance, Blank just happened to have a 16mm print of A Poem Is a Naked Person in his luggage.

In essence, the Russell film is a fly-on-the-wall account of a music tour by a bunch of degenerates, and it is amusing and disturbing, in equal parts. Back in 1974, Russell’s commercial mashup of blues, gospel and rock’n’roll must have seemed like the ultimate in cultural sacrilege to someone like Blank. Certainly, it isn’t very hard to figure out why Russell found the film so unflattering – at one point, a shot of Russell dissolves into an image of a snake devouring a baby chicken. I also dimly recall a self-destructive hotel room scene involving Russell’s bass player Carl Radle (1942-1980) a beer bottle and his bare chest. Besides the shenanigans among the entourage, Blank filmed some equally bizarre footage of the culture through which the Russell caravan was passing. Like, for instance, elderly couples putting out deck chairs and picnicking as they watched huge old American hotels being blown up with explosives or – in another memorable scene – a man chewing and swallowing an entire beer glass. Clearly, something was not entirely well with Leon Russell. Yet as Blank was also signalling, there was a sickness raging on through heartland America as well. It ended up like a Herzogian film, before there was a Herzog.

At the time, I liked the film a lot and once the lights went up, I approached Blank and asked if I could arrange another screening that night up at Victoria University. He agreed, and went off to meet a friend in the Hutt Valley while I tried to scramble together an audience of friends, and any random people willing at short notice to give up their evening. The 60 or so people who eventually showed up included Labour’s future Arts Minister, Eddie Isbey, who had been dragged along by one of his staff. He seemed gamely bemused by the whole thing. It was a night of drugs, rock’n’roll and Eddie Isbey.

The point of the anecdote being, I didn’t get to deliver the film back to the Courtenay Place hotel where Blank was staying until after midnight. I handed over the canisters, and the small amount of koha the audience had tossed into the hat to cover the costs of the venue. Blank stared at the money, stared at me with a look of absolute, unblinking death and said : “ARE YOU TRYING TO RIP ME OFF?” No way, man. For him, cash in hand was film in the can, so where was his money? Only in his mind, as it turned out. Much as the world in his films was a beautiful place where great music and communal joy could be celebrated, the world was also inhabited by sharks and assholes, many of whom he seemed to regard as being personally out to get him.

Blank’s paranoia may have been in overdrive that night. More commonly, Gosden recalls Blank as a ‘canny’ businessman who personally did all the festival deals involved in screening his films. Long, long before rock bands discovered the value of merch, Blank sold T-shirts enblazoned with images from his films at NZ Film Festival screenings. Similarly, while screening his film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, he cooked garlicky dishes at the back of the cinema, to create what he jokingly called “smellovision.” For someone so shy, these entrepreneurial efforts must have been a soul-buffeting torture but he saw the hustling as being an essential part of him getting his films made. One of the real ironies of Blank’s career is that – despite the value of his films for future generations blah blah – the political climate for funding changed during the 1980s, and largely to his detriment. Funding agencies began to look sideways at putting money into projects by this white guy who was wanting to make films about non-white cultures.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, his output slowed down to a trickle – partly for funding reasons, and partly as he aged. It was partly due to technology as well. The advent of digital cameras may have made films less expensive to make, but the ability to shoot endless footage at little or no expense ran counter to the careful and necessarily economical way that he’d shot his films before, on 16mm film. The editing process which had always been painstaking, now became nightmarish. For all this bundle of reasons, it took Blank a very long time indeed to finish his last film All In This Tea – about the tea market in China and the efforts of the US tea entrepreneur David Lee Hoffman – that finally saw daylight in 2007.

Around that same time, Blank began to pick up the wider recognition that would have been more useful to him, earlier on. In 2007, he was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal, an annual award for achievement in the arts which had only twice before been given to film directors, and never before to a documentary film maker. Blank was described as a national treasure by the award panelist and film director Taylor Hackford, who said that “100 years from now” Blank’s films would still be being watched.

That’s probably true, even for people who don’t know they’re watching them. The first Les Blank film that Gosden ever saw, he says, was the New Orleans Mardi Gras film, Always For Pleasure. As one indication of its timeless quality, some footage from that film showed up a couple of years ago as the backdrop to a gorgeous video by the young indie musician who calls himself How to Dress Well, on a track called “ Decisions.” As the New Yorker obituary pointed out. Always For Pleasure also contained yet another street corner philosopher urging us to live life to the full, while we still can. It seems like a fitting farewell note :

You be here today, you’re gone tomorrow, you know. You don’t know what to look for after death. But you can always see what you can see in front of you. But me, you know, I like people to have a nice time, and when I leave the face of this earth, I like a little band behind me, and my friends having a nice time seeing me leave this place. But I’m living now.