TCM’s Les Blank-fest is coming on July 28: A regular e’touffee of eccentric, poetic documentaries

By on July 25, 2015

On Tuesday July 28, the TCM cable network will be paying tribute with an all-night showcase of short films by the uncompromisingly independent Les Blank, the Florida-born visual anthropologist best remembered for his poetic and often eccentric studies of American musical traditions, described by the New York Times as “a master of movies about the American idiom…one of our most original filmmakers.”

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TCM will be airing eleven of Blank’s idiosyncratic short films — no less than eight of them are TCM premieres (check your local listings) — covering a wide range of subjects, including a couple of earthy short features about a pair of Texas musicians, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968) and the under-appreciated Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life, 1971); a pair of pungent shorts examining the lives, folkways, and cuisine of French-speaking black Creole life, framed around Blank’s portrait of Louisiana zydeco accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, fiddler Canray Fontenot, and Grammy-winning Creole musician Clifton Chenier, a.k.a. the King of Zydeco (Dry Wood, and Hot Pepper, both 1973); a closer look at Cajun culture in the U.S. (Spend It All, 1971); the city of New Orleans (Always for Pleasure, 1978); the only serious documentary about garlic culture and cooking with the “stinking rose” (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, 1980); and the polka and its devotees (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984).

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We suggest that you make an evening of it with TCM on the TV and put a mouthwatering homemade meal on the dining room table, or set your DVRS, record the whole evening and plan out a good Cajun or Creole meal — and if you’re in Los Angeles, feel free to invite us over, we’ll bring a couple of bottles of good wine.

Blank — who directed some 40 documentaries between 1960 and his death in 2013, age 77 — made his unique documentaries over a period of nearly fifty years, usually crediting his movies not to himself but to Flower Films, his California production company founded in 1967, and sharing the credit with some of his fellow filmmaker friends, like Skip Gerson and Maureen Gosling, his longtime editor and sound recordist. The two worked on 14 films together, including the award-winning Burden of Dreams (1982), about the troubled production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), and many of Blank’s greatest documents of the regional U.S., among them Hot Pepper (1973), Chulas Fronteras (1976), and Always for Pleasure (1978).

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Typically, Les Blank’s films focused on American roots music of one form or another, including (among others) Delta and Texas blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka, tamburitza, and Hawaiian music. He typically examined the music makers as just the starting off point in order to show how their musical styles could be seen as part a larger American cultural context, part of a unique heritage, rather than just going for the straight biographical approach.

A few weeks back we featured one example of Blank’s unique non-biographical approach when Night Flight’s Chris Morris did an in-depth piece about the L.A. premiere of A Poem is a Naked Person, Blank’s feature-length portrait of Leon Russell, which had been screened at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and then put on, as Chris writes, “semi-permanent ice, allowing it to be screened only by permission, with Blank in attendance. It remained an elusive commodity until the director’s death in 2013.”

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Most of Blank’s films, however, did not choose to focus on bona fide rock ‘n’ roll legends like Russell, but instead examined artists who were on the fringes of some of the truly American traditional music genres and sub-genres, often documenting unsung performers who’d never been recorded before and never were again; a handful of the films based around these musicians represent the only filmed documents of their lives, as many of them are now deceased.

Blank’s films are very different from those of Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman, two of his most gifted contemporaries, and in fact seem not to want to impose any kind of personal imprint. Unlike the two mentioned here, Blank never re-created scenes for his film; what he saw looking through his lens is what we see, and often it’s like sifting through the stock footage of an educational film. Instead of trying to manufacture a visually beautiful sequence, he might, instead, simply point his camera unflinchingly at something that could be arguably ugly by description. He did this, because, as one writer said, he sought to “find truth in the surface of things, to capture realities that hide in plain sight until the camera comes along to tease them out.”

Sometimes, however, his films are not to be taken too seriously, despite all the heady talk: As TCM writes in their intro for the first film of the evening, Always For Pleasure, “each film by itself can seem like a lark, a whimsically performed act of cinema, executed for no other reasons besides A) putting these wacky Americans on celluloid for posterity’s sake, and B) fun.

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After graduating from college, Blank had paid his bills shooting industrial films, which he loathed. As TCM’s writer Greg Ferrara says in his piece on Blank’s film about Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Blank spent the early part of his thirties, and much of his twenties, putting together industrial movies, basically educational films for the corporate world, movies to promote the venture to investors and employees. Blank called them ‘insipid’ and moved quickly to get his career on a different track. He wasn’t fond of wasting his creative output on low rent promotional movies for corporations so he left, set up his own production company, and started making short observations on film. We might call them documentaries and, indeed, few have ever documented better than Blank, but his films are structured in such a beautiful, informal way, they come off as observations by a casual observer, yet are so expertly compiled that only a fool would think it all happened by way of happy accident.”

His early films were financed by his industrial film work; the later ones by sales of the preceding films, speaker fees and even t-shirt sales.

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The evening’s festivities begins with 1978’s Always For Pleasure, Blank’s brightly colorific hour-long tribute to the sights, sounds, and flavors of New Orleans, which features not only a great musical soundtrack — with appearances by Allen Toussaint, and Professor Longhair and the Native American–inspired group the Wild Tchoupitoulas, who are joined onstage by the Neville Brothers — but brief interludes to visit crawfish boils and discussions about the perfect red beans and rice recipe. If you haven’t eaten dinner before you watch the film, prepare yourself for mouth-watering images as locals show how to cook 30 pounds of crawfish at once (five pounds of dry cayenne pepper to start with).

Writing on TCM’s website, Michael Atkinson says “This film is the corrective to every film and news report about the desperation and woe of Southern poverty – sure, it’s there, Blank says, but there’s also this, the uncrushed appetite for reckless fun, dancing and good eats.” Atkinson further describes how, “No other documentary filmmaker was ever so welcoming of people waving at his camera,” and indeed Blank’s camera shows that he was more comfortable blocks away from the touristy French Quarter, and deeper into the outer parishes of New Orleans in the springtime, when parade season leading up to Mardi Gras is in full swing.

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The “pleasure” of the title, then, is in the full expression of life in these small, poor neighborhoods, in witnessing the “second line” parades and rhythmic rituals of a “jazz funeral” march, the colorful evocation of what it’s like to live life in, as Atkinson says, “one of the greatest American cities – by virtue of its fermenting stew of humidity, decay, bustling and self-satisfying subcultures, crazy old money, ethnic-mix history, peculiar lust for hedonistic liberty, the fascinating collision between pagan and Christian traditions, and buoyant imaginative force.” Blank’s presentation of ethnographic truth appears to be less important than maintaining a sunny atmosphere. It’s quite a good piece of writing if you get the chance to dig down a little deeper.

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Next up is Blank’s Spend It All, which takes us on a journey down the bayous and byways of Southwest Louisiana, where we meet the descendants of the Acadians, the first French settlers in North America, hailing from eastern Canada, whose life continues to be defined by the same types of activities that their ancestors enjoyed, day in and day out, a certain kind of pastoral Cajun life, fishing, shrimping, and cooking (if you love shellfish, shrimp, crabs, clams and crayfish, your mouth will be watering), and, of course, since this is a Les Blank film there’s a surfeit of irresistible sounds made by local musicians, mostly playing the zydeco music — fiddles, accordions and plaintive male voices — synonymous with the community, including the Balfa Brothers ensemble and accordionists Nathan Abshire and Mac Savoy.

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Writing for TCM, David Sterritt says “‘Spend It All’ (1972) is a less obvious title for a film equally enthusiastic about the delights of finding, preparing, sharing and relishing good cuisine. And cuisine is the right French-derived word, since ‘Spend It All’ is a hearty celebration of the French-derived Cajun community in southern Louisiana, which has styles of language, music, camaraderie and cookery found nowhere else.”

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Sterrit writes that “Blank never claimed to be a social scientist, but his best films are informed by such keen observational detail that ethnographic truth emerges spontaneously and organically from the material. ‘Spend It All’ doesn’t try to fathom Cajun psychology or plumb the Cajun soul. Instead of trying to portray people as they truly are, Blank portrays them as they probably like to think they are, and as they want to be seen by those around them.”

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Blank’s Dry Wood and Hot Pepper (both 1973) are often paired together as companion pieces, as they were filmed simultaneously and were intended to serve as two halves of a single feature-length documentary (exhibitions, apart from screenings at an Austin, Texas, nightclub and the Smithsonian Museum, were limited to short subject screenings, often at his own home).

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Taking up the latter first (curiously, it airs later in the evening, and not immediately after Dry Wood), Hot Pepper is an energetic portrait of the Grammy-winning Creole musician Clifton Chenier, a.k.a. the King of Zydeco. As captured by Blank’s camera, it’s undeniable that Chenier’s propulsive accordion-driven rhythms and sophisticated melodies are unforgettably catchy, synthesizing elements of traditional Cajun dance tunes and black R&B with African-inflected percussion.

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Blank wanted to document what Chenier’s life was like, and even bunked with him in a rooming house that was reserved for blacks, which led to him being detained for questioning by local authorities, in order to make their point. Blank ended up having to call a few friends he had made in the Louisiana government while shooting an earlier documentary — after he’d been arrested for simple marijuana possession — and he was able to complete the film with full police participation.

Dry Wood looks at the lives of the people living in a rural corner of Southwest Louisiana, in the region’s black Creole community, and is feted out with the spirited traditional music of two legends, both sons of sharecroppers, accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and and fiddler Canray Fontenot, both dead — Ardoin died in 2007 at the age of 91, and Fontenot in 1995 — but Blank’s film captures them in the prime of life. The title of the film, in fact, is the English translation of “Bois Sec,” the French nickname attributed to Ardoin as a child as he was always the first one to run inside from the cotton fields when it rained, so he stayed dry.

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Margarita Landazuri, writing for TCM, has a wonderful piece about the film, excerpted here:

Blank’s interest in the various cultures of Louisiana began when he was a college student at Tulane University in New Orleans, years before he became a filmmaker. Some of his earliest documentaries were about music and musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie (1965), The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968) and Spend it All (1971), about Cajun culture and music.

After working on the latter, Blank applied for a grant to make a film about the music and culture of French-speaking black people in southwest Louisiana. As he researched the subject, he focused on two musicians, zydeco king Clifton Chenier, and Ardoin, whose country Creole musical style pre-dates zydeco. Blank quickly realized that those were two distinct stories and styles, and that each one should be a separate film.

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Ardoin learned to play the accordion as a child, but he did not begin performing regularly until he was in his thirties, when he teamed up with fiddler and Canray Fontenot and they began playing at local dance halls. By the time Blank arrived with Maureen Gosling, his sound recorder (and later longtime editor), Ardoin’s and Fontenot’s partnership had endured for decades. The filmmakers lived in Ardoin’s home in the village of Duralde, and spent more than three months shooting. Gosling later recalled that “it meant we could really sink into the place,” and that their subjects eventually “let their guard down and were authentic.”

Reviews of Dry Wood noted that the film was a look at a culture and way of life that went far beyond a standard musical biography. J. Hoberman wrote in American Film magazine that the film ‘is an almost continual round of barbecues, exposition on sausage making, and demonstration of gumbo preparation where Blank gets so close to the action that he’s almost using his lens to stir the pot.’

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Speaking of stirring the pot, the next film in TCM’s lineup, Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking, was filmed as an 31-minute extra for the full-length documentary J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance) (1989), which combined Cajun music, cooking, eating, and talking about cooking and eating. Blank pays yet another visit to Southwest Louisiana and accordionist Marc Savoy, and his wife Ann, this time with an even closer focus on the region’s delectable cuisine. Savoy and his family and friends show us how to make goo courtbouillon, gumbo, e’touffee, boudin, and other Cajun and Creole delights, from recipes that have always been passed along by demonstration rather than written down.

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Interspersing its appetizing cooking scenes with exuberant musical performances by the likes of Queen Ida, born Ida Lewis Guillory, who talks about the Creole culture that has made up the foundational center of her life at that point, and many of the same performers from J’ai Été Au Bal are featured here too.

As writer Greg Ferrera says in the TCM overview, “Yum, Yum, Yum, A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking‘ is yet another fine example of how Les Blank can take even the simplest of tasks, like making food, and turn it into a fascinating subject and a true cultural exploration.”

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Next up we have the wonderfully-titled Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, which premiered at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival. In 2004, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

As one might expect, this film is a flavorsome and unexpected ode to the “stinking rose” that can both please and offend the senses. Blank turns his camera on ardent garlic fans, from German-born director Werner Herzog and chef Alice Waters — described by TCM’s writer Rob Nixon as a “pioneering proponent of organic, locally grown food and one of the most influential figures in the culinary world of the past half-century” — her landmark Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, opened in 1971 — to hilariously committed garlic obsessives who drape themselves in the bulbs.

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Speaking of Herzog, Blank, of course, had a longtime association with Werner Herzog, who is a great director who moves easily between documentary and fiction. Their relationship culminated with Blank’s most famous documentary, the feature-length Burden of Dreams (1982), which chronicles the making of Herzog’s epic Fitzcarraldo (also 1982), the story of a crazily ambitious man (Klaus Kinski) determined to build an opera house atop a rugged South American mountain. Herzog has an aura of dogged individualism, but Blank has clearly influenced him. Herzog and crew members can be seen wearing Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers t-shirts.

And speaking of Waters, at the time this documentary was made, she had been doing a special event at her eatery for several years, featuring an all-garlic menu every Bastille Day (July 14). Blank shoots footage in Waters’ restaurant at the time of the annual event and also at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, one of the largest food festivals in the U.S., founded in 1979, just one year before it was featured here.

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Waters, it should be pointed out here, also makes a brief appearance in another Blank film that came out at the same time, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which she helps German film director Herzog cook the titular piece of apparel in the kitchen at Chez Panisse to fulfill his promise that he would eat his shoe if documentarian Errol Morris ever completed Gates of Heaven (1978).

More than just a nonfiction lark, Blank’s highly personal film is a loving tribute both to a food that unites the most disparate of cuisines—from Chinese to Italian to American barbecue—and to the East Bay, California, community that appears on-screen, which contained so many of his favorite people and places. It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s evocative style that this movie overwhelms the senses even without “Aromaround,” an immersive experience Blank devised that had theater owners roasting garlic during screenings.

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The next film to appear in TCM’s Blankfest is the great documentary, The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins, about the legendary Texas blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins, born Sam John Hopkins, which is such a joy to see again. It was only his second effort and it stands as one of his best, still. Blank brilliantly captures Hopkins’s engaging personality, his fierce music, and the textures of his life and community. This rollicking film puts a fascinating American figure in the spotlight, establishing the singular approach to nonfiction filmmaking that Blank would continue to follow for the rest of his career.

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Greg Ferrara’s TCM write-up includes a lot of background on Hopkins’s life, so be sure to check that out if you’re not that familiar with his career. Ferrera also writes, about Blank:

“Early on in his documentary career, Les Blank had a radical idea. Rather than show a bunch of still images or talking heads, complete with captions to let us know who we’re listening to, why not actually just document a culture, a person, an activity? That such a concept in the history of documentary filmmaking would seem radical just goes to show how far off course many documentaries have travelled. Blank simply filmed the culture in action and later, in the editing booth, put the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that not only documented but enlightened.

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From start to finish, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, does nothing but show Hopkins perform, talk and fish and yet, by the end, we have a full picture of the man and his music.”

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The next feature of the evening — A Life Well Spent — is another great Blank doc on a Texas musician, sharecropper and armchair philosopher Mance Lipscomb, who some consider the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived. Lipscomb wasn’t discovered until he was 65 years old, having played the blues his entire life. He recorded his first album, Texas Songster in 1960, so Blank’s documentary, which shows Lipscomb in his seventies at the time, comes not too much after songs like “Sugar Babe” and “Shine on Harvest Moon” had made him an international sensation, but he’s still working as a sharecropper on Texas’s hot plains.

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Writing for TCM’s overview, Frank Miller says: “In 1972, Les Blank, the poet laureate of the music documentary, moved into Lipscomb’s world to capture a sense of who he was. As with his other musical documentaries — including The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970) and In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984) — Blank is interested in more than just capturing the music. He captures the whole man within a cultural context that relates the blues to Lipscomb’s family life and the Texas rural world in which he continued to live, even after becoming a major blues star. The result is a portrait of one man’s adaptation to hard times, revealing what it did to his character and how it is reflected in his music.”

A Well Spent Life is a quietly poetic film, set to the tranquil rhythms of daily routine, and now feels a testament to the pleasure Lipscomb took from his simple life, as well as a touching and wry portrait of his marriage to Elnora, his wife of nearly sixty years. You simply cannot miss this one, folks.

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Sprout Wings and Fly, which premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 1983, is up next, and it’s a warm depiction of the life of an extraordinary musician in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, that centers on the well-known old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell, a vitally expressive player whose art was forged in a community devoted to good food, good drinking, good stories, and, of course, good music.

Jarrell was 82 when he appeared in this film. He had made his living for many years in road construction until retiring in 1966, but his true calling was the music of the region of North Carolina’s mountains around Mount Airy, where an annual festival is now held in his honor. Jarrell’s influence extended beyond the Appalachian region, winning him the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 1982. He died a couple of years after this film’s release.

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Through visits with family and friends that involve cooking, churchgoing, disquisitions on courtship rituals and moonshine, and virtuosic renditions of traditional Appalachian music, Blank’s camera lets us experience a rich talent and a mode of existence that has kept to the same jubilant outlines for generations.

TCM’s Rob Nixon seems at a loss for words trying to describe the film, saying “There’s not much to be said about this 30-minute documentary profiling an Appalachian musician and his community that isn’t already in the film itself,” but mentions a key point: Les Blank shares directing credit here with others, including Cece Conway, an Appalachian literature and culture scholar, and Alice Gerrard, a musician herself who had recorded and performed with noted bluegrass singer-composer-musician Hazel Dickens (1925-2011). Gerrard was featured in two later music documentaries, Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2002) and Mike Seeger: To the Universe (2009) about Gerrard’s one-time husband, a musician and folklorist who was the half-brother of folk legend Pete Seeger.

Blank, Conway, and Gosling put together an even shorter piece on Jarrell from previously shot footage, edited years after the fiddler’s death, My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1995). The trio also made a film featuring the stories, folk wisdom, and traditional dancing of Jarrell’s sister, Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge (1991). The siblings appeared in both films.

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Now we come to In Heaven There Is No Beer?, Blank’s 1978 look at Polish American polka subculture, a film simply rife with what his ex-wife and frequent production partner Chris Simon once called “polka happiness.” Blank’s camera takes in all kinds of polka lovers bravely defying the tyranny of tango and disco, from spring chickens to spry elders, as well as performances by some of the genre’s biggest musical figures, such as Jimmy Sturr, Eddie Blazonczyk, and Walt Solek. Among the many pleasures of In Heaven There Is No Beer? (its title a variation on a famous polka tune, and the question mark is perfect, don’t you think?) are a sausage-making interlude and a rousing rendition of “Who Stole the Keeshka?”

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In her piece about the film, TCM’s Margarita Landazuri says that the film will win you over, “even if you’re indifferent to polka, or even actively dislike it.” She tells us that Blank was exposed to the euphoria of “polka happiness” after visiting a “polka palace,” a large hall where hundreds of people danced to jolly music by polka bands, while he was visiting Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was the guest of honor at a retrospective of his work being shown at the Walker Art Center.

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Blank returned to his California home, consulted ethnomusicologists, including a Brown University professor which we’re told is the woman who shows up at the end of the closing credits in a red bathing suit, joyfully and expertly dancing at “Polkabration,” an annual 11-day event held at a Connecticut beach, which apparently has faded away, although, Landazuri says that it made a comeback last year as as a weekend-long event, called “Polka Days,” and appears to be going strong in 2015.

In Heaven There Is No Beer? was shot in 1980 and released four years later, winning a special jury award at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival, as well as best documentary at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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Now we come to our last film of the evening, which happens to be a personal favorite of ours — a look at what life was like in the summer of 1967… for some fun-lovin’ hippies, anyway. In God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, Les Blank took his camera to the historic 1967 Easter Sunday love-in in Los Angeles to shoot a variety of flower children guilelessly frolicking and sprawling across the lawn of the city’s Elysian Park. The title The title apparently is an old Sufi saying that reflects the spiritual nature of dance in that offshoot of Islam.

Rather than provide the sort of commentary on the proceedings that might have been found on television at the time, Blank lets the painted faces, gyrating bodies, music, joints, and bubbles speak for themselves, creating an immersive, even spiritual collage of a film that enchantingly typifies California’s late-sixties counterculture.

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TCM’s Frank Miller says that “this 1968 classic has been hailed as the definitive picture of the counterculture, capturing the fashions, music and rituals of a generation of flower children. As the many people caught on camera dance, play and meditate, the film brings to life the spirit of a different time and the sometimes successful, sometimes failed efforts to refocus a culture burdened with rampant consumerism and conformity.”

Miller points out that Blank and his longtime collaborator, Skip Gerson, didn’t have sound recording equipment at the Love-In, so they shot the film silent. Years later, Blank enlisted the psychedelic band Spontaneous Combustion to record the soundtrack, which they did at a recording studio while Blank projected the film for them.

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In 1990, Blank was presented with the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement as an independent filmmaker, and in 2007 Blank was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal in the Arts.

The films that are part of TCM’s tribute on 7/28 — and more — are also collected on a 5 DVD/3 Blu-Ray disc set, “Les Blank: Always For Pleasure,” from the Criterion Collection, distributor Janus Films’ home video line. This collector’s set provides a diverse survey of Les Blank’s vast output, including fourteen of his best-known works and eight related short films, including Gap-Toothed Women (1987), The Maestro: King of The Cowboy Artists (1995) and Sworn To The Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995) , the last two of which were Blank’s last films using 16mm film. He later worked in digital video.

Blank passed away from bladder cancer in 2013. His final film, a portrait of fellow documentarian Richard Leacock, is currently in post-production, though Blank showed clips from it at the 2011 MoMA retrospective of his work.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.