Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Les Blank: Blues and Cajun Music

Blues, roots music, garlic, and eccentric German directors are the stuff of inspiration for documentarian Les Blank. Probably best known for his documentaries featuring Werner Herzog, Blank’s second film was in fact a Dizzy Gillespie short. A wide cross-section of his filmography screens at the Film Forum for a week-long retrospective, starting this Friday.

Blank’s initial breakthrough documentary was The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, but he will probably always be remembered for his Werner Herzog films. The twenty-minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is pretty much what it sounds like—basically Fear Factor for the art-house set. As bizarre motivation, the established Herzog bet Errol Morris he would eat his shoe if the aspiring filmmaker ever finished his first film. Obviously it worked, and Blank was there when Herzog lived up to his part of the bargain. (If you’re wondering, he cooked it first, with garlic.) Soon thereafter, Blank would document the turbulent making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in Burden of Dreams (trailer here). It was a process often described as well above and far beyond the chaos of Apocalypse Now.

However, some of the coolest films in the series relate to various forms of American folk music. Blank returned to the blues in 1971 for A Well Spent Life, a profile of Texas country bluesman Mance Lipscomb. Unlike the rest of his blues revival colleagues, Lipscomb was “discovered” in the 1960’s, not “rediscovered.” He made his recording debut on Arhoolie, the blues enthusiast label in 1960. Oddly enough, he would also cut an album for Sinatra’s Reprise label, which not surprisingly, quickly went out of print.

Well Spent rather starkly captures the life of a sharecropper who just happened to be a world renowned blues artist. Recent revisionist blues scholarship argues many blues collectors have idolized individuals who really did not consider themselves musicians. Playing the blues for their own enjoyment or an extra dollar here and there, they happened to be captured on songhunters’ field recordings and from there, legends ballooned. In a way, Well Spent lends some credence to those arguments. Clearly, Lipscomb spent far more time eking out a hardscrabble existence as a sharecropper than singing the blues. However, there is an undeniable, almost archetypal appeal to Lipscomb’s blues. Often seen performing backlit by sunsets, Well Spent also features some of Blank’s most attractive photography.

While his Lipscomb film is a mid-sized forty-four minutes, Blank also made some relatively brief blues films, like the five minute Cigarette Blues. Starring Sonny Rhodes, also from Texas but based in the Bay Area, Cigarette is an unusual “PSA” produced by the Dallas Museum of Art. Featuring Rhodes’ smoking (if you will) slide guitar and a cigarette-butt sculpture created by an artist recently deceased from lung cancer, it is one of the hipper anti-smoking film.

Blank did his undergraduate work at Tulane, so his affection for Cajun and Creole culture should come as no surprise. The full length documentary J'ai Été Au Bal gives an affectionate history of Cajun music. While Zydeco artists like Clifton Chenier (also the subject of Blank’s earlier film Hot Pepper) are discussed, in this film Blank keeps his focus on the Arcadians. However, he argues the two musical forms are closely related. Both use the same ingredients derived from French, African, and blues music sources, differing only in their proportions.

Au Bal gives a brisk history of Cajun music’s milestones, including the first Cajun record cut by Joe and Cléoma Falcon, the husband and wife accordionist and guitarist. Blank profiles many Cajun musicians, including fiddler Dennis McGee, considered the apostolic link between the original Cajun musicians and succeeding generations. Arguably forward thinking in his time, in 1929 McGee cut six sides with Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin, at a time when racially integrated sessions were far from the norm. We also hear from many more contemporary performers, like Dewey Balfa, who is credited with launching a Cajun music revival with a well publicized set at the Newport Folk Festival. Altogether it gives viewers a comprehensive taste of Cajun music.

Blank has a true eye and ear for the music of Americana. His Film Forum retrospective starts Friday, screening twenty-six films in seven days. A Well Spent Life screens Saturday the 15th with Blank’s Herzog films. J'ai Été Au Bal screens Sunday with Hot Pepper. Cigarette Blues screens next Thursday with Blank’s polka film In Heaven There Is No Beer?, one of the many interesting combinations of the series.