(1982) w/ Tommy Jarrell
(1980) w/ Alice Waters, Werner Herzog
(1987) w/ Lauren Hutton
D: Les Blank
Anthropologist, archivist, and unabashed appreciator of the American ethnic stew, Les Blank has more than 30 documentary films to his credit. Most examine some neglected piece of American culture, a national treasure in danger of being forgotten by virtue of lying on the wrong highway exit. Generally short and generally celebratory, they are built from ad hoc interviews, live footage, and the occasional archival morsel. None are exactly riveting, or even that well-made, but it is a decidedly spirited batch of films, dead-bent on glorifying the finer things in life.
One of Blank's first loves is music, and over half his films cover that stompin' ground. His first major film tackled Dizzy Gillespie; others profile blues, Cajun, and Norteño musicians. In Heaven There Is No Beer? is Blank's visit to the red-hot polka circuit, featuring footage of such regional luminaries as Eddie Blazonczyk's Versa-Tones and Henry Jasiewicz and the Versa-Js. Flaco Jimenez gets a nod, and things get downright religious with a waltz-and-polka Mass presided over by chaplain Walter Szczypula. Throughout, there is a sense of the pure gusto poured into this European folkdancing import. Low on analysis and thankfully lacking an ironic smirk, Heaven is what you might call good clean fun — and daring enough to anticipate the rehabilitation of polka music from punchline to cultural treasure. (One cavil: There are decidedly more shots of female derrieres than seem necessary for a film about polka. Why, Les? To what, ahem, end?)
A film with significantly less beer, sausage, and accordion crimes is the tender Sprout Wings and Fly, Blank's visit with mountain fiddler Tommy Jarrell. A 30-minute short co-produced with Alice Gerrard (among others), Sprout Wings and Fly is a gauzy slice of old-time Carolina life. Although there is some mighty fine fiddle-sawin' in the piece, it is Jarrell's whimsical storytelling that is the heart of the film. Subjects include a cornpatch courtship, an honest proposal, and the very worst place to take a nap. Perhaps best is the story of a local feller plagued by corns who finally takes a chisel and cuts off the offending toe, feeding it to his curious dog. The title comes from a Jarrell song: "Eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm dry/Get to feelin' much better, gonna sprout wings and fly."
If Les Blank loves music, and he does, he also loves good food. Yum Yum Yum is a smorgasbord of Cajun and Creole cuisine; another culinary praisesong is 1980's Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers.
Garlic is essentially a film full of people holding forth on the virtues of garlic. There is talk of curative powers, vampire-slaying powers, and an elusive "garlic euphoria" that comes with heavy consumption and rivals a marijuana high. There are interviews with a wide range of garlic impresarios, including Alice Waters, Werner Herzog, and a particularly passionate Andulasian gypsy. There is lots of cooking, from barbecue-smokin' to pesto-makin' to eggplant-bakin' to an unfortunately explicit look at the sausage-making process. There is a visit to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a discussion of garlic's Siberian roots, and the strange fact that Eleanor Roosevelt ate three cloves a day — dipped in chocolate. The theme that ties these disparate elements together is, of course, a love of the "stinking rose of mirth," judged here to be "worth twice its weight in pure gold." I won't argue, although the going price at H-E-B is still six for a dollar.
Les Blank loves music, Les Blank loves food, Les Blank loves none-of-the-above. Samples of the latter include Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, The Maestro (about Gerry Gaxiola), and the wonderful Gap-Toothed Women. Gap-Toothed Women is what it advertises: a celebration of gap-toothed women — women of all stripes whose spacious smiles put David Letterman's famous gap to deathly shame. It's enough to make an orthodontist shudder — some of those tunnels you could damn near drive a Mack truck through — but these dames are proudly brace- and toothplug-free. (Yes, toothplugs.) It turns out that gapped teeth are taken as a sign of luck, lechery, or wanderlust, depending on whom you ask. The Egyptians, for their part, thought that the moon would shine through the toothgap and onto their vocal chords, making them "sing like beautiful birds." Famous gap-toothed women include Lauren Hutton, Cleopatra, Sandra Day O'Connor, and the Wife of Bath. Whimsical in both tone and subject, Gap-Toothed Women becomes a slyly feminist commentary on social standards of beauty — and the more beautiful act of rejecting those standards. As one gap-toothed chanteuse puts it, "They say they want to save your face/But they just want to take away your space." Hell no, these women say, and give a toothy smile to prove they're sincere. Gap Pride!
Polka, garlic, gapped teeth, and toe-choppin' tales — sounds like a typical run through the Les Blank archives. With the possible exception of Gap-Toothed Women, I can't recommend them as steamy couch date night movies. And as documentaries go, they're a bit thin on conflict and a little short on context. Ken Burns would be scandalized. But if you've nothing to do of a Sunday afternoon, have an appreciation for appreciation, and feel like being edified — but only slightly — check out the Les Blank section at Vulcan on Guadalupe and grab a slightly skewed slice of American pie.
— Jay Hardwig
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