Blank Check: Criterion's 'Always for Pleasure' Compiles Filmmaker's Featurettes
By Josh Slates
Filmmaker Les Blank, the recipient of the IDA’s 2011 Career Achievement Award, was nothing if not a man at peace with his obsessions. By turns a folklorist and historian of vanishing and forgotten Americana, Blank, through his films, shared many connective fascinations and motifs such as Cajun and Creole music and cuisine, the everyday restorative powers of garlic, reclusive blues musicians and wily auteur Werner Herzog. Blank’s always-alert 16mm camera displayed as much somber respect in observing a New Orleans jazz funeral as it effused unrestrained joy at peeking into a simmering pot of gumbo. One recurring antagonist throughout Blank’s body of work is the ever-encroaching blandness of modern normality, but his films are often boisterous and rowdy affairs that will resonate with viewers for days and leave fiddle and squeezebox riffs echoing through their eardrums.
In his formative years, Blank first became enamored with the unusual power of the moving image after a chance viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but it is not surprising to learn that films such as The Hunters, John Marshall and Robert Gardner’s 1957 ethnographic study of Namibia’s Kalahari desert, would guide Blank along the unique path that he charted for himself as a filmmaker. His choice of subject matter would send him from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Rio Grande Valley and on to Peru, where he and his crew would join Herzog during the production of Fitzcarraldo. The resulting footage came to comprise the feature-length release Burden of Dreams, which would later win the 1983 BAFTA Flaherty Documentary Award and introduce a wider audience to Blank’s unique worldview. At the time of his death in 2013 at the age of 77, Blank was still actively producing films and collaborating with Gina Leibrecht on a portrait of pioneering documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock titled How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at His Farm in Normandy.
Although his early career included many corporate and industrial 16mm films, Blank would have likely rejected his commonly perceived niche as a traditional ethnographic filmmaker on several legitimate grounds. There is no omniscient narration to be heard in his films, and inter-titles with contextual reference arrive either fleetingly or not at all. Instead, the combination of his keenly observed cinematography and intuitive montage create a finely tuned, multi-sensual experience that imperceptibly transports a viewer to another realm of awareness. For instance, Blank would sometimes prepare garlic-laden dishes in venues where he was projecting his film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers in order to create an engaging olfactory dimension for audiences.
Perhaps no single home video collection could reasonably include every last relic of Blank’s prolific 50 years of film production, but The Criterion Collection has curated a brand-new Blu-ray and DVD release titled Les Blank: Always for Pleasure that serves as a spirited introduction for the uninitiated and provides for a minutiae-filled extended appreciation that will satisfy his most ardent fans. While the entirety of Blank’s catalog remains available through a recently rebranded Les Blank Films, Criterion and Janus Films have lovingly restored 14 of his most popular featurettes and created brand-new 2K archival masters that both preserve the granular integrity of the original 16mm negative materials and celebrate the colorful qualities of his subjects and settings.
Many of the highlights within this three-disc set include an informal quartet of films about the rural Louisiana experience that begins in 1972 with Spend It All, continues in 1973 with Dry Wood and Hot Pepper and resumes in 1990 with Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking. The eponymous Always for Pleasure is a thematically tangential and visually associational document of New Orleans in the late ’70s and demonstrates how historic traditions continue to inform the local human condition. In Heaven There Is No Beer? is a light-hearted chronicle of the still-abundant popularity of polka dancing among Polish-American families in the early ’80s and features a memorable intrusion of sketch comedy set to the tune of "Who Stole the Kishka?"
But perhaps most fondly remembered are Blank’s collaborations with blues musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, a partnership that revealed itself in the late ’60s with The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins and The Sun’s Gonna Shine and then endured into the early ’70s with A Well Spent Life, which finds Lipscomb embracing an agrarian and solitary lifestyle on a farm in Navasota, Texas.
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure runs just shy of 10 hours in total content and most of the 14 featurettes are complemented with recollections from crewmembers, outtakes and, in some cases, even related short films that provide additional insight and context. The plentiful supplemental materials also help to literalize the tangible particulars of some of Blank’s more enigmatic films, which often prefer an oblique but never elegiac approach to documenting and detailing a particular culture or tableau.
His longtime editor and frequent sound recordist Maureen Gosling is on hand to share many tales of behind-the-scenes adventure during the production of Dry Wood and Hot Pepper in rural Louisiana, while filmmaking partner Skip Gerson recalls his efforts to ingratiate Blank and himself into the south Texas blues culture that served as the inspiration for their early productions. Herzog himself is also present to marvel at the "direct immediacy and exuberance of life" present in his personal favorite of Blank’s films (Spend It All) and confesses to stealing a particularly stomach-churning piece of imagery from the film and later repurposing it into his own narrative film Stroszek.
Most fascinating is an extended outtake in which Lightnin’ Hopkins recounts, in his own unique parlance and musical accompaniment, how Blank convinced the ornery bluesman to participate in his film project over a game of cards. Also included is Andrew Horton’s essay, "Les Blank’s Cinema Vitalite," which thoughtfully wrangles and organizes Blank’s many fixations into a comprehensive assessment of one of cinema’s quirkiest artisans.
Notably absent from this collection is A Poem Is a Naked Person, Blank’s portrait of musician and songwriter Leon Russell at his Shelter Records recording studio in northeast Oklahoma. The film was completed in 1974 but only intermittently surfaced thereafter due to clearance issues and what Blank has characterized as an effort by Russell’s management to obstruct its release. Nevertheless, Blank would occasionally screen the film in non-theatrical settings and under surreptitious invitation—most recently at the DC Independent Film Festival in 2012—and his son Harrod Blank is purportedly in negotiations to secure a legitimate theatrical and home video release.
Director Taylor Hackford, who was one of Blank’s most stalwart supporters and also instrumental in his nomination for the 2007 Edward MacDowell Medal, aptly summarizes the filmmaker’s eclectic output in a quote included in Horton’s essay: "You could call Blank an ethnographer; you could call him an ethno-musicologist or an anthropologist. He was interested in certain cultures that Americans were unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it."
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure is available through The Criterion Collection.
Editor's Note: Harrod Blank has sorted out the rights and clearance issues surrounding A Poem Is a Naked Person , and the film is set to receive an official premiere at this year's SXSW festival.
Josh Slates is an independent producer and director based in Baltimore. He is also a film critic and field producer for The Signal, a weekly arts and culture program produced by WYPR Radio.