Other than his documentary on Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams, I knew nothing of the American documentary filmmaker Les Blank, who died last year. I was surprised, then, when The Criterion Collection announced a three Blu-ray boxset containing fourteen of Les Blank’s documentaries, which range from twenty minutes to an hour in length, and plenty of supplements. Having next to no familiarity with Blank’s work, I went into this wondering why a bunch of short documentaries would receive such loving treatment. I now understand: Les Blank’s documentaries capture rhythm of life that is, if not entirely disappearing, increasingly difficult to find, let alone live; to capture this rhythm, Blank shows deep respect to the individuals who, through conversation and community often accompanied by music and food, find joy while time marches on.
As I went through the set, it reminded me a great deal of two works that I’ve covered on this site. First, I thought of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (see here), in which Leigh Fermor recounts his long walk across Europe that began in 1933, the last days of a culture that would never recover. Leigh Fermor also appreciated and conveyed the joy he felt in just sitting down and taking it in, conversing with those whose lives he had briefly entered. Second, I thought of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s documentary Routine Pleasures (see here), about a community of model train enthusiasts who seem to take comfort in a communal hobby that rewards patience with peace.
I didn’t expect to think of these kinds of works, works that to me deal with the only thing that is ever-present: the swift, haunting passage of time. These works pay respect to the moments of pleasure that gain their value, in large part, after they have already gone.
I adored this set. I think some readers know that a few years ago my family and I moved away from a fast-paced job in New York to a consciously slower pace in a small town in the Rocky Mountains, where the community gathers to celebrate and share food (the Salmon supper the local firemen put on in the blazing heat of August is beautiful and I thought of it often while watching these films). My desire for such things has been growing steadily over the last decade. This set, while documenting beautiful moments and customs and people, also gave me pause to reflect.
The set opens with The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a 31-minute documentary from 1968. The title suggests the spreading of the Gospel, the Gospel of music and community — the perfect setup for this set. In this film, we not only get to know the subject, blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, but we also get to know the small Texas community he lived in, with its unique speech. The blues guitarist may be the subject, but Blank emphasizes this by recording the community that created the blues guitarist: we see people congregating to chat, we see them working in the fields, we wee them raising their children. This approach continues through other films based on music, like A Well Spent Life, about another blues guitarist, Mance Lipscomb.
It’s this ability to capture these people as they seem to be living their day-to-day that makes these documentaries so powerful and so pleasurable. Though he himself is rarely in front of the camera (though he does appear in that foreground, often to try a dish), we get a sense of Les Blank himself. He is the silent one these people trust. He is the one who captures them but who never judges, whether he is capturing the Easter Sunday love-in in Los Angeles in 1967 (God Respects Us When We Work but He Loves Us When We Dance) or the Acadians who settled in Louisiana (Spend It All). Blank shows people living their life. It may be a hard life, they may have little (even the musicians who found some degree of fame didn’t find much in the way of financial success), but Blank does not show these people trying to achieve what others have — they are making do with what they do have.
It’s been a rich year for fans of The Criterion Collection. On this site we’ve talked about two of the biggest releases of the year: The Essential Jacques Demy and The Complete Jacques Tati. It makes me worry folks might not pay much attention to a surprisingly massive set from a relatively unknown filmmaker — a documentarian at that. But it would be a mistake to let this one slip by. This is beauty, uncommon beauty (like Blank explores in 1987’s Gap-Toothed Woman), and I think these films can be life-changing.