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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The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans was the best film I didn’t see in 2009. It sat on my desk for a month, a treat for a calm day. Sadly, that day did not come until 2010.

Additionally, I was fearful that the film and my expectations would not equal one another. I haven’t enjoyed Nicolas Cage in a film since Wild at Heart. Herzog is always a favorite, but this project raised red flags. Werner doing a remake, one that seemingly had no connection to the original. It felt like a quick cash grab.

It turns out The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, is a genre defying picture. It brings to mind The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Both Nicholas Cage and Ben Gazarra, portray characters rules by their compulsions. While Cage’s character is driven by physical pain and chemical addiction to explosive outbursts and Gazarra’s character is cool to the point of aloofness, chosing not to think about his problems. Each character understands what habits they must break to free themselves from the hell they have created, but it is easier for them to focus on the immediate rather than take the steps to help themselves. The majority of their time is spent attending to one minor crisis or another, desperately trying to make ends meet, but all the while creating more problems. There is something very honest in this behavior, it speaks to many people I know, even if they are not in debt to bookies or addicted to hard narcotics. This behavior speaks to something very American, be it risking our health with horrible eating habits or running up credit card debit.

Herzog, like Cassavetes, is smart enough to never let their characters catch a moment of rest.. When things slow down, Herzog provides an ending that is so potentially saccharine that I almost wanted to stop the film short and enjoy what I had seen of it. Yet, by some miracle, Herzog takes the potentially a hackneyed finale and deflate all sentimentality from the scene. He’s done this before. Whether in you look at the madness of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the surrealism of  Stroszek Herzog has often found a way to make a powerful and memorable ending from a rather laughable premise.