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Disc Jockey: Les Blank made the most happy-making films

A new box set collects the work of the rare documentarian who focused on joy, not misery.

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection
$124.95

When asked at the 2011 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar to explain the motives behind a certain shot in his 1968 doc portrait “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Les Blank was succinct: “I shoot the stuff I like and I don’t shoot the stuff I don’t like.” It’s may seem simplistic to the point of absurdity, but it’s a truly radical approach to filmmaking. Art, we’re constantly told, is about exposing truth, especially the kind that’s grim and unpleasant. Blank only shot the stuff that makes him, and even moreso the people profiled in them, happy. Throughout his films, most of them medium-length, there’s gumbo, there’s garlic, there’s red beans and rice. There’s the blues, there’s Zydeco, there’s Polka. There’s cheap beer, including Werner Herzog nursing a bottle of Heineken. (The latter sight is in the sort-of self-explanatory “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” which is not on this new Criterion set but which is on the set for Blank’s “Fitzcarraldo” doc “Burden of Dreams.”)

Who does this? Almost no one but Blank filmed little but joy, much less the specific enclaves he invaded. He hung with groups on the margins, people who live outside of social norms, where people get by on little, and what little they have — usually food or music, as well as each other — tends to be the best stuff on earth. He’s no objective reporter; his camera pushes close in on seriously delicious-looking food, or gets in the middle of madcap revelry. His titles are approval signs of what he found: “Spend It All,” for Cajuns; “A Well Spent Life,” about blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb; “Always for Pleasure,” a hang at Mardi Gras; and a serious contender for best film title ever, “Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers” — an hour-long valentine to that most pungent of vegetables, which quickly atones for one of its initial images: mushing it out through a demonic garlic presser.

Blank used to show “Garlic” while roasting a couple dozen heads of the stuff, so that by the halfway mark the subject would waft through the audience. About communal subjects, his films were meant to be viewed communally, usually with the food portrayed on screen ready to eat by film’s end. Having most of his work available, as on Criterion’s lovingly designed box set, for home perusal takes some of the power away. You’re best off making a party out of them, as Blank did. But even watched solo it’s hard not to feed off the relentless joy, and the makeshift poetry of Blank’s style. His most favorite method is to plainly shoot cooking, partying or music-making while drowning the soundtrack in song. He’ll insert shots of grass or plants or birds, or he’ll go more abstract. Many of the interviews with Lipscomb in “A Well Spent Life” are filmed at dusk, the light reflected on his face in otherworldly ways.
At times it can seem Blank films really are just a collection of happy-making or crazy things he found. (Sadly, one of the major works not available here, or anywhere, is “A Poem is a Naked Person,” a commissioned project for which he spent two years hanging with then-best-selling concert god Leon Russell. Alas, Russell didn’t like what he made — basically just an assortment of nutty things he found around town, with occasional footage of Russell in the studio or on stage — and forbade the film from being shown without Blank in attendance. This is a deep shame; it’s a masterpiece.) In a sense, Blank foresaw the way some people use social media — not those who try to cultivate a persona, but those who use it as a depository for things they found, often while traveling. Blank’s work can reflect the findings of a wandering outsider, but they’re deeper than that. Despite his reputation for documenting pure joy, they don’t completely ignore despair and suffering. Off-screen — and usually in tales told to the camera — are anecdotes about poverty and racism; he was, after all, a white filmmaker who regularly made films about poor black people in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. He doesn’t ignore them; he shows people struggling to survive. And one way they do that is reaping the earth for its many pleasures.

One quick final note: Most of Blank’s films are straight-up valentines, but one is a bit more complex. Completed in 1994, “The Maestro: King of the Cowboys” seems to have found another kindred spirit: Gerald Gaxiola (yes, aka “The Maestro”) an outside artist who mimics the Impressionists but on the subject of cowboys. Like other subjects, he’s a big fish in a tiny, tiny pond, who prefers to live meagerly. Unlike them he’s also driven by the need to be bigger — or at least to sell a single painting. As a short catch-up profile on the set reveals, Gaxiola still hasn’t sold one, but even in the film he’s trying to break through, in part by pestering and even insulting star artists like Andy Warhol and Christo. You can sense Blank parting ways with him as he reveals his sour desperation, yet still wanting to give him a platform. (He even returned later for a follow-up.) It’s the one time Blank has issues with his subjects, and it sheds a critical light on his other films, suggesting they too may be more complex than they seem.

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