- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
You could be forgiven for never having heard of Les Blank. As much as the subjects he chose to explore, he and his films largely exist on the periphery of celebrated American film works. Though as you watch any one of the fourteen films restored and presented here, don’t be surprised if a smile grows across your face as there is a joy and an unbridled lack of inhibition in the subjects as they celebrate their place in this world. Criterion’s work here, presenting in fine quality, a collection of exceptional films by the late Les Blank, is top-notch.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HDMA (Mono)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 569 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayFold-out inside sleeve
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 11/25/2014
The Production Rating: 5/5
“Cook and wash, and work in the garden, and feed the hogs and chickens, turkey, work the flowers too.”Les Blank saw himself, not as a documentarian, but rather a filmmaker whose subjects happened to be “real people.” After forming his own production company, Flower Films, in 1967 (now called Les Blank Films,) he sought to explore the periphery of so-called mainstream American life, finding slices of rich, textured, affecting humanity – subjects often off the beaten path – and captured them with a loving curiosity. Rarely seeking to explore the why or how, Blank used the camera to examine the ‘what,’ nudging an unexpected reality and rawness of lives, cultures, moments, and delicacies from hundreds of smiling and sad faces, celebrating their pulsing, beating heart of humanity. He gave voice and image to areas of the American landscape forgotten, ignored, or simply otherwise undiscovered by film – and for that, as lovers of film – we are indebted.Throughout his life, Les Blank filmed almost forty documentaries and short-films. Of those, Criterion has assembled and restored a marvelous collection of fourteen films that show-off his wide-ranging curiosity, and yet still capture the threads and themes that connect each of his productions. Included here are The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968,) God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance (1968,) Spend It All (1971,) A Well Spent Life (1971,) Dry Wood (1973,) Hot Pepper (1973,) Always for Pleasure (1978,) Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980,) Sprout Wings and Fly (1983,) In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984,) Gap-Toothed Women (1987,) Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990,) The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994,) Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995.)The fourteen films on offer are connected by culture and music, and while each captures a unique element of life, in a corner or field of America, Blank’s connection to the American southeast, the vibrant side of Louisiana – the music, the food, the Acadian (Cajun,) people – is something he returns to time and again. Idiosyncratic is word often used to describe the subjects of his films, and that’s a perfectly apt descriptor. Everything from the cultural symbolism of women with gaps in their front teeth (Gap-Toothed Women,) to the adoring fans of Garlic and its use across cultures in cooking (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,) is happily explored. With other subjects that include Polish American Polka music (In Heaven There Is No Beer?) and the rhinestone suite clad singing cowboy (The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists,) making this collection absorbing, unglamorous, and beautifully rich with life.A visual essayist, interested in letting the sights and sounds of any moment – including impromptu jam sessions, where the beaten sounds of the blues flow supernaturally from wood, strings, fingers and soul, or where the free-flowing bow against fiddle playfully set toes-a-tapping – Les Blank was one of the most honest, unrestrained makers of film about people. Through a collage of images, the occasional story told on camera, fleeting question and answers that might strike a more traditional documentary film feel, Blank’s productions document moments in time, and watching them is a walk through history itself.
Each of the fourteen films is presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, in new digital transfers created in 2K resolution. Dust, debris, scratches and other issues have been largely removed, though some flaws remain in a few shots – these, however, are fleeting. Starting with the first film, the oldest of the collection (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,) it is clear that the level of detail is going to shine. Though filmed with modest means, naturally lit, the films exhibit a wonderful grain structure, appropriate levels of detail, and while the colors may appear somewhat muted, especially in the earlier works, some of that can be attributed to the year, location, and conditions.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
Each film in the collection is presented with their original monaural soundtrack. Most of the films’ audio were remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm full-coat magnetic tracks. Hot Pepper’s audio was remastered at 24-bit from the original 16mm full-coat magnetic track. The audio for God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance was remastered at 24-bit from a restored DA-98 tape and the restored 35mm full-coat magnetic track. The original monaural soundtrack for Spend It All was remastered at 24-bit from a restored WAV file, and the soundtrack for Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella was remastered at 24-bit from the original 16mm full-coat magnetic track.The varying sources does produce variation in the overall quality of the audio, though as is standard, a considerable amount of effort has been poured into the removal of hiss, hums, crackles, pops, and other aberrations, and the results are most pleasing. The music, especially in works like Dry Wood, tends to lack warmth at times – a convergence of the style and recording method – but the mono carries a surprising depth for voices and incidental sounds. The Blues in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, particularly during a harmonica riff, sound satisfying.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Criterion provides a pleasing, of not thoroughly examining collection of special features, the highlight of which is the collection of seven short-films, further capturing the legacy of this unique filmmaker. Once again, the accompanying booklet containing another fine essay, this time by film scholar Andrew Horton, is welcome.Excerpt from Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, an upcoming documentary by Gina LeibrechtNew interviews with director Les Blank’s sons, Harrod and Beau; Blank documentary subject Gerald Gaxiola (a.k.a. the Maestro); filmmakers Skip Gerson, Maureen Gosling, Taylor Hackford, Tom Luddy, and Chris Simon; and chef and author Alice WatersBlank’s short films:-Lightnin’ Les (1968)-Mr. Charlie, Your Rollin’ Mill Is Burnin’ Down (1968)-The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1968)-More Fess (1978)-Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge (1991)-My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1995)-The Maestro Rides Again (2005)Booklet with descriptions of each film and an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton
Special Features Rating: 4/5
Wholly absent expressions of cynicism, criticism, praise, or ignorance, this collection of Les Blank films shows off this filmmaker’s marvelous fascination with people, music, culture, and their chemistry when combined. Stripped of boundaries, uninhibited by expectation, and unconcerned with standard documentary form, the result is a fascinating journey into humanity that I encourage you to take.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Neil Middlemiss
Support HTF when you buy this title: