Les bon temps rouler: rolling with Les Blank’s good-time movies

In this piece from our February 2015 issue, Nick Pinkerton celebrates the late documentary filmmaker Les Blank’s joyful, raucous, you-are-there dispatches from the disappearing margins of American life.

27 November 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1970)
Sight and Sound

Les Blank suggested that theatre managers playing his film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980) should toast a few heads of garlic during the screenings, so as to perfume the audience with the scent of the stinking rose. He dubbed this process ‘Smellaround’.

I know a programmer who tried it at a memorial screening shortly after the Southern-born, Berkeley-based one-man-band documentarian died in 2013 at the age of 77. Apparently the stench was overpowering, and lingered.

This isn’t just ethnographic William Castle showmanship, but gets at an important aspect of Blank’s films: there’s something about them that seems to chafe at being bound to the dimensions of the screen, to demand to be out and about in the wide world.

But now home viewers can, if so inclined, attempt to achieve the Smellaround effect in their living rooms. Previously available for purchase exclusively through Blank’s Flower Films, the meat of his filmography – 14 features and eight shorts finished between 1968 and 2006, spread across three Blu-ray discs – is now available in a box-set from Criterion. [Update: they ’re also now available on several VoD platforms.]

I suspect that Blank’s works, based as they are on scenes of raucous congregation, will lose more than most films do when removed from the communal viewing experience. I first went through Blank’s filmography, more or less in toto, in 2008, at a complete retrospective of his work at New York’s Film Forum.

Rarely have films given me such a compulsion to want to be inside them: you want to join the high-stepping Mardi Gras processions in Always for Pleasure (1978), kick up your heels in the sweatbox honky-tonks, eat gumbo and crawfsh and drink until you can’t move, and the films fool you into thinking you’d be brave enough to try. Seemingly swept up in the swell of the crowd or reeling on the dance floor, Blank’s camera-eye is as much that of participant as observer, though his digressive drifts are never purposeless, nor is the quality of invitation in his films an accident.

Always for Pleasure (1978)

In an excerpt from work-in-progress documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation by Gina Leibrecht and Les’s son Harrod included in the Criterion set, Blank speaks of a painting of flamenco dancers by John Singer Sargent which had the same effect on him that his films have had on many a viewer: “I used to just look at this thing and wish I could be there, participating in this atmosphere.”

Blank was at his NYC retro in person, as he often was for his screenings, talking about his fancy for ladies with les dents du bonheur before a screening of Gap-Toothed Women (1987). Seeing him then, I wouldn’t have believed that he was ever going to die. He as good as created the documentarian-as-bon-vivant template, and you imagine him with a 16mm Eclair in one hand and a Dixie beer in the other. I’ve heard young filmmakers – such as Bill Ross, who is one half of an outstanding New Orleans-based filmmaking duo (45365, Tchoupitoulas) with his brother Turner – refer to Blank’s heroic example.

Blank is most closely associated with the various ethnic enclaves of the state of Louisiana, though in fact he was born and raised in what he describes as an “upper-middle-class” home in Tampa, Florida.

Les Blank

In a 1998 essay, he wrote of his early enthralment with music there: “I discovered entirely new worlds that were shaped by the central core of musical performance. I became fascinated by eerie and ecstatic African American baptism ceremonies in the river of downtown Tampa; the country-music dance halls packed with hard-drinking, loud, working class descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants; and the infectiously rhythmic Cuban-American rumba music blaring from the hand-rolled cigar factories of the Cuban part of town.”

In the mid-50s Blank attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he studied English with the intention of becoming a writer. In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s set, Andrew Horton writes that Blank’s years in Louisiana “led him to enjoy going beyond the sorts of ‘touristy’ interactions the region had to offer, to want to make personal contact with all kinds of different people”.

By Blank’s own account, he also did a hell of a lot of drinking there, pledging Sigma Chi and partaking in the Dionysian experience of Southern frat life – you might say he eventually made a career of looking for the party. After Tulane, Blank headed west to study playwriting at the University of California, Berkeley, took a graduate degree from the University of Southern California film school in Los Angeles, and eventually went to work in so-called ‘industrial’ films, though his inclination would prove to be more towards the handmade.

He gravitated towards the Flower Children who’d begun to appear on Sunset Strip, drawn by their exotic colour and, presumably, whatever else about the hippie culture would attract a man with a history of partying. On Easter Sunday 1967 he filmed a ‘love-in’ at LA’s Elysian Park, and the results of his dusk-to-dawn shoot would become God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968).

This, Blank’s first film under the Flower Films banner, is on Disc 1 of Criterion’s set, alongside a work more typical of those to come, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a portrait of the titular bluesman and, not incidentally, his hometown of Centerville, Texas.

Blank was based in California for the whole of his career, in LA until 1972 and in Berkeley thereafter, and occasionally shot in his adopted home – Garlic, for example, prominently features Alice Waters, founder of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, while 1994’s The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists follows bodybuilder-turned-insurrectionist artist Gerald Gaxiola. (Both are among the assembled subjects and friends who have recorded video interviews for the Criterion set.)

Blank is best known, however, for his excavations of the country back east, including the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina (Sprout Wings and Fly), Texas (Lightnin’ Hopkins and A Well Spent Life), and always, always Louisiana, where five of the longer films included in Criterion’s set (Spend It All, Dry Wood, Hot Pepper, Always for Pleasure and Yum, Yum, Yum!) were shot.

The draws are food and music, preferably both, and Blank matches indigenous song to cutaway views of landscape and people – both, while often colourful, transcending that old triviality ‘local colour’. Layering images over music with longtime editor Maureen Gosling, Blank shows these homemade sounds as inextricable from the place they come from – the BBQs and sunsets and views of passers-by from a front porch and the glimpsed vignettes of children acting like adults and vice versa.

If I had to select a single moment in Blank’s filmography that shows exactly why he is so special, I’d go with a montage that occurs at about the halfway mark of Hot Pepper (1973), over zydeco musician Clifton Chenier performing his I’m Coming Home, which concludes with the image of a piece of driftwood floating along the mirror-reflective surface of a river.

This serene image is recollected, oddly, by a lyric sung in Polish in Blank’s In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984), an exploration of the Polish-American polka subculture: “How quickly life travels onward / Like a swift stream at food.” Blank’s films quietly recommend these kinds of intercultural connections. Near its conclusion, In Heaven… features a reggae rendition of the polka-standard title track.

This is after the film has made a convincing argument for this most square and endlessly ridiculed of genres as a brand of protest music, through which white working-class ethnics of (mostly) Mitteleuropean backgrounds can retain a sense of folk identity in the face of pop industrialisation. “How quickly life travels onward” – and at one point or another in almost every Blank film, a subject notes that it travels more quickly than it used to. This is what makes these most lovable of movies rather heartbreaking, for they are being filmed at a moment when the disappearance of the ways of life they depict has already been assured.

Criterion’s box-set, while far and away the most affordable and accessible collection of Blank’s work to date, contains a few prominent omissions. Among the missing are Blank’s two films featuring Garlic interviewee Werner Herzog (1980’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe and 1982’s Burden of Dreams); his 1974 A Poem Is a Naked Person, commissioned by the country musician Leon Russell and shot in and around his rambunctious Oklahoma studio [Update: a restored version of A Poem is a Naked Person was released on Blu-ray by Criterion in 2016]; and 1976’s Chulas Fronteras, which documents the music produced along the Texas-Mexico border. (Also missing, perhaps mercifully, is Blank’s 30-minute Huey Lewis and the News: Be-FORE! of 1987.)

Blank has, I’m sure, been accused somewhere or other of aestheticising or romanticising his subjects, a charge often faced by filmmakers who produce work featuring poor or working-class people in which their poverty isn’t the only or most interesting thing about them. (Some of them – horror of horrors! – even insist on aestheticising or romanticising themselves.)

Blank undeniably has a perspective. He doesn’t ignore segregation but he prefers evidence of unity. He doesn’t deny sadness but dwells longer on joy. One thing he does deny outright is the existence of hangover; we see people getting blacked out and we see them back at work later, but there’s none of the retribution in between – he is all Saturday night, no Sunday morning.

Blank is not punitive. His films have little use for hell, though they often refer to paradise, from the Elysian Fields of the LA love-in to the lost Arcadia of the Cajuns who settled in the Louisiana swamps.

In a 1789 letter from Paris, Thomas Jefferson posited an idea that the earth belonged to the living, not the dead. In 1972, another great American, the bluesman Mance Lipscomb, subject of A Well Spent Life, told Blank: “You can live in heaven here on earth.” Inasmuch as Blank’s films embody a philosophy, it can be found between these statements.