Painter Jim Franklin wanders about an empty pool holding a glass jar. It’s not immediately apparent what he’s up to until he makes his first capture. Scorpions. They’re everywhere, tiny ones, and he’s just calmly scooping them up. It’s the sort of eccentric, earnest vignette that one can find throughout the filmography of Les Blank, a catalogue brimming over with both artists and critters. After clearing out the arachnids, Franklin paints an octopus onto the bottom of the pool, checking it against a photograph of the sea creature as he works. Then Blank leaves him for a spell, returning later to find the entire surface of the pool metamorphosed into a psychedelic firmament of birds and fish.
This revelation is a central image of A Poem Is a Naked Person, a long-hidden masterwork that now crowns the career of one of America’s essential documentarians. The transformation of a dangerous pest-infested swimming pool into a cosmic work of art is just one of many humbly beautiful symbols in this travelogue of creativity. Though it’s ostensibly a portrait of musician Leon Russell, the film is instantly recognizable as something much looser and more rambunctious. This is the Great American Documentary that always obliquely peeks out of Blank’s shorter, more narrowly focused work, the grand plunge into Americana by the man who probably knew it better than anyone else.
Blank was hired by Russell and his record label in 1972 to make a much less ambitious musical portrait. By the spring of 1974 he had turned almost 60 hours of footage into a 100-minute feature. The finished product was to have played the Cannes Film Festival that year but the screening was canceled when the print didn’t arrive on time. Blank continued to tinker with the editing for the next three and a half decades. A Poem Is a Naked Person remained unreleased through his death in April of 2013. Now his son, Harrod Blank, has restored and remastered the film based on his father’s most recent cut.
The result is a work with much of the same slow grace as the elder Blank’s best, as well as his signature sense of humor and joy. It opens, not with concert footage, but with a simple chat with an elderly couple who work for Russell. Their smiling, genuine pleasure shines through as they tell Blank how much they’ve enjoyed their time with the musician, something of a hometown boy. The husband has even grown his hair out to look like Russell’s, as per his wife’s request. It’s “American Gothic” through the looking glass, stern silence traded in for a frisky wink.
The aging lovers are followed not long after by another view of Russell’s property, the aging relic of “Pappy Reeves Floating Motel” down by the river. The bluntness of the cut underscores its offbeat humor. A Poem Is a Naked Person is filled with these abrupt edits, unmooring the film from any particular sense of place. The result is a journey that falls somewhere between Blank’s very specific ethnographies (Spend It All, Always for Pleasure) and his internationally composed essays (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Gap-Toothed Women). He briefly but deeply inhabits very singular spaces, from a wedding in what looks like an old plantation house, through giant concert halls and tiny recording studios, and out into the most eccentric nooks of the American Southeast. A Poem Is a Naked Person moves like a boat down a previously uncharted waterway, each bend in the river a surprise that could lead to rollicking rapids or a languid bayou.
Inevitably, this variety of locations undermines Russell’s presence. Blank placing him in the back seat of his own tour. This is far cry from, for example, Burden of Dreams. While Werner Herzog takes on the universe, Russell simply inhabits it. Instead of the documentary’s hero, or even subject, he becomes its spirit guide. This is helped by the fact that even at only 30 years old, he looks a bit like a ghost. With long white hair and a long gray beard, he’s an incarnation of agelessness and relaxed wisdom. His few featured performances are remarkable evidence of his talent, but they arrive abruptly and conclude with equal briskness. Russell isn’t the hero of A Poem Is a Naked Person, so much as he is first among the many equal subjects of Blank’s eye.
As such, he does more singing than talking. When he does actually have a conversation he tends to take on the role of the distant sage. A few young, aspiring musicians rave to him about their determination to make it to the “top,” an ascent that they think requires moving to Hollywood and relentlessly assaulting the industry. They come across as a little deranged, their obsession with fame dwarfing their love of making music. Russell mostly listens. He’s the lens through which we perceive this lust, though he’s not exactly unimpeachable himself. In another striking moment, he’s asked whether he’d ever sing if he weren’t paid for it. He never really answers this question, either.
Hunger, for fame and fortune or otherwise, is a driving force of A Poem Is a Naked Person. Images of destruction and consumption come back again and again, often with truly unsettling power. Blank watches a crowd gathered to see the demolition of a grand old hotel, which he intercuts with footage of a boa constrictor eating a bright yellow chick. As its mouth expands around the little bird, someone begins to speak about the brutality of capitalism. While the specific politics of the moment are not exactly clear, they don’t have to be. The combination of these images is a raw, withering critique of American hunger.
Another shot expresses this quite succinctly. Blank starts with his camera pointed at a local jail and then pans to the right, encountering first a slaughterhouse and then a bar. It evokes the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter, in which Nathaniel Hawthorne describes how the Utopian Puritan town began with the allotment of plots for the burial ground and the prison. Now, centuries later, three decaying community institutions of consumption and death share the same line of sight, waiting to consume those who enter.
More than any other visual cue, however, Blank underlines his focus on hunger with mouths. One particularly enthusiastic character, a representative of a parachuting event, celebrates his participation in the film by emptying a glass of beer in one gulp and then chomping it up. Mercifully, he at least doesn’t appear to be bleeding. The mouth of the boa constrictor is another unforgettable image, stretching to seemingly impossible width. The representation of this destructive urge to consume is among the darkest things in Blank’s filmography, perhaps the only time in which he portrays eating as something potentially malevolent. Even Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is a garlicky feat in honor of Errol Morris’s success.
Yet the mouth is also the turning point. In spite of its uses as a gnashing, violent weapon, it is also the place from which we sing. Blank is equally obsessed with this motif. His concert footage is dominated by close-ups, particularly of Russell, whose enormous mustache makes it appear as if his microphone and his mouth are fused parts of one and the same organism. Everyone sings whether it be professional solo artists like Russell and guests Willie Nelson and George Jones or communities of song like the jubilant church choir that rounds out the last act of the film.
This journey from destructive hunger to joyous musical release is maybe the triumphant climactic metaphor of Blank’s career. Images of creativity are everywhere. A man in the audience at one of Russell’s concerts has an enormous, gorgeous chest tattoo of a woman’s face with butterfly wings. Blank gives time to backup singers and collaborating musicians, drummers and fiddlers, a Native American celebration, a high school marching band and a jazzy piano rendition of Mendelssohn’s wedding march by Russell himself. There are notes of creativity in close-ups of signs for food, parachutists falling gracefully out of the sky, and all of Franklin’s art.
And, of course, there is the creative charm of the documentary uniting them all. Blank frequently draws attention to his own presence, allowing glimpses of his frequently shirtless and always sunny image. His editing also draws attention to itself, cutting from place to place with little attempt to hide the abrupt bounciness of the ride. After all, just as Franklin paints an aquatic cosmos on the bottom of an abandoned scorpion-infested pool, so does Blank craft joy and artistic expression out of the raw material of America. With just as much homespun charm as his shorter work but with much more thematic ambition, A Poem Is a Naked Person may very well be the crowning masterpiece of Blank’s 55 years of quintessentially American cinema.
This review was originally published on July 1, 2015.