Friday, December 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Les Blank: Always for Pleasure [Criterion]


The films of Les Blank are modest, intimate works of irrepressible curiosity. The Florida-born filmmaker, who passed away in 2013 at age 77, dedicated his life to documenting regions of the United States far too often overlooked in not only cinema, but in national news and media coverage as well. Blank had an insatiable appetite, both literally and figuratively, his camera drawn to cultures and cuisines with roots extending far beyond their remote milieus. As such, these nonfiction works, self-produced after a fashion under the banner of Blank's Berkeley-based Flower Films, are at once geographically small-scale and sociologically vast. Whether observing traditional Cajun and Creole cooking practices or the rich musical heritages of the blues, polka, or zydeco genres, Blank remained in constant pursuit of unknown peoples, places, and pleasures.

Blank's films move at a rhythmic clip. His many portraits of musicians living and laboring among the subtropical south are emblematic of the director's unobtrusive yet buoyant touch, allowing his subjects and their music to carry the narrative while his lens provides the frame for their surroundings and shared histories alike. His 1968 film The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins exemplifies this approach in typically efficient fashion, granting equal time to the titular Texas bluesman's instrumental dexterity as to his observations on aging and local, everyday living. Other works dedicated to African-American artists, such as 1971's A Well Spent Life, focusing on blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb and his wife Elnora, and 1973's Hot Pepper, centered around Clifton "King of Zydeco" Chenier and his spirited life as a local entertainer, follow a similarly ebullient arc, zooming in on the personalities of these performers while still managing to capture a wider social functionality through their music and methodologies.

With his inquisitive sense of character and community, Blank was inevitably drawn to idiosyncratic talents and traditions. His 1983 film Sprout Wings and Fly, concerning the Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, illuminates the life of a man of many intersecting interests and artistic inclinations, while 1994's The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists resurrects the improbable life and times of Gerald Gaxiola, a former body builder turned literal rhinestone cowboy, performing lasso-wielding, vaudevillian-like acts for audiences of hundreds when he's not home painting impressionistic landscape canvases. Blank didn't solely document individual artists, however, on occasion turning his camera toward communal musical events such as Mardi Gras (1978's infectious Always for Pleasure), a psychedelic, Elysian Park love-in (1968's God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, one of the few Blank films not set in the Southern or Southeastern United States), or the year-round polka festivities coloring small town Polish America (1984's fantastically titled In Heaven There Is No Beer?).

Blank, however, was a man of many tastes—and quite so at that, dedicating multiple films to the cuisines and culinary practices of many of the same regions he would simultaneously explore for musical subjects. Spend It All, from 1971, looks at the Cajun community of southwest Louisiana and the fishing and shrimping customs passed down by their Acadian ancestry, while 1980's Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, which outlines both the pride and prejudices involved in cooking with the divisively regarded "stinking rose," and 1990's appropriately titled and rather self-explanatory Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking, revel in the flavors and textures of an endless array of mouth-watering recipes. But whatever his subject or setting, Blank's films maintained a consistent thematic character; even something as seemingly leftfield as 1987's Gap-Toothed Women, for example, which profiles the superstitions behind and curious sensuality of female dental discontinuity, feels of a piece with both the director's wondering nature and empathetic sense of individuality. From the beginning, Blank's films, most of which run about 30 minutes to one hour in length, were made on the cheap, with the help of friends and family. But through these chosen means, Blank was able to conjure worlds as exotic and unforgettable as any of his more well-equipped peers.

Image/Sound:
While the 14 films, all originally shot on 16mm, included in Criterion's new Les Blank box set are inevitably at the mercy of the original materials, they nonetheless look quite wonderful in motion. Texture is a prominent component of all these transfers, looking thick and consistent throughout. Colors, meanwhile, are surprisingly rich and well defined. There are very few, if any, noticeable artifacts and overall the individual images look clean and clear yet very film-like. Audio is offered for 13 of the 14 films in authentic linear PCM monaural tracks. The prominent musical sequences are boisterous and uncluttered, evincing an appropriate depth and separation even as a single channel mixes. Dialogue, featuring a number of dialects that are occasionally difficult to understand, is helpfully mixed high and upfront, with no noise cluttering the sound field. The latest film in the set, 1995's Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, accounts for the sole stereo track, and it's appropriately robust and clear. Very thoroughly translated subtitles, meanwhile, are offered for all the films to aid in clarifying some of the lyrics and unique forms of speech.

Extras:
Supplements are substantial, leaning toward to the interview variety. An excerpt from Gina Leibrecht and Les's son Harrod Blank's documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation is particularly personal, featuring intimate footage and loving reminiscences. Harrod Blank is also featured in a separate selection of interviews, along with Les's second son, Beau, while subjects, collaborators, and famous fans such Gerald Gaxoila, Skip Gerson, Maureen Gosling, Taylor Hackford, Werner Herzog, Susan Kell, Tom Luddy, David Silbergberg, Chris Simon, and Alice Water offer their own recollections of the director, his process, and his lasting influence. Rounding out the digital extras are six additional Les Blank shorts, dating from 1968 to 2006 and each related in some way to a film in the main set, as well as outtake performances from The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins. Appended to the set is a beautiful booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton.

Overall:
The late Les Blank had an insatiable cinematic and cultural appetite, and these 14 films, modest yet irrepressible in their curiosity, are once geographically small scale and sociologically vast. [Slant]

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