Les Blank – A Well Spent Life

We’ve lost a huge voice in the world of documentary filmmaking. His voice did not reverberate loudly enough to become a house hold name in America, but Les Blank did more to document America at its roots than perhaps any other documentary filmmaker. A lyrical ethnographer of sorts, Blank’s films were steeped in the blues, the backwoods, the bayou, music, food, and a cast of eccentric characters one might classify as outsiders if it weren’t for the fact that their lives seemed richer and more rooted to the independent spirit of America than anything you’d find in Los Angeles or New York. Blank captured corners of America that felt lost or uncovered and he did so with such compassion and kinship that each film felt like an artistic visual essay of extended family. Blank often existed along side his subject, helping him get a feel for the location, its people, and its culture. Each of his documentaries were filled with joy and curiosity and humor. They were also deeply immersive experience and I deeply regret never getting to see one of his smellovision screenings where he’d cook garlic rich meals while projecting his delightful film Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers

Here is a nice introduction to the man and his work courtesy of B.Y.O.D.

Regretfully, much of Les Blank’s work is hard to come by outside of institutional screenings. His most famous mainstream work Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog’s struggle to make Fitzcarraldo, was released by Criterion. I have long hoped that Criterion or Eclipse would release a set of Blank’s work. Now seems as good a time as any.

 

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Sparks Documentary

The thought stuck me that there really needs to be a documentary about the band Sparks. The chameleon like pop-glam-rock group comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael really need a documentary to help people understand and chart their four decade long career, with all its twists and turns. A quick Google search for “Sparks documentary” returned a blog post from Dangerous Minds about a fan-produced Sparks documentary documentary comprised almost entirely of archival material. There you have it – the good and bad of the Internet. We suddenly have ability to come up with an idea and instantaneously realize you’ve been beaten to the punch.

At the same time we have the ability to find amazing new things and while this 30 minute tribute to the band is  not the Number One Song in Heaven, but this Suburban Homeboy is impressed. Packed with amazing visuals from a slew of music videos, all more interesting than most music videos you’ll see today, and peppered with some hilarious live performances, this documentary’s greatest asset is the variety of footage it brings to both fan and first timer. A homemade voice over gives very dry expositional information and while it would be better served by a more dramatic voice or a more in-depth script it certainly avoid the bias praise of an obsessive fan.  More interviews would be nice, but that is always a dangerous wish. The clips of the band being interviewed by Dick Clark are amazing, but some of the more journalistic interviews are meandering and dry, lacking greatly in the eccentric stage personas that the brothers have refined and expanded over the years. If anything this lovingly made short simply shows that Sparks blazed a unique and cutting edge trail and in their wake they have left behind a wealth of material that needs to be revisited. This band deserves far greater recognition in the annals of music. Hopefully, this documentary will open eyes and ears to the band and the potential of some larger documentary project.

 

Taj Mahal Travelers on Tour (1972)

Over the holidays I received a copy of  JaprocksamplerJulian Cope’s encyclopedic account of how Rock’n’Roll collided with Japanese culture to create a freaked out fusion of pop, folk, and experimental music.  Cope writes with authority and unabashed passion, but he lists more musicians, bands, and records then one feels they have time left to track down. One of the first bands I wanted to check out was Taj Mahal Travelers, a sextet of long haired musicians straddling the worlds of rock and art. When Cope mentioned that someone produced a tour documentary about Taj Mahal Travelers, I immediately set out to find it. Knowing that only one of their albums shows up on Spotify, I thought I’d have to do some real Internet mining to find this documentary, but low-and-behold someone has posted it to You Tube. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles. That’s okay, the music transcends the language barrier.

 

Age 7 in America

ImageI learn something new everyday or at least I hope so. Today, I learned that America tried its hand at an Up Series documentary. Inspired by the British series, the American series began with Age 7 in America, a documentary about a group of 7 years olds living in different sections of the country. The series has only made it to Age 21 in America (Age 28 would be due out next year), but none of these films can be easily found.

I was tipped off about this series while talking to my tattoo artist friend Julio. He asked me to track down a documentary he saw many years ago that featured a kid from Milwaukee, along with many other kids. I’m not certain if Age 7 in America is the film he saw, as no character appears to be from Milwaukee. Though one cute, but confused child informs the audience that if he could live anywhere he’d live in Milwaukee because there is only one cop in all of Milwaukee.

You can watch the film here, on Vimeo

The video is introduced by Meryl Streep. I’d be curious to see the whole series, though it doesn’t look as interesting as its British counterpart. Though, I also learned that many other countries have tried this form of documentary series.

Let’s Give Thanks

Two short documentaries to help us remember why we celebrate Thanksgiving and why we should be thankful for documentaries.

“also known as The Turkey Film, this is the film that inspired me more than anything else when I saw it as a high school student in 1979, screened at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, DC. It totally re-wired my head, and I credit the director, music video pioneer Chuck Statler, with inspiring me to pursue a life in filmmaking.” – Jeff Krulick Heavy Metal Parking Lot

 

And then there is this…

Enjoy !

30th Century Man (2006)

I remember an internet friend – those kind you know only online, but have never met face to face – writing extensively about Walker. It was intriguing, but far too in depth. I needed a primer. What I needed was a good entry point and guide to Scott Walker.We all have cultural blind spots. Even when I feel confident that I know a little about a lot of things, I come across some topic or subject that I know squat about. Scott Walker is one such thing. I’m partially embarrassed to admit that until recently I knew absolutely nothing of the singer Scott Walker, Okay, I knew this song, but I never knew who sang it.

If the point of a documentary is to share something of the real world then 30th Century Man is a good documentary.  It is, however, not a film you have to watch. There are long segments of this film where the visuals serve little purpose or add next to nothing to my understand of the film’s subject. Watching others listen to Walker’s work is an interesting element, but it doesn’t pay off. No matter how famous the listeners are, their reactions to the music are too internal to register on camera. Yet, when Brian Eno quips that today’s musicians are adding nothing to development of modern music he’s right. Especially, when we get to hear Walker’s more recent music. Walker is century’s ahead of the pop musician of today.

Let’s hope that at least one of today’s pop artists progress in the wonderful and weird ways that Scott Walker progressed.