There’s a moment in Les Blank’s Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers in which a Spanish-born Californian explains to the camera how Spanish residents survived on tomatoes and garlic during a food shortage. An offscreen voice (not Blank’s) prods the interviewee, asking him how it was that Spain’s soil produced nothing else but tomatoes and garlic. The subject’s answer is simple and straightforward, responding curtly that it was simply the way things were.
Across the 14 films featured throughout Criterion’s box set Les Blank: Always for Pleasure, the filmmaker shows a dedicated interest in portraying people, culture, customs and social activities the way they simply are. This is not to say that Blank doesn’t provide context, nor that Blank is somehow an impartial and uninvolved “fly on the wall.” Rather, Blank’s approach is largely to let the subject define and portray him or herself closest to how they, without justification, simply are.
Where one documentarian might ask “why,” Blank is interested in “how” — how people make food, how people make music, how people socialize, how people find relief from the arduousness of daily life, how people make sense of themselves in relation to their environment and how people navigate the daily minutiae of life that otherwise goes unseen and unexamined. Although his films are not without a sense of history (Spend It All opens with title cards that concisely explain the centuries-long diasporic history of Cajun peoples), Blank’s films are brimming with the beauty of observing the immediate moment, whether that moment depicts process, reflection or revelry.
Blank began making documentaries in the early 1960s after leaving a career of directing industrial films that he described as “insipid films that promote business and industry.” His career thus began with a political worldview and aesthetic approach that could put him in the same camp as American verite contemporaries like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. Like those filmmakers, Blank’s work shows an investment in representing people and events in ways that are foreign to commercial media. But Pennebaker and the Mayles’s films were still mostly structured around “events” and “people” in accessible terms, whether that be the 1960 presidential election, the life of Bob Dylan, or the tragedy at Altamont.
Blank’s approach to subject matter is in some ways more in line with the politics and techniques suggested by the Maysles’s Salesman: to go in depth into a type of living that makes clear its idiosyncrasies. But the key difference is that Blank’s subjects are largely those who were otherwise exposed to little, if any, representation at all. Instead of Woodstock or Monterey Pop, Blank covered the 1967 Elysian Park Love-In (God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance). Instead of the lives of door-to-door bible salesmen or the Beales, Blank turns his lens to Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life), Zydeco musicians (Hot Pepper), the Mardi Gras Indians (Always for Pleasure) and gap-toothed women (Gap-Toothed Women).
In other ways, Blank’s films, especially when viewed together, offer a rejoinder to an America subsumed by the Protestant work ethic of Salesman or the charade of celebrity politics as represented in Primary or The War Room. They offer an alternative to a labor-centric vision of life, immersing in unique visions of leisure independent of consumer technologies or significant wealth and social capital. As a Cajun happily shares with the camera in the moment that gives Spend It All its title, “Work hard all week to get money, then come weekend spend it all.”
From the Louisiana delta to the 1970s California garlic craze, Blank covered subcultures and communities that seem cordoned off from the broader concerns and ways of living seemingly imposed on Americans writ large. Seemingly free from the pressures associated with media, national politics, celebrity and popular culture, Blank’s subjects are almost alien to what we think we know of American society. Even when examining arguable celebrities, as in The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hawkins, Blank is uninterested in their reputation or renown, concerned instead with daily routines, cooking and family life.
Blank’s subjects are people who define themselves by region and community, at once outside “culture” in big picture terms but fully involved and seemingly sated by the unique cultures in which they inhabit, seemingly unblemished by the standardizing forces of modernity. Blank’s films, after all, are partly credited with bringing Cajun identity into popular knowledge. In an era where authenticity was a prized commodity for politicians and rock stars alike, Blank’s output constituted a radical vision of what real living actually meant. These films are not only a joy to watch, but they work like a beautiful return to a subsumed memory about how wonderful life can be. Blank’s documentaries are rich portraits that capture the audacity of simply living.
The 14 films featured in this set vary between 20 minutes and an hour, but they are not referred to as “shorts” or “features.” By not conforming to traditional runtimes, Blank’s documentaries are free to explore structures beyond the expectations of narrative convention. His films, like the lives of the subjects he depicts, move at their own pace and take the time to appreciate a night of drinking over polka music (In Heaven There Is No Beer?) or the goodness of Cajun cuisine (Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking).
Such practices did Blank no favors in the commercialism department, but he was never interested in making films according to the expectations of existing rules. He moved as far away from his roots in industrial filmmaking as he could, giving his subjects room to represent themselves rather than peer through his lens within the framework of a capital. After all, his subjects lived largely outside of market-based value systems. And his films dive deep into exploring the social power of small, outsider communities while a commercial media culture increasingly promoted individualism.
Examined individually, Blank’s films are rich, detailed and engrossing portraits of people living within an increasingly rare milieu of American regionalism. But taken together, his films turn into a tapestry that collectively represents a beautifully unconventional philosophy of life. That’s what makes this box set so valuable: it puts Blank’s filmmaking, for the first time, into an extensive conversation with itself, and in doing so reveals a truly one-of-a-kind body of work.
The “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure” box set is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.