If you're looking for a gift for a foodie for the holidays, skip the restaurant gift certificates and the weird one-use kitchen tools, and go directly to the video section. Late in November, Criterion released a box set containing about ten hours of films by one of the best American filmmakers you never heard of, Les Blank (1935-2013). Yes, he made documentaries, but he wasn't a killjoy. His subjects were mostly poor, but they were always out to have a good time with music, drink, and food.
Actually, if you do know anything he did, it's probably the one exception to this characterization—Burden of Dreams, his 1982 film about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, which was more Herzogian than Herzog's own movie in telling the story of a crazy man losing it in the jungle. It's deservedly known as one of the best depictions of moviemaking ever captured, but it's an outlier since it's about a celebrity and big business.
Blank started out doing portraits of blues and folk musicians, back when the first generation to make it to record was still around to put on film; his The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1970) and A Well-Spent Life (1972), about the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb, are priceless records of the "old weird America" music scene, as it was described by collector/anthologist (and filmmaker) Harry Smith. But for me his most unique films broke from the desire to document a specific performer's biography, and set out instead to capture a whole scene in the process of enjoying life.
Always For Pleasure (1978)
Always For Pleasure (1978), about Mardi Gras, has notable performers (including the Neville Brothers) and lots of information about the Mardi Gras krewes, but more than that it captures all the vibrant enjoyment of life in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. Same for In Heaven There is No Beer? (1984), about polka dancers, or Chulas Fronteras (1976), about Tex-Mex music. Other films abandoned the idea of even sticking to a single subculture—Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) crosses cultures to depict love for the ingredient that's essential in so many ethnic cuisines (and, not coincidentally, considered beyond the pale in more proper and stuffy ones), and Blank hilariously indulged one of his own erotic preferences in the endearing Gap-Toothed Women (1987). It's no exaggeration to say that things like Anthony Bourdain's TV shows, sardonically personal essays about places and culture, wouldn't exist as they do without Blank having first swum against the tide of earnest seriousness in ethnographic documentary filmmaking.
Besides making movies that depicted good times, he also wanted to bring the good time into the movie theater, and so like a hippie version of William Castle, he would cook the food being shown on screen in a "process" he dubbed, tongue planted firmly in cheek, Aromaround. When I was running a film society in Kansas, I sauteed garlic in the theater for Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, and passed out red beans and rice after Always For Pleasure. As it happens I crossed paths with Blank in this time period twice; once at the Telluride Film Festival, where he sat a row ahead of me at Blue Velvet—and walked out partway through. (It's not hard to see that his view of America's unseen culture was diametrically opposed to Lynch's in that movie.) Later, I spoke with him by phone (he shared office space with the great blues label Arhoolie Records) about coming out for the Aromaround show, but quickly realized that he was the kind of filmmaker who liked to stay quiet, indeed invisible, and just record what he saw. Making him stand up and talk would have been contrary to the spirit of his films, and a lot less fun.
Anyway, years later I got a new digital video camera—they came with your first child back then—and I wanted to do something besides shoot video of a drooling three-month-old. My friends on Chowhound were planning a visit to the Maxwell Street Market, and I decided to film them, with Blank's approach to food and people on film the primary touchstone. The result feels crude to me compared to later things I've done, but I've made some effort to hold onto some of that crudity, that feeling of being one person in the midst of the party instead of a whole crew on the outside looking in. I know how I could make my videos look and sound slicker and sleeker, but I also know what I would lose if I did so, pulling focus on artfully composed shots of food lined in a row rather than, like Blank, being in the thick of it all as the grease is popping and the good times roll.
Les Blank: Always For Pleasure, Blu-ray or DVD, list price $124.95, Criterion Collection.