Filmmaker Les Blank: Acts of Accidental Remembrance

Les Blank passed away on April 7th, 2013, at the age of 77. The three-part retrospective screening at the current Hot Docs film festival, presented as an award for Outstanding Achievement, was never intended to be a postmortem tribute, but it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate commemoration. Les Blank was always engaged in a kind of accidental remembrance: his three dozen documentaries, each an act of loving portraiture, were snapshots in the moment but time capsules upon reflection, his filmography as much historical record as it is an extended family album.

The Hot Docs award retrospective has been divided into three themed programs, but it’s the third of these suites, entitled “Pleasures,” that proves most representative of the unique gifts Blank leaves behind. “Pleasures” opens with Dry Wood, a much-beloved early short from 1973 about local musicians in French Louisiana, and a film that’s typical of Blank’s sensibility: drawing heavily on the sights and sounds (and smells) of the Black Creole culture within which it’s steeped, Dry Wood is loose and lackadaisical, drifting through cookouts and concert performances with an eye for the texture of the area and a feel for the spirit of the milieu. Like all of Blank’s best work, it’s a film about the experience, captured with little mediation; the pleasure here lies in looking and listening, in letting the world Blank captures wash over you.

Always for Pleasure remains one of the most purely enjoyable films ever made for the simple reason that it depicts pure enjoyment. And a very particular cultural enjoyment at that: set in and around mardi gras celebrations in New Orleans circa 1978, the film now looks more like a work of fantasy fiction than an authentic document of the era. The film itself is a celebration: a gleeful acclamation of a culture in perpetual revelry—where even funerals, as we see here, are triumphant declarations of life over death—it’s more content as documentaries go to be infectious than strictly informational. Always for Pleasure is, in a sense, about the liberating effect of indulgence, suggesting that harmony (of race, class, gender) can be found in a party in the street; its conception of urban spaces as shared public clubs and impromptu parade grounds makes the New Orleans of the period look like a veritable paragon of social unity. The most inconsequential gestures—brewing a mound of crawfish in hot sauce, tossing an empty beer can on the curb, stumbling upon a recipe for beans and ham—become positively soul-enriching, together composing a lifestyle of vitality and vibrancy that makes modern living seem painfully dull by comparison.

It’s plausible that the two filmmakers with whom Blank is most commonly compared, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, could have made a film like Gap-Toothed Women, at least in terms of subject and conception. On paper it seems of a piece with the sort of thing you’d find in early Morris films like Gates of Heaven, Vernon Florida and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., or in late-period nonfiction works by Herzog like Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and his recent film about death row inmates Into the Abyss. What these documentaries have in common more than anything else is the peculiarity of their subjects: whether it’s shut-in devotees of a small-town pet cemetery, eccentric Floridian retirees, delusion execution technicians turned holocaust deniers, self-appointed bear caretakers, or zoologists living in Antarctica, the high-concept selling point is the examination of an idiosyncratic milieu.

Werner Herzog on Les Blank

In many of these cases, the temptation to assume a perspective of (typically implied) superiority over the subject proves too hard to resist, and at their worst these films veer away from merely documenting weird people toward actively mocking them, inviting us to delight at their weirdness instead of attempting to understand them in a meaningful sense. Les Blank, on the other hand, was fundamentally incapable of mocking anybody who came before his lens. His capacity for empathy eclipsed any sense of judgment, making the subjects of his films people with whom we’re encouraged to relate rather than oddities we’re directed to ridicule.

And so while Gap-Toothed Women—a 30-minute documentary about, yes, women living with a small gap between their two front teeth—sounds like an occasion to highlight a peculiar feature as a kind of low-key sight gag, Blank focuses on a readily apparent and easily identifiable physical marking in order to subtly redirect our attention to the real people who bear it every day. Rather than define the women before his camera by this one miniscule point—a point many of them feel does define them to strangers in the street—Gap-Toothed Women regards them as interesting, three-dimensional people who simply happen to share this strange and uncommon diastema. And rather than focusing exclusively on women born with something as insignificant as a gap between their teeth because it’s strange, part of the point is to underscore that strangeness: we’re meant to reconsider our perception of what is basically an arbitrary standard of beauty, particularly as it applies to women, and to wonder why a gap is such a big deal.

Blank’s quietly observational style—curious, probing, involved but almost always self-effacing—resulted in films which, true to the foundation of the medium, really did document in the most basic sense, surveying a person or place with an eye ever-attuned to detail and nuance. Blank didn’t simply watch and record his subjects; he scrutinized them, contemplating thoughtfully and with a peerless naturalism. Blank pored over his subjects: his camera wandered endlessly, soaking in local flavor, discovering beauty in even the bland and benign. When we lost Blank, we didn’t just lose an esteemed filmmaker—we lost a way of looking at the world.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)

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