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.



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.


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.

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.

Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas

Before he blew up the box offices with his special effects driven spectacles George Lucas was a rather reserved documentary filmmaker who leaned more towards experimenting than empire building. Watch, Filmmaker, a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain Peopleand you’ll find a wholly different filmmaker than the man who gave the world Jedi Masters and Wookies.

Confession: I was once an unabashed Star Wars fan. Episode IV: A New Hope was the first film I ever saw. I had all the toys and so much other crap plastered with the Star Wars logo. I saw the Star Wars Holiday Special when it originally aired! My love for the original Star Wars trilogy never wavered during those dry years after Return of the Jedi and before the Special Editions, when hope of Lucas ever fulfilling is promised 9 part saga grew dimmer and dimmer.

My love for Star Wars is what drove me to attend film school. I entered film school right around the time of the Special Editions and when Lucas announced that he’d begin making new Star Wars episodes. While I didn’t like the digital dicking around with the old films, I was excited for the new ones. But, Lucas was now also saying he’d only make three more, denying that he ever said that Star Wars was a 9 part saga. I should have taken that as a sign of a man who had grown sick of his own creation. When the new trilogy finally arrived. I fears were confirmed.

Of course, By the time Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released I wasn’t the same 3 year old who went gaga for lightsabers and X-wings. I had completed film school and undergone a transformation into an artist who no longer wanted to make fantasy films. I wanted to make neo-realist independent films, documentaries, and experimental videos. Still, I loved Star Wars. It was, after all, such a big part of my life. That all changed with The Phantom Menace. Sure, I watched the subsequent prequels. Each one only further confirmed my lack of interest in the franchise and my growing theory that Lucas was more interested in making money than telling a mythical tale.

Today, I’m like a reformed Catholic. I know all the saints. I know all the rituals, but I don’t believe any of it and I don’t waste my time thinking about it. I’ve moved on. So, when Disney announced that they would be buying Lucasfilms and making new Star Wars films I didn’t mind. What could they do to besmirch the Star Wars franchise that Lucas hadn’t already done with his megalomaniacal prequels or his lack of interest in protecting the brand? Heck, he’d already been in bed with Disney for two decades, thanks to Star Tours at MGM Studios in Orlando, where you could witness this travesty.

If anything, the sale of Lucasfilms to Disney meant two things. First, it means that the Star Wars saga might get some writers who can do a have decent job of writing a story. Face it, without help, Lucas is a piss-poor writer. Secondly, and far more interesting to me, is the fact that Lucas, freed from the burden of running Lucasfilms, might get back to making experimental and documentary films. It is something he has said he wants to do for many years. I never understood what was stopping him before, but now he has even less of an excuse.

Lucas was once a very technically minded film student who enjoyed foreign and experiment films. He once mentioned Arthur Lipsett‘s 21-87 as a life changing film experience. Lucas’ student work reflects these non-mainstream tastes. He produced animations, visual tone-poems, lyrical documentaries, and experimental narratives, few of which predicted the blockbuster kiddie films that would make him a household name. While never profound and perhaps not even that original, for student work, Lucas’ films showed the promise of a growing filmmaker dedicated to his craft and curious about the ways film could be used. This notion carried with him after college when he went on to make behind the scenes documentaries for Columbia pictures and Francis Ford Coppola. These works are far more spectator than spectacle and I would be far more excited to see him return to making these kinds of films than another Star Wars.

Mississippi Chicken

A colleague and I were discussing the importance (and the ability) of documentary filmmakers who living with their subjects. It brought John Fiege’s Mississippi Chicken to mind. Mississippi Chicken is a rich, intimate tapestry of lives thus far disregarded by the mainstream media. The film takes the viewer into the lives of a Latin American immigrant population in a small poultry town in the New South. It explores the ongoing difficulties they face while documenting the increasing attempts to redress the balance by community organizers. Living with the people and listening to their stories over the course of one summer, this unique documentary builds contrasting lyrical vignettes of everyday life with the ever-present pressures and injustices faced by its community.

Mississippi Chicken via SnagFilms (which won’t let me embed into WordPress)

I also need to note that this might be the first documentary I’ve posted that featured the death of an animal, please correct me if I’m wrong. I bring this point up because in the course of teaching documentaries I notices that a high number of documentaries I show my class feature the death of an animal. As a vegetarian/vegan I hate the thought of watching an animal die, but I have this uncanny knack for somehow showing my students films that involve violence to animals. Even when I think I’m showing a film absent of animal violence or death, wham it shows up. It’s like my mind blocks it out. Though I suspect many filmmakers feature death in their films because consciously or subconsciously it allows them to address an aspect of human existence we all must face, without exactly forcing viewers to contemplate their own fate.