Quick! Who’s your favorite documentary filmmaker? If you’re drawing a blank that doesn’t commence with the name Les, you need to get on over to Upstate Films straightaway. This very Thursday in Rhinebeck and Friday in Woodstock, you’ll have the rare opportunity to watch a selection of works by one of Indiedom’s most brilliant chroniclers of musical and culinary Americana on film, followed by a question-and-answer session with the master himself.
There’s a very good reason why Les Blank was the obvious choice of the organizers of the inaugural Woodstock Film Festival to be the recipient of the very first Honorary Maverick Award back in 2000. Though his films aren’t the sort of biting sociopolitical exposés that a lot of people associate with the term “documentary,” they do make you think. And though he may not be a household name like Michael Moore, neither are his works as polemical: They’re meant to make the viewer feel good, not angry. If Blank has an axe to grind, it’s designed only to strike a blow against the homogenization of America’s many regional subcultures.
The vast majority of the docs made by Blank over the past 50+ years are primarily about roots music of various kinds: the blues, Cajun, Norteño, Dixieland jazz, bluegrass, Afro-Cuban, Hawaiian, polka, even Serbian. But the films tell us as much about the cultural pockets that spawned the music as they do about how it sounds. Food is nearly always the secondary theme. In Les Blank’s vision of America, you won’t really “get” the jazz, Cajun and zydeco music of New Orleans unless you also see how crawdads are marinated in a barrel, with cayenne pepper shoveled in by the large scoopload that bakers normally use for flour or sugar. In fact, one of his most famous movies is totally about a pungent culinary phenomenon: Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980).
Sadly, you won’t be seeing Garlic this week at Upstate, nor Blank’s biggest box-office “hit” ever: Burden of Dreams (1982), which follows Werner Herzog day by day through the logistically terrifying task of filming Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon jungle. But one of Blank’s most revered efforts, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969), is indeed on the menu for Friday evening in Woodstock.
He has a funny story to tell about the making of that movie. Although he demurs at any description of his documentary style as cinema vérité, Blank is known for his laid-back, naturalistic, unintrusive narrative style. But he wasn’t always that way, and when he shot The Blues…rather early in his career, he was so obsessive about catching every possible shot of the musician he idolized that Hopkins became rather testy. After performing ten songs, the elderly bluesman told the film crew to get lost – that he’d already done as much for them as he would for any recording session.
But Blank knew well that he didn’t have nearly enough footage for a half-hour documentary – that most of what gets shot ends up on the cutting-room floor. Depressed, he was getting ready to leave town when he found himself drawn into a card game with Hopkins and some of his buddies. The filmmaker lost all his pocket money in the wagering, which cheered Hopkins up considerably, and he invited Blank to join him for another game the following night. The wily bluesman never lost a hand and, Blank reports, always seemed to know exactly which cards he was holding. By the third night Hopkins was in a cheery enough mood to agree to six more weeks of shooting. Audiences worldwide have agreed for decades that the results are well worth whatever it cost Blank out-of-pocket to let Lightnin’ Hopkins beat him at cards.
Each of the two programs being presented locally this week runs about 90 minutes. Here’s the full roster: At Upstate Films in Rhinebeck beginning at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, you can see Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995), about a legendary Afro-Cuban drummer. Then comes Marc and Ann (1991), about the efforts of accordionist Marc and guitarist Ann Savoy to preserve Cajun music and culture. Finally, you’ll see one of Blank’s rare films that isn’t mainly about either music or food: Gap-Toothed Women (1987) deals with diverse cultural standards of female beauty and the fascinating folklore surrounding women with dental diastema (hint: Chaucer’s lusty Wife of Bath had a gap).
On Friday, March 9 at 5:30 p.m. at what used to be called the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock, it’s an all-music program kicking off with what Blank’s website claims is “the favorite film of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.”: A Well-Spent Life (1971), about Delta blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb. Next up is one of Blank’s earliest works after he completed film school: Dizzy Gillespie (1964). The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins rounds out the bill.
So pick either evening and you’ll get several tasty samples of the life’s work of a guy who deeply appreciates the ethnic patchwork that makes up America, and who knows how to capture and share it without letting the auteur’s ego get too much in the way. The only downside I can see to this program is the fact that it doesn’t include any of Blank’s newest efforts, so audience members who already know his work won’t get a glimpse of how it has changed since he traded in his beloved Aaton 16mm film camera for a digital model. But he’ll be there in person, so if you’re curious, you can just ask!
For more info, contact Upstate Films in Rhinebeck at (845) 876-2525 or in Woodstock at (845) 679-6608, or visit the website at https://upstatefilms.org. Learn more about Les Blank and Flower Films at www.lesblank.com/main.html.