Saturday, October 1


Oo-ee baby

So in the past couple weeks I've been seeing a lot more new releases than usual. Some (a History of Violence, Touch the Sound) have been much better than others (Crimen Ferpecto, Corpse Bride). Oliver Twist and The World were very good, but I think I liked Junebug a bit better overall because I didn't go in with as high expectations. At any rate, I'm not inspired to write much about any of them right now, probably because I'm still thinking about a VHS tape I recently borrowed from the public library. It's Les Blank's 1978 documentary record of New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indians, and the musical lifeblood of that city, entitled Always For Pleasure.

I've only seen a small fraction of the dozens of "Blankumentaries" this Florida-born, now Berkeley-residing filmmaker has made, but so far they all absolutely fall into the description on the front page of his website, "Real Food, Roots Music and People Full of Passion for what they do." Always For Pleasure perhaps the most quintessentially so. A camera closely observing seeing huge quantities of ingredients being prepared for a celebratory feast has become almost a trademark Les Blank pleasure, and this film certainly includes such scenes. The musical selections, from Frankie Ford's opening "Sea Cruise" to Professor Longhair's "Big Chief" come off like wonderfully joyous anthems, and again Blank likes to get his camera in close to show the piano player's fingerings and the singer's vocal chords get a physical workout. And passion- what better place than New Orleans during Mardi Gras season to find people with an almost compulsive desire to party. Passionate self-expression seeps out of every frame in this film.

Blank doesn't shove an agenda down our throats, but he doesn't censor uncomfortable moments either. Its impossible not to notice how few of the gatherings and parties he shows us are racially integrated. One of the few moments of integration is quite fleeting; a parade of revellers walking in one direction crosses paths with another small group heading in a perpendicular direction; the two parades, one all black and the the other exclusively white, mingle momentarily on the way to their destinations. It was an image I couldn't help but keep in my head after hearing so much about the city's troubled racial history in recent weeks. Other scenes more directly address race, such as a visit to Congo Square, famously the only place where blacks were allowed to gather to play music until after the end of slavery.

I don't know New Orleans well; I've only been once for a day or two in July when I was a teenager. But I've long thought of it as one of the world's great cities, with a unique spirit that makes me proud to share a country with it. Hearing the heartbreaking daily tragedies in the news and stories coming from the region over the past month or so has made it hard to feel like celebrating anything (I'm far behind on my annual Halloween preparations, for example). But seeing the second line Blank shows near the beginning of the film, so utterly different than the mockery depicted in a film like Live and Let Die (which is, incidentally, one of the films playing at the Parkway's Hurricane Katrina Rescure Benefit this coming Thursday night) helped me to remember that the spirit of New Orleans and Mardi Gras will return, and even if I never get to go myself (though I hope I can someday), I can always revisit the 1977 version by rewatching this film.

If a trip to the Frisco public library is inconvenient, Le Video, Lost Weekend, and Leather Tongue stock it, and any video store that still has a strong VHS collection should have it. It's also for sale on Blank's Flower Films website. The UC Berkeley Media Resource Center also has three brief clips along with clips from other Blankumentaries on its website. Be careful watching clip #3 if you don't want the irresistably catchy song "Meet De Boys On De Battlefront" performed by Wild Tchoupatoulis and the Neville Brothers stuck in your head for days.

Well, I'm not a Blank completist, to be sure, and I have yet to see Always for Pleasure, which has now gained a place on my must-see list thanks to your rich observations here. But I have been able to see quite a few of his films, in college and since then. Just off the top of my head, based on incomplete memory, I would recommend The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, Gap-toothed Women, In Heaven There is No Beer?, Spend It All and A Well-Spent Life. Of course, you're probably familiar with his highest-profile film Burden of Dreams, which is spectacularly interesting and peculiar in that particularly Blank-esque way. But if you get ahold of the Criterion disc you can also see his delightful film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which, as it is revealed in a new, and riveting, 2005 interview with Herzog, was basically Blank's audition-- it convinced the German director that Blank was the right filmmaker to document his attempt to film Fitzacarraldo. If you've not seen it, WHEHS documents Herzog keeping his word at the first screening of Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven that he would cook and eat his own leather shoe if Morris ever completed his first film. The shoe is seen being prepped and boiled by Herzog and some of the chefs at Chez Panisse, and the pre-screening festivities took place at the late, lamented UC Theater in Berkeley (which should add another level of appreciation for you, Brian). Both Blank's deadpan humor and Herzog's obsessive intelligence get a rigorous workout in this 20-minute wonder.
Wow, thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment! Of those you mentioned I've already seen The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins and Burden of Dreams with were both pretty phenomenal. (I've also seen Yum, Yum, Yum and Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers- in AromaRound!) Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe has long been on my to-see list, and you've reminded me that I need to stop putting off a rental of that Criterion DVD!
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