Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Criterion Collection Blu-ray review
The name Les Blank may not immediately be a familiar one, nor is it generally ranked on lists boasting names like Maysles, Morris and Wiseman. But he was one of the key figures in documentary film. Blank’s most notable work is 1982’s BURDEN OF DREAMS, which detailed the making of Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO and helped solidify the German director’s reputation.
But the rest of Blank’s filmography is rarely mentioned. But now, with a three-disc set from The Criterion Collection that spans 1968 to 1995 and includes fourteen of his works (as well as eight shorts), his work can be better appreciated and understood.
Blank’s decades-spanning career included portraits of blues icons (1968’s THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS) and lesser-known bluesmen (Mance Lipscomb in 1971’s A WELL SPENT LIFE), Cajun and Creole lifestyles in the south (1971’s SPEND IT ALL, 1973’s DRY WOOD), Zydeco masters (Clifton Chenier in 1973’s HOT PEPPER) and polka enthusiasts (1984’s IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER?), Louisiana traditions (1978’s ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE) and love-ins (1968’s GOD RESPECTS US WHEN WE WORK, BUT LOVES US WHEN WE DANCE), professional fiddlers (Tommy Jarrell in 1983’s SPROUT WINGS AND FLY) and unpaid painters (Gerald Gaxiola in 1994’s THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS). And garlic (1980’s GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS).
There are not documentaries that have the purpose of exploiting or dissecting. There is no agenda. These are intimate tributes. They allow viewers to see and hear people and events that they may not otherwise see and hear. While the recurring themes of music and food are ones we can all connect with, Blank’s selection of subjects stands out. (Who else would have thought a 50-minute documentary on garlic should have been made?)
Another key to Blank’s work is that he, very subtly and without waving it in front of the viewer’s face—Blank knew when to interview and when to simply observe—goes deeper than one might expect. THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS doesn’t just show Hopkins playing, but also in his element; he’s not just a musician, he’s a man. Likewise, ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE doesn’t just show a funeral procession, but also what it means to those involved; they’re not just mourners, they’re people. It’s personal portraits like these that make it seem like Blank is inviting you in and saying, “Here, let me introduce you to something.”
Exploring his filmography, one gets the sense that Blank was genuinely curious and, at times, in love with his subjects. This is a contagious feeling. The viewer need not be interested in, say, polka, to appreciate what is happening to the men and women in IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER?; the viewer need not be a “hippie” in order to understand the culture depicted in GOD RESPECTS US WHEN WE WORK… They are there doing what they do, just like us.
There is really nothing all that remarkable about the way Blank shoots or edits (Maureen Gosling would take up editing duties on a number of Blank’s works), but the films are distinctly his. And every one of these wonderful slices of life included in The Criterion Collection’s box set, LES BLANK: ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE, illustrates why Les Blank should be named and ranked more often.
Video: “These new digital transfers were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from internegatives at Technicolor Los Angeles. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management.”
Considering the films were shot on low budgets and with similar film stock, it’s not surprising that the picture quality is far from sharp. However, cleaning up the image too much would have taken so much away from the films, and so the noticeable wear actually aids Les Blank’s works and stays faithful to his vision.
Audio: “The original monaural soundtracks for THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS; A WELL SPENT LIFE; DRY WOOD; ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE; GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS; SPROUT WINGS AND FLY; IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER?; GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN; YUM, YUM, YUM! A TASE OF CREOLE AND CAJUN COOKING; and THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS were remastered at 24-bit from 35 mm full-coat magnetic tracks. The original monaural soundtrack for GOD RESPECTS US WHEN WE WORK, BUT LOVES US WHEN WE DANCE was remastered at 24-bit from restored DA-98 tape and the restored 35 mm full-coat magnetic track. The original monaural soundtrack for SPENT IT ALL was remasterd at 24-bit from a restored WAV file. And the original stereo soundtrack for SWORN TO THE DRUM: A TRIBUTE TO FRANCISCO AGUABELLA was remastered at 24-bit from the original 16 mm full-coat magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation and iZotope RX 3.”
As with the video, the audio has some detectable issues brought over from the source. Overall, the audio is quite good and presents the dialogue and music in an accurate manner..
THE SUN’S GONNA SHINE (9:55): In this Blank short, filmed at the time of THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS, the director offers a “lyrical re-creation of a memory from Hopkins’ youth” and the musician performs “Trouble in Mind.”
“Mr. Charlie, Your Rollin’ Mill Is Burnin’ Down” (7:30) features Hopkins performing the blues song.
“Lightnin’ Les” (3:32): Hopkins plays a number that pays homage to the director.
Making LIGHTNIN’ (8:39) includes an interview with Blank collaborator Skip Gerson.
An Appreciation by Taylor Hackford (10:04): Director Hackford discusses LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS.
Flower Power (6:19): Gerson and Blank’s son, Harrod, discuss Blank’s production company and some of the events depicted in GOD RESPECTS US WHEN WE WORK, BUT LOVES US WHEN WE DANCE.
An Appreciation by Werner Herzog (10:00): Director Herzog discusses SPEND IT ALL
No Man Like Mance (13:15): Gerson, Blank’s sons (Harrod and Beau) and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz are interviewed.
Meeting Mance (7:14): Strachwitz reminisces about first meeting bluesman Mance Lipscomb, who was the subject of A WELL SPENT LIFE.
A Cultural Celebration (18:29): Beau Blank, Hackford and Blank collaborator Maureen Gosling discuss DRY WOOD and HOT PEPPER.
LES BLANK: A QUIET REVELATION (10:17): Included here is an excerpt from the upcoming documentary, which is directed by Harrod Blank and Gina Leibrecht.
LAGNIAPPE (25:25): This Blank short was shot during the filming of ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE and shows more New Orleans traditions.
Celebrating a City (10:13): Gosling and fellow Blank collaborator David Silberberg are interviewed.
For the Love of Garlic (10:29): Gosling, Harrod Blank and California-based chef Alice Waters discuss GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS and, yes, garlic.
Remembering Les (10:27): Tom Luddy and Waters discuss their relationships with Blank and his contributions to cinema.
MY OLD FIDDLE: A VISIT WITH TOMMY JARRELL IN THE BLUE RIDGE (17:30): This Blank short, shot during the making of SPROUT WINGS AND FLY, “reveals the origins of [Jarrel’s] famous fiddle.”
JULIE: OLD TIME TALES OF THE BLUE RIDGE (12:19): Also shot during the production of SPROUTS WINGS AND FLY, this short focuses on Jarrel’s sister, Julie Lyons.
An Elemental Approach (5:22): Gosling talks about editing SPROUT WINGS AND FLY.
Polka Happiness (8:21): Blank collaborator Chris Simon is interviewed about the director and IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER?
Mind the Gap (10:51): Collaborators Susan Kell and Simon, as well as Harrod Blank, are interviewed.
Marc and Les (6:40): Simon and Strachwitz reflect on Blank and YUM, YUM, YUM! A TASE OF CREOLE AND CAJUN COOKING.
THE MAESTRO RIDES AGAIN! (29:00): Blank’s 2005 follow-up to THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS.
The Maestro (12:31): Gerald Gaxiola, who was the subject of THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS, shares his thoughts on the documentary and his time with Blank.
Art for Art’s Sake (6:58): An interview with Simon, who worked on THE MAESTRO: KING OF THE COWBOY ARTISTS.
A Master Percussionist (10:13): Luddy and Simon touch on Blank and SWORN TO THE DRUM: A TRIBUTE TO FRANCISCO AGUABELLA, one of the director’s last works.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is a 56-page booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton.