The final film by legendary documentarian Les Blank, co-directed and completed by collaborator Gina Leibrecht, is a profile of another titan of American nonfiction. It is, in a sense, a grand meeting of minds. Yet How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at His Farm in Normandy hardly presents itself as a monumental occasion. It is instead a relaxing sojourn in the country. Richard Leacock and Valerie Lalonde, partners and collaborators, cook and laugh along with Blank. They also discuss cinema, Leacock’s long career and how to achieve what he calls the “feeling of being there.” It’s an extended dinner party, shaped into a meandering tour through one of American nonfiction cinema’s most important filmographies.
It is also delightful enough that it can be appreciated without any prior knowledge of Leacock’s work. Moreover, it will be screened along with one of his short films. Happy Mother’s Day is a 1963 profile of a South Dakota family blessed by the birth of quintuplets and inconvenienced by the media storm that follows, and it’s as good an introduction to Direct Cinema as any. But How to Smell a Rose will likely leave you wanting more, like the first taste of Leacock’s crème caramel as it sets.
Here’s a guide to all of the filmmaker’s work that is available to stream online, with a few recommendations for where to start.
After serving as a combat photographer in Southeast Asia during World War II, Leacock returned to the United States and got a job as a cameraman on Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story. The film is a docufiction set in a Louisiana bayou. It features a family, played by local residents who weren’t actually related, who graciously let an oil company start drilling behind their house. (The production was commissioned by Standard Oil.) The attention to detail, both on the towering rig and among the creatures of the swamp, lends a quiet majesty to the humble explorations of the boy protagonist and his pet raccoon. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story, Louisiana Story also has the distinction of being the only film to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Virgil Thomson’s lush score.
Louisiana Story is now streaming Amazon Prime Video.
Bullfight at Malaga
The year before collaborating on Drew Associates’ seminal Primary, Leacock and Robert Drew went to Spain to film “The Bullfight of the Century.” The great Luis Miguel Dominguin had come out of retirement to take on his younger brother-in-law, Antonio Ordoñez. Drew and Leacock filmed their preparations as well as the fight itself, packing this momentous occasion into an 11-minute newsreel. The best moment comes during one of Dominguin’s fights when Leacock’s camera ignores the bullfighter for a moment and focuses on the beautiful athleticism of the bull. The most memorable image, however, might be a shot of Ernest Hemingway taking a nap on the plane en route to Malaga.
The Children Were Watching
Leacock directed and produced this 1961 Drew Associates film about the desegregation of schools in Louisiana, which aired on ABC as part of the “Close-Up” series. Two years before Crisis, which featured the titanic clash between the Kennedy administration and Governor George Wallace of Alabama on the same issue, The Children Were Watching makes its polemical case for integration by much humbler means. Here the spotlight shines on those directly affected, their testimony, and their faces. Leacock highlights the harassment faced by both black and white parents who choose to send their children to integrated schools, as well as the ugly rhetoric of those opposed to the change. Eschewing subtlety for voice-over narration and activism, it’s a powerful early example of Leacock and Drew’s partnership.
The Children Were Watching is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Leacock shot this charming culinary short for director Nell Cox. The setting is New York City’s famed and now-defunct La Caravelle, one of the most renowned French restaurants in Manhattan. The action is a single day’s lunch, from the 6 am preparation on through dessert. Chickens are dressed, asparagus are bound together, and a torrent of chopped carrots tumble out of a machine. There’s so much going on that it seems a miracle Leacock was able to capture it effectively, particularly given how many cooks there are in this kitchen. Yet he pulled it off, and the resulting short is a thrilling whirlwind of pots, pans, and poisson.
Les Oeufs à la Coque
Les Oeufs à la Coque is a film about nothing in particular. The title translates to “soft-boiled eggs,” which are a running motif throughout, but it’s not exactly a culinary documentary. It’s more of a relaxed travelogue, filmed by Lalonde and Leacock as they shop in Paris, visit farms in the countryside and stop to admire anything of passing interest. A cat and a dog fight over an egg. A woman touches the rear end of a mannequin in an old boutique for luck. A group of fishermen poses with their catch. There’s an air of the accidental to all of these vignettes. The film opens with a look back at Leacock’s arrival in Paris in 1977, invited to the Cinematheque Francaise by its director but arriving only in time for his funeral. This immediate reference to The Third Man sets the perfect tone. Lalonde and Leacock bounce about the French countryside like Holly Martins, with no apparent plan. The only difference is that in Les Oeufs à la Coque there are no lives at stake. Everyone enjoys the ride.