Cooking Character: ‘How to Smell a Rose’ and Les Blank’s Love of Food

Kino Lorber

Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here:

How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at His Farm in Normandy is, in some ways, an atypical Les Blank film. Much of this can be attributed to his collaborator, director Gina Leibrecht, who turned the footage Blank shot in 2000 into the feature film now being released. The finished product is a visit with documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock and his partner Valerie Lalonde as well as a biographical portrait. The addition of clips from Leacock’s films and the generally chronological structure separates this from Burden of Dreams, for example, Blank’s other feature-length profile of a director.

Yet what ties How to Smell a Rose unmistakably to the rest of Blank’s work is its mood. Leibrecht has captured his quiet joy, the smile that envelops the images of shared meals and infectious music. Food is an essential of Blank’s films. One gets the impression that he was America’s hungriest documentarian. From Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers to In Heaven There Is No Beer, cooking and eating are frequently the central scenes of his films. His recently released 1974 feature, A Poem Is a Naked Person, is all about destruction and consumption, eating and digesting America. Even Gap Toothed Women is about mouths.

In How to Smell a Rose, Leacock celebrates the arrival of his friend by cooking for him. There is poule-au-pot, a riff on the famous pot-au-feu with chicken instead of beef. There are brightly colored vegetables and sausages fresh from the butcher. Finally, there is crème caramel made from scratch over the stove. Watching all of this cooking evokes one of Leacock’s films as well, Nell Cox’s French Lunch. Here, however, there is no frantic rush to serve a full dining room. Dinner is only to be shared among a few friends, and so there is time to linger over vegetables and to perfect the caramel.

The brightly colored and instantly evocative images of food being prepared are a remarkably quick way to achieve Leacock’s evergreen mantra of nonfiction cinema, the “feeling of being there.” The hue of vegetables and the crackle of the pan evoke a visceral reaction, conjuring smells and tastes. After a few moments the audience’s desire for the food mingles with their own memories, creating a subtle sensation of being in the room with the chefs. Blank’s work has always accomplished this, using both food and music to fully transport an audience to a dance hall, bayou, or faraway kitchen.

Culinary images are also frequently the most authentic images. That’s not to say a glimpse of a roasted chicken is always nonfictional, as the image of a live one might be. There’s plenty of fake food in Hollywood movies. There’s also plenty of false magic on cooking shows. Celebrity chefs place an unbaked cake into the oven only to pull a completed dessert from a hidden shelf only a second later. But that doesn’t change the fact that even these faked images present something tangible, conjuring an object that carries specific memories of taste. In a documentary, the focus given to these much more clearly authentic images creates an even more visceral connection between the mind of the audience and the culinary vision in front of them. Endive salad, for lack of a better word, is real. Blank understood this, and even tried to push it further by filling the theater with the smells of roasting garlic for screenings of Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers.

Kino Lorber

Leacock underlines this as well, offering up one of his Drew Associates films as a point of discussion in How to Smell a Rose. In 1964’s Campaign Manager there is a scene in a hotel room. All of Barry Goldwater’s campaign advisers are deep in discussion. They are, all of them, men in suits behaving very seriously. Then room service arrives, and their strategy meeting is interrupted by the pressing question of which steak belongs to whom. The juxtaposition is hilarious, all of these ostensibly very important people suddenly stricken by the task of differentiating the medium-wells from the medium-rares. The scene was later transposed into the 1972 political satire The Candidate, starring Robert Redford. Yet, as Leacock explains, this fictional version isn’t nearly as funny. The authenticity of the hunger is what makes it work. Cutting it into a much cleaner, staged setting with more intentionally comic editing saps much of the humor.

Back in Normandy, the hunger is being sated by a discussion of bouillon. Food serves two thematic purposes in How to Smell a Rose. First is the above goal of “the feeling of being there,” which is true of most of the culinary moments in Blank’s filmography. The second, however, is more specific. The relaxed atmosphere of the produce market, Leacock’s last minute trip to the butcher for the sausage he forgot, and the way he chats while chopping, all impart his character as an artist and a friend. In particular, his culinary profile stands for his flexibility. He made his first film at 14 years old on the Canary Islands, served as a photographer in World War II in Southeast Asia, and then moved to America. His films with Drew Associates in the 1960s are substantially different in style to those he made with Lalonde in the 1990s. To put it far too simply, his later films are much more discernably French. As is, of course, his cooking.

It’d be a fool’s errand to try to compare Leacock’s specific cooking style to the way that he shot, edited and directed films with any degree of precision. Instead, this works in broader strokes. He’s a chef who thinks on his feet and isn’t too fazed by a last-minute trip to town to pick up the sausages he forgot. He has fully adopted the culinary techniques of the country he now calls home. He’s a flexible artist able to find beauty in any number of surroundings.

A good final comparison is the culinary film that Blank made many years prior with another documentary filmmaker. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is exactly that, a brief portrait of the time Werner Herzog ate his own shoe in accord with a bet made with Errol Morris before the making of Gates of Heaven. It’s an equally helpful metaphor for Herzog’s own character, a personal endeavor as flamboyant, difficult and likely unnecessary as Fitzcarraldo’s trip up the Ucayali River. He cooks and eats with a brash flair, far cry from Leacock’s smooth style.

An entire book could likely be written about the role of food in Blank’s films. It stands for community in In Heaven There Is No Beer and the cajun ethnographies, destruction and consumption on a grand scale in A Poem Is a Naked Person, adventure and enlightenment in All in This Tea (also with Gina Leibrecht) and countless different variations of theme in Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. Blank understood that “you are what you eat” isn’t simply an occasionally useful prose cliche, but an immensely fruitful tool for nonfiction cinematic expression. It seems a perfect conclusion, then, for this final character study to feature such well chosen, illuminating moments in the kitchen.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.