Les Blank's films of people and place

I had the honor this weekend of seeing Les Blank’s superb film which title I cannot name. A legal falling out with the musician who’s the subject of the film means that the film can only be shown when Blank is present, and without publicizing the title nor subject. Weird, huh. But the upshot of that for me was, I got to chat with the filmmaker after the screening. Woot!

Les Blank is one of my creative heroes, and in the ensuing days since the screening and our chat, I’ve been thinking a lot about that movie, and about what I learned from watching Blank’s films when I was a young artist finding my voice. I’d hold my own personal Les Blank film festivals, watching everything I could get my hands on at the library until I got tired of it – such luxury as that is.

One of the convictions his work gave me is about the importance of place. Every one of Blank’s films contains this element. “Burden of Dreams” couldn’t exist without it. “Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers” wanders around exploring the lore of garlic in the various places it’s used or found. And with lots of good music along the way.

Another thing I gained, though I’ve only just been able to put my finger on it in the last couple of days, is the understanding that you can make art about the things you notice when you glance over your shoulder – something that catches your eye in the margins. Blank masters this. The film I saw Saturday night is centered around it. Prior to the screening, Blank told us that in the midst of shooting the film, the musician stopped wanting to be interviewed. And so Blank had to figure out what to do to make his movie.

When the central subject moves aside, where do you go? You go all around him. And so, this film contains all the wondrous life swirling around the musician; in his hometown of Tulsa and beyond. All the musicians and snake charmers and groupies and artists of every stripe. There’s a tractor pull and a guy who eats his glass after making a toast (seriously, he chews and swallows it), and a Sunday revival, and a fantastic swimming pool hand painted with ocean creatures after all the scorpions have been carefully scooped out by the painter walking around in bare feet and a mason jar picking them each carefully up.

And so, a little bit of a groupie myself, I got to thank Les Blank for making his work. And he politely said you’re welcome. And we smiled peaceably at each other at the close of a fantastic evening.

Leave a comment