POSTED ON 4/13/2012
Les Blank is America’s greatest documentarian. We could list all the lifetime achievement awards he’s received in an attempt to quantify that statement, but we all know those awards are just as often for longevity as for achievement. The proof is in the insightful, beautiful films he’s made, films that capture America and Americans from Blank’s own unique perspective: part ethnography, part verité, part experimental film. Blank captures culture as it’s lived, as a thriving, messy product of hundreds of years of development, played out in the music, food, celebrations, and front-porch conversations that he so magically captures.
Chicago native and film archivist Charles Rogers visited Blank in the Bay Area just before Blank’s visit to Chicago for our festival and next weekend’s mini-retrospective at Columbia College Chicago.
When you made Ziveli, were you familiar with the Jill Godmilow film The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago?
We were at [the] Flaherty seminar together in 1975. I was there with Chulas Fronteras and she had her Popovich Brothers film. Very impressed.
Did that give you interest in learning more about it or was it just a coincidence?
Well, it gave me enough interest in hearing what she had to say about Serbians, Serbian-Americans that when I was approached by the Serbian-American anthropologist and this Indian-British-American grant writer, I was listening to them, because I already had an idea of who the Chicago Serbs might be and I may have been more inclined to accept the new job than if I hadn’t seen it.
Was the film sponsored by someone?
Yeah, it was a Serbian-American anthropologist was seeing Chulas Fronteras with his wife and they were both very moved by it and she said to him “Why don’t you make a film about your people in the same way? Bring in the music and the culture and get a look at who these people are that make up the culture.” He agreed with her and then they came to me with a grant writer and they proposed doing the film and we struck a deal.
Is that fairly typical for how your films got made?
A couple. Sprout Wings and Fly was like that. A woman who was a folklorist and English teacher was a fanatic for banjo and Appalachian traditions of music. She comes from Texas herself. She struck up a friendship with Mike Seeger’s wife, she sang with Hazel Dickens. The lady came to me (I had known her since I’d made Lightnin’ Hopkins) and they said, “Will you make our film?” And they gave me some samples of his [Tommy Jarrell, the subject of Sprout Wings and Fly] music and then they said “If you give us the go ahead, we’ll apply for a grant and see what we’ll do.” I went out to North Carolina knowing hardly anything about this man, I just had a feeling for the mountains and the music that comes out of there. I’d seen John Cohen’s film The High Lonesome Sound. I was hoping to make something approaching that in quality that they found. I showed Sprout Wings and Fly at the Hawaii Film Festival and a young woman there who wanted to film, who wanted to document her relatives, her Hawaiian-German relatives, she approached me. Same thing happened again. I said, “You get the money and I’ll take it up.” So that’s how Puamana got made. Chris Strachwitz [founder and president of Arhoolie Records] liked my work on Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, later, on Hot Pepper, [with] Clifton Chenier, all of whom are in his stable of recording artists. He then wanted me to help him do a film on Texas-Mexican border music. That became Chulas Fronteras. But he didn’t pay me any money, he just paid the cost of production and I ended with half ownership and any money that might come in after he’d made back his money.
So many of your films are about music or food or both. Is there any particular explanation for that?
Well, I always have liked music and I remember when I was a kid, the very first time I heard a trombone, for instance. My parents didn’t have a lot… of music, but what little they had I listened to over and over.
What kind of stuff did they have?
They had Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, it’s a piece that tries to give the clippity-clop of the mules, the burros and the music. They have music for the sunrise and music for a squall. That made me interested and my brother had the Peer Gynt Suite on forty-five. I listened to that. Somehow, someone had bought Duke Ellington’s “Blue Indigo” and another one that was mesmerizing: Cab Calloway [on the] radio. I heard a lot of people on the radio. I had a radio right next to my pillow. I’d go to sleep and listen to music, a lot of it good: Al Jolson, who I liked a lot, Bing Crosby. You name it, that came through the radio, the hit parade. I didn’t hear a whole lot of ethnic music. We had a maid (I lived in Florida). I could hear the maids humming and one of them had a boyfriend who could play the trumpet. (I played the trumpet as a kid.) He gave me some licks on the trumpet and I was amazed; it wasn’t anything like what I was learning in school—John Sousa marches—the guy played real blues and I said “What’s that?” He started trying to tell me what blues was and I was too young to understand. Later on, I went to summer camp with Ernest Tubb’s son, Justin. He came up and sang every Sunday at the camp. And I was totally interested in country music after that, started digging around and getting my father to take me to the country show that came through town. [I] saw Ernest Tubb again, I still remember a joke he told to this day. I became a lifelong fan of Ernest Tubb and the musicians who followed him… Hank Williams, all those folks.
Can you tell me the joke?
Yeah. Man went into a restaurant and said, “What do you have for breakfast?” Said, “We have some tongue.” He said, “Tongue, good heavens, that’s nasty, I don’t want anything that came out of some animal’s mouth. Gimme a boiled egg.” You know, the boiled egg comes out of another cavity, another orifice.
How it was going from being a kid listening to Duke Ellington to interviewing Dizzy Gillespie? It seems fairly casual and intimate, just kind of following him around and talking to him in the dressing room…
Well, strangely, I didn’t know who Dizzy Gillespie was. When I a kid, a teenager, I was nuts about traditional Dixieland music. I went to boarding school up in the East. On the way to and from, mostly on the way from, boarding school, I would overnight in New York and go to the jazz clubs on 52nd Street: Jimmy Ryan’s… Eddie Condon’s was another one. Not far away was the place where Gillespie and those people, Thelonious Monk played. Well, that kind of music, bebop, was beyond my sphere of knowledge. I think I heard kids at my school talking about, throwing his name around, but I never really heard it or developed an interest in it—it was too weird for me. So when I started the film, I had to start listening to Dizzy Gillespie and only then did I start developing an appreciation for what he was doing. Someone else had started that film and asked me to finish it for him.
If you could talk about using non-diegetic sound, for example, in Dizzy Gillespie, there’s a shot where he’s talking on-screen, but you’re just hearing music being played.
Yeah. When you’re working with sound and images and I guess anything can go and sometimes it does. Sometimes by necessity, like the scene where he’s making all those great hand motions and you see the life in his face comes across. I was forbidden to use that scene because of what he was talking about, but I could not resist.
What was he talking about?
He was talking about Charlie Parker and drugs, heroin addiction and the frequency it’s found in the lives of jazz musicians. The man who was, I guess it was Gil Fuller, was acting on, sort of, Dizzy’s behalf, to make sure we did something that was proper about him. They didn’t want jazz associated with drugs. I didn’t want to throw away the good visual.
With someone who is famous, like Dizzy Gillespie or Lightnin’ Hopkins, do you approach filming or interviewing them differently than you do lesser-known people?
Well, the more I know about the people, the more I respect them. Sometimes I can be intimidated by being with someone who’s really a pinnacle of their genre, like Bob Dylan, for instance. I… couldn’t talk to him very easily. I tried, but he wasn’t interested; he blew me off a [couple] times.
Did anything ever come of that?
No. It was during the Leon Russell film. He pointedly said, “Don’t film me.” And I had to sit there like a hunter who has a duck landing on his rifle, looking at it and not being able to shoot it. I ended up babysitting his kids during a scary lightning storm in Oklahoma while Leon and Dylan were recording or playing in the studio.
I watched Always for Pleasure earlier this week. Thinking of what New Orleans and Mardi Gras represent today, I wondered how you felt about how it has changed—or not—since then.
A lot of it’s similar—they don’t call it the Big Easy for nothing. There’s a relaxed, kind of fluid feeling about the place. People [are] pretty laid back. They all like their food and they like their music. Whites and blacks, rich and poor, all get out in the streets and dance and don’t mind celebrating in the streets. When I was a student there, the Mardi Gras Indians were nowhere to be found and … only by seeking out the jazz funerals. It wasn’t something white people did in those days, unless you were a musicologist. I was very attracted to musicology and folklore at that point. [I] made friends with the director of the jazz archive, he took me to a few places: my first jazz funeral, to a club where there was a real jazz band playing a gig in a real jazz hall. It wasn’t like Preservation Hall, where tourists go.
When I was a student at Tulane, I would go to all the concerts as an usher, to see them free. I would sit down close and watch the musicians and their facial expressions and their body language and when they were feeling the music, I was very inspired by that.
Your titles for films have a certain poetic quality—do they mostly come from the conversations you have with your subjects? Do they strike you as they happen or do they come back as you’re editing?
From all over the place. Every which way. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers came from the very first day of filming. The very end of the day, the long day of the first garlic festival at Chez Panisse and I was completely exhausted and probably intoxicated. My last frame of film had ran through the camera, but the tape recorder was still going and recording. It recorded our exhausted waitress putting down a tray of dishes and saying, sighing, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers.” I never heard it at the time, but when I was looking at my dailies, I was listening to track after the picture had run out. And I heard that sound and said, “Hey, that’s a catchy title for a film. Not to mention a tee-shirt.” So I had that title from the very beginning. But the others are often a struggle. When a film is all over and we’re trying to find out what does this film mean that the title can help express? I like a title that has something to say in itself, [that] will stand out on its own. Or something that would make someone interested in seeing the film.
How much, if at all, do you stay in touch with the subjects of your films?
Usually a fair amount. A couple of them are among my best friends, like the guy who’s the subject of All in This Tea—till our last argument a couple weeks ago—we’ve been good friends. The subject of my other film, that’s not yet finished, Butch Anthony, we’re good friends. I take him traveling with me sometimes, when a festival will pay for someone to accompany me. Lightnin’ Hopkins, I stayed in touch with him till he died. Marc Savoy [the subject of Marc and Ann]—every year or two I’ll go down to one of his boucheries he has. It’s a big hog-killing and butchering party; music provided by his friends from the neighborhood and from all over the world [people] come down to celebrate him. About a hundred people show up, they drink beer and make music all day and eat, a lot of eating.
Spend It All has titles explaining the Acadians, more than some of the other films. Was there any reason for these titles?
I thought it would be a good idea to let the audience know who they were and where they came from. In 1970, no one knew anything about Cajuns; they were completely a hidden subculture. Down there, if you were a Cajun, you didn’t let anybody know it. It was against the law to speak French in the schools. Cajuns were looked down on as a lower class of ignorant people who were to be avoided and hidden. Their culture was interesting and I just felt like this was something that needed to be told.
In A Well Spent Life, there’s much mention and criticism of inequality and marginalization. Is that because of Lipscomb himself?
A lot of it. I just let him go. He was like an unbridled horse. Once he started talking, he could talk on and on. He wore all of us out. John Lomax, Jr., who had helped me with the Lightnin’ Hopkins film, wanted me to do a film on Mance and was willing to pay my film costs, my lab costs, and pay Mance some money to come shoot him, just for the record, while I was in the South, shooting Spend It All. I was broke and I told Lomax I only had seven days, but I’d be glad to shoot what I can in seven days, just for an archive. [He] said, “Okay, let’s do it.” That’s why I was there shooting, I didn’t have any hope ever of making a movie out of what I had shot. Because Mance was so… he just gave it everything he had and he was like an oracle… everything he said was a gem and fascinating. So, we would be up at daybreak, he’d be out there harvesting his crops or feeding his animals. In the evening, he would talk till we all fell asleep on the floor.
Lomax gave us suggestions. He knew that Mance liked to hunt with his dogs, so [we'd] go out and film him playing with his dogs. Church was big in the area, so we tried to get Mance dealing with the church, but the church wouldn’t hear of it, because they thought Mance was a sinner because he wouldn’t stop singing the blues. He was not allowed in church. His wife still went to that church. That’s the church where we had the baptism. It was just a stroke of luck, because we went by to meet the preacher and said, “We’re doing a film on Mance, but I understand he doesn’t come to your church.” And he said, “No, he don’t. But you’ll have to excuse me, I gotta get ready for a baptism.” “Oh?” “Yeah, we haven’t had one in two years and the way it’s going, doesn’t look like we’ll have another one in… maybe never, who knows?” So I said, “Can I film it?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” That’s how that baptism got into the film. And that train that came along, was about two seconds behind the speech, if it had been two seconds earlier, it would have drowned out the sermon, the singing. The film is full of magic like that… the sky would get dark and [with] 16mm film, you never know if you’re going to get an image or not, so I was shooting blind, literally. I couldn’t even see through my viewfinder. When I got back, there was this incredible silhouette against the sky; you could just barely see the glint, in the fading light, of the eyeballs. Pretty magical.
Do you get to eat a lot of good food?
I do, and a lot of times I get to help set it up, because I learned early that filming food is something that all audiences like to see. People universally like to eat and I like to eat, too. I know if I’m filming food, if I encourage people to cook something special, then I’m gonna get to eat it when it’s cooked!
You’re working more in digital now, right? You have been for a while?
I did the tea film in digital. The recent filming I’ve done, of Ricky Leacock and the Butch Anthony film I mentioned, those are all digital.
For practical reasons?
Basically. Film is just impossibly expensive. Nowadays, you can’t even find a lab to make a work print. It’s an impossible situation, as independent filmmaker.
Has that affected how you work at all? Has it made it easier? Harder?
Well, it’s an extreme… puzzle… ironical. The easier it gets, the harder it is for me to do it. Something about film being so expensive and so difficult, that when I would shoot a frame of film, I would be consciously trying hard to make sure that that frame is as good as I can get it. And I would concentrate more, try harder, to get a good something shot and not waste my money. But with digital, it’s so easy to shoot anything you want that hard to maintain that kind of feeling and attention for very long. My attention span seems to fade. I’m also so insecure that when I start shooting I never know what I’m looking for or I don’t know when I’ve got it, so I just keep the camera running to hopefully accidentally catch something. When I look at it back, I can’t keep my attention focused enough to pay attention to edit it.
There’s got to be so much of it?
Yeah, exactly, I just can’t handle it. A woman named Gina Leibracht came along and saved me from the tea film, being bogged down in that. She had an ability to go through and pull out the stuff that she thought was fascinating. She did, basically, most of the editing on that.
Can you talk about Christopher Tree? How did that come about?
Well, back in the hippy, love-in, flower children period, when they had these love-ins, very often Christopher Tree would go out and play music at daybreak to celebrate the life forces of the new light, the new world, the beginning of a new kind of humanity. People would come out and listen to his music. That would be a way to set the feeling for the day’s events. Ideally a place where people were acting as evolving human beings who were kind to one another and stressed the positive aspects of living and life and love was a big part of it. It didn’t last too long, but pretty soon these love-ins became infiltrated by people taking advantage of the free love and the people who were giving. And people would take drugs if they were around and sometimes they weren’t able to control their appetite for the drugs. Bad speed, bad acid, violence…the whole thing could turn pretty ugly pretty quick. During that positive period, [Christopher] was playing music at love-ins like what I felt. [The film] was made for Churchill Films, which was one of the better educational film companies. A friend of mine I went to film school with worked there pretty much full-time, producing films… one of his films was on modern music. Christopher Tree was one of the modern musicians featured in the film. [I] liked the piece and they let me have access to the negative, so I released it as a single film. He lives up on the coast somewhere. He’s invited me to come visit and I haven’t done it.
You mentioned the one film you were working on. Are you working on anything else currently?
Richard Leacock, who died last year, ninety years old, I guess, nearly ninety. He was one of the major movers of the development of documentary films during the fifties. He and Pennebaker and Bob Drew did a series of films for Time-Life TV. Pennebaker and Leacock were engineers and they were able to develop a synch-sound system for shooting 16mm. You didn’t need a tripod; you had high quality sound that could go anywhere that the camera could go. He had an interesting life. He was born on the Canary Islands, his father was French and their family had gone to the Canary Islands to pioneer and start plantations, they grew bananas. They sent him to England as a young boy to be educated properly at an English boarding school. He came out of there with this very impressive accent. He met the children of all the famous people of the world, including Robert Flaherty’s daughter. It was through his knowing the daughter that Flaherty let him join their crew when they shot Louisiana Story. He became the director of photography; it was one of his very first jobs. He tells stories very well and he cooks very well and I like the combination of the cooking and the storytelling. He invited me to come and visit him in Normandy, where he retired. He started and ran the film school at MIT for twenty years and was a major presence in the Boston area. [At] Cambridge he always invited filmmakers to come in and show films and talk to his students. He had me come into his class a couple times. He put me up and fed me and talked to me. I wanted to get some of that and that’s what the film is. I just need some money to finish putting it together and pay off the rights.
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Ziveli! Medicine for the Heart and A Well Spent Life play Friday the 13th at 7pm. Spend It All and Dry Wood play Saturday the 14th at 5pm. Dizzy Gillespie and Always for Pleasure play Saturday the 14th at 9:30.