Les Blank: Folklife on Film | Digital Traditions

by Annie Major. Major is a Film Studies student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for a "Folklife in America" class.

The simple moments in Les Blank’s films, whether contained in the smell of a cooking garlic dish or the sound of a deceptively complex blues performance, or in the vibrant image of the deep Peruvian rainforest, always reveal the common values of humanity. Blank has been called a “documentarian of folk culture” because of his ability to unobtrusively record intimate portraits of America at its margins. His honest recordings of people doing what they love positions the audience as guests, rather than intruders, of his subjects’ passionate, distinctive, and multi-faceted lives.

In his notes on making The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blank explains how Hopkins’ blues music “revealed a truth that was perfect in its simplicity, yet infinitely complex in its layers of meaning.” This description perfectly verbalizes the power of Blank’s poetic documentaries to show the simple, yet rich folklife whose texture and flavor is sensed even in the most microcosmic of worlds.

Les Blank was born in Tampa, Florida in 1935 to an upper-middle class family, whose cultural heritage is, as he exclaimed “a bit thin.” After attending Tulane University in New Orleans, Blank went to University of Southern California and earned a Ph.D. in film. His childhood taste for genres like cowboy adventures, and escapist films like Tarzan yielded to his admiration for European directors like DeSica, Fellini, and Bunuel. After being exposed to documentary filmmaking at USC, Blank began making films about blues music, and even made a film about “love-ins,” which were huge gatherings of “flower children” protesting Vietnam with a celebration that included drugs, sex, and music. This film, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, was well-received at film festivals, and solidified Blank’s decision to be an independent documentary filmmaker. Although Blank had obvious talent as a filmmaker, a couple of unsuccessful films and a failed marriage made him feel like his future was “a hollow, hopeless void.” In his personal notes, Blank goes on to discuss how “listening to the blues being performed by those who had truly lived the blues, provided an escape from my problems and also gave me a strong sense of connection to pain and suffering, even though I had not been born into a world beleaguered for generations by racism, poverty and gross injustice,” revealing his deep appreciation for the blues, as well as the people who perform it.

In his essay, "Documenting Folklore", William Wilson states that “folklore must be experienced in everyday life, ” and although films cannot substitute real experience, Blank’s idiosyncratic film style comes very close. His personal connection with and appreciation for his subject seeps into the images, the sounds, and movement of his films, providing an abstract context that conveys his experience more accurately than words alone.

This style reinforces the rich folklife documented in his 1967 film, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. After Blank divorced his wife, and released a few unsuccessful films, he states how he “felt like a failure as a father and a filmmaker.” He explained in his notes on making the film, that blues music, especially that of Lightning Hopkins, provided an “escape” from these hard times and made him feel more connected to the rest of the world. This accounts for how Blank’s film documents the entire environment of Hopkins’ hometown, Centerville, TX, from Lightning’s family and friends, to the town’s houses and dirt roads, and even its chickens, snakes, and fish.

The inclusion of Lightning’s environment is vital for documenting his folk music because, as Toelkin states in his essay, "Ballads and Folksongs", “folk music picks up colorations, nuances, and styles of the group among whom it circulates and gets continually rephrased to suit their responses to time, place, rhetoric, and performance.” Hopkins’ communal heritage manifests itself in his blues music. Blank’s film shows images of chickens clucking around, and men and women walking up and down the street, which reflect the same rhythms in Hopkins’ guitar chords. Hopkins’ music functions as the score behind the film’s imagery, and literally parallels the music and the town into a kind of dance. There are scenes when Hopkins sings about shapes of different women while there are all kinds of women walking down the street on screen. Hopkins’ community obviously influenced his music, and Hopkins’ music has just as big of an influence on the community. In the scene of the community’s dance and BBQ, Hopkins is on the guitar with friend Billy Bizor rubbing a metal sheet vest, and friend Mance Liscomb, playing the guitar with Lightning. This celebration illustrates how Hopkins’ music serves to unite the community in dancing and eating. The commuity and individual relationship demonstrated throughout The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins makes him a folk musician even though he has made commercial records and performed for people other than his community.

When asked about why he chooses to do films on marginal cultures, Blank responded that he is “biased in favor of watching people enjoy themselves, ” and continues about how his subjects “may not have all the material advantages and education of Suburban America, but they have maintained a culture which allows for self-expression and self-enjoyment.” I like this quote because it articulates the importance of folk culture in everyday life. Folk culture is very important for connecting with other people, and appreciating everything that life has to offer, including a good blues song.

Blank does not include much biographical information about Hopkins probably because Hopkins would not be in favor of providing it, but also because the experience of Lightning’s music and community communicates the spectrum of his feelings. For example, Hopkins shares an anecdote about a time when he got stuck in a ditch because a “big fat black pig” ran out in front of his car. He talks about how a police officer stopped to ask “poor Lightnin’,” as he referred to himself, why he was parked on the wrong side of the road. Lightning then answered the officer that it was because of a “big fat black pig,” and the officer took him in front of the judge, who was also the town butcher, where he received a $500 fine, and at the end, Lightning advises us that “if you ever see a black pig in North Carolina, run over it!” This anecdote is what Blank described as “perfect in its simplicity, yet infinitely complex in its layers of meaning,” because it tells so much about Lightning’s social background and experiences as a black man growing up in the south. He has faced social injustices, and projected his hardships into music. His music was shaped by his own idiosyncratic experiences, and the experiences of his black community and ancestors. This makes the music “infinitely complex” because of how it reflects honest hardships and social injustice.

Another example of paradoxically simple and complex imagery in the film is displayed when Porter Houston, Lightning’s cousin, who, according to Blank’s notes, is the head of entertainment, performs a “skit” for the camera. Porter acts out a scene where he is swimming and a man tells him he can not swim anymore, and Porter responds by saying “man, you don’t know what you done.” Porter then acts like the man and says “just go nigger go!” It is hard to understand his dialect, but all the while Lightning and Billy Bizor are laughing while Porter tells the story and performs a buck dance.

This represents the communal connection between the three, who find the act funny although I find it bizarre. They did not have enough resources to buy movie tickets or books, so they created their own folklore dramas to pass time and have fun.  Blank’s film style in this scene reinforces the cultural differences between Lightning’s community and my own community.  For example, Blank’s camera emphasizes Porter’s completely worn out shoes that hop up and down to the same rhythm as Lightning’s blues during the story, and his close-up of Porter’s toothless grin after he finishes speaks volumes about the roots of their community.  In his essay, "Folk Narratives", Oring states that folk stories are “reflections of the societies and individuals which create and transmit them,” and consequently do not embody “all that is beautiful and noble in this world.”  Porter’s “skit” exemplifies this because his toothless smile, worn-out shoes, inaudible dialect, and quirky dance are not what most perceive to be beautiful, but its honest performance and dignified purpose makes it culturally valuable. The rich folklore that grows out of social marginalization is very apparent in this film’s powerful music, indigenous stories, and celebrative community illustrates the intrepid nature of people.

A supplementary film to The Blues Accordin’ to Lightning Hopkins, called Mister Charlie also displays colorful folklore through Lightning’s storytelling.  In this film, Lightning, accompanied by Billy Bizor in an orange jumpsuit, is outside telling the personal legend of John Lee Hooker to two white boys.  This short film does not include any context about where they are, why Lightning is telling this story, or the boys it is being told to, but it is a rich folktale with an important moral.  Lightning does not refer to Hooker until he finishes his story, but instead he calls him ‘boy’ in the voice of Mr. Charlie.  The story is about a boy who stuttered so much “his mama didn’t know what language he spoke,” and while he was looking after Mr. Charlie’s mill, it caught on fire.  He goes on to act as the boy trying to explain what was happening to Mr. Charlie’s mill,  but was inaudibly stuttering.  Mr. Charlie couldn’t understand what the boy was saying, so Lightning, acting as the boy, starts to sing in his confident, clear, and loud voice. He sings “Mr. Charlie do you know your rolling mill is burning down,” and it turns out the boy can not talk but he can definitely sing.  This story is a very simple folktale about the legend of John Lee Hooker, who is also a blues musician.  Although simple, the story conveys how the boy could not help stuttering, it was “just the way he was born,” but “he could still sing you a song.”  Lightning tells the kids this story is actually possible because, “look at John Lee Hooker, he stutters, but he can sing you a song.”  Blank’s film interestingly portrays this story because I can see two white boys, but anyone watching the film is actually part of the audience, which makes me experience Lightning’s oral folktale in its original form.  Blank could have reenacted the events of the story, or could have translated it literally, but then the context of the story would be lost.  This oral folktale, just like John Lee Hooker was created a certain way, and according to Lightning Hopkins, “the way you were born, that’s they way you ought to be.”

Blank’s interest in folk music is very apparent by the prominent subjects of his films, and his ability to gain his subjects’ trust and friendship is remarkable.  Although he was born with the luxuries of upper-middle class suburbia, Blank still searches for the spirit that is missing in mainstream middle-class culture by becoming what he refers to as a “cultural peeping-tom.”  Although his upbringing contrasts with his subjects’ lives, Blank empathizes with their situations and never imposes a political or theoretical agenda onto his subjects or in his films.  One anecdote that Blank discusses in his notes on making The Blues Accordin’ to Lightning Hopkins, is how one night Lightning got into a heated feud and actually aimed a loaded revolver at one of his in-laws, but Blank just filmed around him.  When asked about how he translated the lives of his subjects so accurately, Blank responded that filming must be “based on your senses rather than your thoughts.”  One film that definitely illustrates Blank’s sensual filmmaking is Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, which conveys the flavor and personality of garlic as well as the people who celebrate it.

Reviewer Craig Mishler, explains in a review of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, that “Les Blank has been accused by some folklorists of reducing the world to nothing but food and music,” which is ironically effective in illustrating the immensity of the world.  Blank’s 1980 film stitches together the various uses, histories, and dishes of garlic, as well as the people who celebrate the “stinking rose.” The film illustrates the richness that even a seemingly microcosmic part of the world can offer, and it directly comments on the mass commercialization of food that disregards the process and the genuine ingredients involved with cooking.  This film contains rich examples of folklife even though the garlic-loving community is not regional like in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, but is only intangibly connected by a common enthusiasm for garlic, and is threaded together by Blank’s film.  The strength of garlic as an adhesive for this group of people is a direct reflection of the connective power of foodways.  Just like music and dances, food traditions involve what Oring describes in his essay, "Ethnic Groups and Ethnic Folklore", “complex patterns of preparation, display, and consumption.”  Oring continues in his essay to explain that eating is “emotionally satisfying,” and affects us “socially and ideologically”, which illustrates that boiling the world down to just music and food is actually an amplifier to innumerable aspects of microcosmic worlds. 

Blank’s film about the world of garlic shows the importance of process over product in preparing folk foods.  His camera steeps in the aroma of various garlic dishes as the enthusiastic chefs prepare them.  The film also illustrates the rich social and cultural histories of garlic from around the world.  Blank includes black, Chinese, Spanish, Creole, and Moroccan forms of garlic dishes in his film, which contrives a sort of trans-national folk group.  For example, there are multiple scenes with a Spanish chef who talks about garlic’s historic influence on Spain.  He claims that during the Spanish Civil War, tomatoes and garlic were the main subsistence for Spaniards, and goes on to show how people would cut tomatoes and garlic, and eat them with bread and any available olive oil.  He attributes garlic to the survival of many Spaniards during the war, and celebrates its importance today.  The Spaniard also performs a flamenco dance in celebration of garlic, and sings a song claiming that with “five nice heads of garlic in the pot,” you will be lucky.  The way in which he talks about his family history with garlic food, as well as the herb’s national importance, it shows how his garlic food is an extension of his communal upbringing, and exemplifies a form of folk food. 

Another example of this trans-national folk group is the American hippie, Lloyd John Harris, who founded “Lovers of the Stinking Rose” because of his interest in the folk medicine aspect of garlic, and states that this food illustrates the “folk roots of what it means to be a human being.”  Harris’s enthusiasm for garlic is visually conveyed with his hat that is shaped like a head of garlic and his membership in the intangible group existing in Blank’s two-dimensional world.  Harris also represents America’s cultural ‘hippie’ phenomenon in Berkeley, CA, in which liberal students reacted against American consumerism with an interest in things like folk medicine, folk food, and other non-commercial lifestyles.  Like the Spaniard, Harris explains garlic’s significance to his indigenous region of California.  He claims that California is the center of garlic’s production, and that it is where most of the world’s garlic is grown.  Although his connection with garlic is not created because of the historic conditions of his ancestry, or a family connection with the herb’s value, his interest reflects a reaction against American consumerism, and represents the ‘hippie movement’ in California.  In this way, he shows the valuable folk culture attached to a small herb like garlic.  These very different people are connected with the common thread of garlic, showing that folklore is everywhere, and can illuminate the shared values of humanity.

Another aspect of folklore in Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, is the superstitious beliefs and tales surrounding the poignant plant. The movie opens with a woman talking, while she is cooking, about how her mother cooked everything with garlic for health purposes, and also because her father wouldn’t eat anything without it.  This illustrates how garlic can be a family tradition passed down from generations. The woman follows her mother’s footsteps and cooks everything in garlic, and still believes it to be a “heal-all.” 

The superstitions attached to garlic are very colorful and widespread. For example, the belief that garlic can repel vampires is manifested in American movies and TV.  The film includes a man, who is wearing a necklace of garlic, who tries to explain the origins of this superstition.  He attributes it to a cook from the 17th century who refused to spice his food with anything because he disapproved of the strong flavor.  Other sources in the film attribute it to garlic’s ability to repel mosquitoes and some people still use garlic as mosquito repellent.  This variation illustrates people’s historically strong superstitious attachments to garlic because of its many uses and strong flavor.  Another interesting folk story attached to garlic involves it’s medicinal use.  One garlic enthusiast claims that Eleanor Roosevelt ate chocolate dipped cloves of garlic for medicinal purposes, and one man claimed that “medical science will tell you” that eating garlic is good for your heart.  Garlic’s healing qualities are also passed down through family beliefs.  For instance, one cook exclaims that her mom would make her wear a chain of garlic if she had a cold or a flu, and she still will make her children, who I felt very sorry for, wear chains of garlic to help heal them as well.  This shows how garlic is attached to family, national, and cultural traditions. 

Blank’s film also accompanies the preparation of food with appropriate regional music, signifying the connective processes of both folkloric traditions.  Blank’s emphasis on the entire process of picking, cutting, cooking, and eating garlic connects people from different continents, social classes, and cultures.  This is a direct statement on the commercialization of food, and when talking about the possible benefits of industrial produced garlic powder, the cooks and enthusiasts in the film are very disdainful of its use in food.  One cook explains how she enjoys the therapeutic experience of actually handling the garlic and separating its cloves, and other cooks talk about how it strips garlic’s real flavor and healing qualities away.  This presents a conflict in Blank’s film between process and product.  It is obvious in his films that Blank sees the process of growing, shelling, chopping, and cooking garlic vital in appreciating its rich flavor, but there is a pragmatic reason for the short-cut use of garlic powder in everyday life.  This, I believe, is what makes Blank’s film powerful.  The film in itself is an argument for traditional food preparation because without all the steps of preparing garlic, the plant would not only lose its flavor, but it would lose its life of vibrant histories, beliefs, and traditions. 

Blank’s films illustrate the importance of taking enjoyment in everyday events and people.  His preoccupation with faces, hands, and feet are present in all of his films, and there always seems to be some clothes hanging on wires, or bare feet gliding on rugged land.  These stylistic touches convey the common humanity of people, and illustrate how the environment shapes us uniquely.  The title, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, alludes to the multiple purposes of the plant that are often over-looked.  In his essay, Wilson explains how experiencing folklore “seldom leads to the strange and exotic, but rather to much of what you already know and already experienced, but not recognized as folklore.”  This statement is proved in Les Blank’s films – his films show me that folklore is everywhere in this world, and in my own life.

One film that strays from Blank’s usual interest in American folklife is his 1981 film, Burden of Dreams.  This documentary profiles the idiosyncratic and eccentric German director, Werner Herzog, as he films Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian rainforest.  Although Herzog is a commercial director of fiction, and reflects his own artistic vision rather than the visions of his community, the film displays the folklore of the native Indians, as well as the transient folk film group. Blank’s alliance with Herzog is as colorful as a folk legend itself.  It all started when Blank filmed Herzog eating a shoe, which coincidentally was seasoned with garlic and cooked in duck fat at Chez Pannise, the restaurant where much of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers actually takes place.  The film by Blank is called, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and is another unique portrait among many in Blank’s film catalogue.  Burden of Dreams has many complex themes and subjects, especially because it is a film about a film, but Blank’s emphasis on the native Indians and the whole experience of making the film is refreshing in its simplicity. 

In Wilson’s essay about documenting folklore, he states that “folklore persists through time and space because the things people traditionally make with their words, hands, and actions continue to give pleasure and satisfy artistic impulses common to the species.” This is illustrated in Blank’s film, Burden of Dreams through in the interaction between native Indians, Europeans, and Americans, as well as the combinations of modern technology and modern art forms alongside natural surroundings and traditional art forms.  Like Blank’s other films, Burden of Dreams revolves around a world of food, music, and people.  Unlike his other films, which are loosely stitched together by a non-vocal narrative, Burden of Dreams is narrated to tell the travelogue of Blank and his editor Maureen Gosling in the Peruvian Rainforest.  It documents Werner Herzog as he tries to actually recreate the legend of Fitzcarraldo, who is said to have pulled a boat over a mountain.  This legend in itself embodies a folktale because in Fitzcarraldo’s (who is based upon an actual person) attempt to build an opera house in the Peruvian rainforest in order to bring Caruso’s music to native Indians, he actually pulled a boat over a moutain.  Herzog’s maniacal attempts to do this without help from special effects or machinery is an ethical headache, but Blank’s interest in the hands, feet, faces, food, and music of the native Indians and the rest of his surroundings is a relief from these complexities. 

When commenting on Blank’s film in an interview on the Burden of Dreams DVD, Herzog exclaims how Blank “was always more interested in what the native Indians were cooking or doing, than filming us all the time.” Blank explains his own fascination with food in stating that “it is sensual, it keeps bodies alive, and people together, I learned early on that people like to eat and like to see what other people are eating.  They always get interested when they see food being prepared.”  One prevalent ethnic dish throughout the film is the native Indians form of alcohol called masato.  This drink was a communal effort in which women actually chewed the roots of a plant called Yuka, which makes up a large part of the Indian’s diet.  They spit the chewed Yuka back into a large reciprocal from which the whole community drank, and the whole process of creating this drink is an essential part of their lives from morning until night.  Also, in the process of making masato, a woman sang a folk ballad explaining the process in a constant linguistic rhythm expressing how it was a noble and important activity to the whole community.   Herzog even used the masato in his film Fitzcarroldo.  He included a scene where Fitzcarraldo was making a deal with the natives, and had to drink this beverage as a sign of mutual agreement.  The narrator of Blank’s film explains how Kinski, the man who played Fitzcarraldo, would not drink the masato since it is essentially spit, so he drank condensed milk instead.  In his journal, Blank explains that he drank the masato because he did not want to offend the Indians, but he did not like the taste of it, nor was he able to get an adequate buzz from the quasi-alcoholic beverage.

Blank was not only concerned with filming the Indian’s food, but he also included shots of the film crew’s food.  He showed the entire process from the crew carrying the food to the isolated film camps, and cooking the food in their small kitchens, as well as swallowing it with a can of beer.  In his journal, Blank also includes an anecdote about how Germans always took the beer, which alludes to the cultural characteristics of Germans having an abundance of beer. This ethnic combination is an interesting subject throughout the film, and one moment that is particularly funny is when Herzog is filming a scene and must say “action” in four different languages. This also illustrates the workings within he transient and multi-cultural folk group of the actual film crew, whose lives during the three-month long shoot of Fitzcarraldo yielded an eclectic mixture of people and situations.

Herzog’s interest in the native Indians’ arrows is also an interesting aspect of Burden of Dreams because to them, it is just a part of their daily lives, but to Herzog it is a idealized symbol of stamina.  The film includes shots of the Indians recreationally shooting arrows and trying to catch them in a sporting manner, and Herzog is completely taken in by this, whereas Blank films it relatively statically.  This illustrates how Herzog sees the object in a completely different way than the Indians.  He sees them for their differences in being able to hunt with an arrow, whereas Blank sees them for what they share with the rest of humanity.  This presents issues in defining folk art because what is folk art to Herzog is just an everyday tool to the Indians.  It is a somewhat condescending to idealize a person or group for using traditional tools, even though it is part of human nature.  Blank’s presentation of the native Indians through regular interviews and honest depictions breaks down this idealization, and allows us to see our common ground.

The representation of folk art in Burden of Dreams is immense.  The scenes involving the native Indians shaping canoes with their hands is interesting especially because the crafts they make are destined to be used in a fictional movie.  During the movie, Herzog explains that at least one of every four of the native Indian workers and actors have never seen a film before, which illuminates ethical complexities as well as interesting questions concerning whether or not these boats are folk art.  Blank also films the Indians nailing two by fours together and painting the interior of the “Molly Aida,” which is the boat that Fitzcarraldo hopes to pull over a mountain.  This interesting juxtaposition of native Indians constructing indigenous canoes, and also constructing modern movie sets.  Blank’s film does not set out to comment negatively or positively on this interesting situation, nor did he premeditate these images, instead he just films his surroundings.  In an interview, Blank tells David Dalton, “I just film. I stick things together in a way I think they should be put to make a picture of what it was I saw,” proving how Burden of Dreams is powerful through its honesty. 

Burden of Dreams represents what Williams articulates as the “artistic impulses” common to humanity through the sometimes crazy subject, Werner Herzog, through the native Indians urge to both act and construct, and in Burden of Dreams as a film.  This “artistic impulse” is man’s only way to articulate that which cannot be communicated through language alone.  Blank uses hands, feet, and faces in the world around him as emphatic tools that illuminate our shared universe.  Another interesting representation of folk art in Burden of Dreams, is at the ending credits where in a provincial Peruvian town, Blank films a man who takes pictures with a camera from the 1800s, which even uses a bottle cap as a lens cover, and combines verses and drawings in his portraits.  These portraits are hybrids of language, painting, and photography, as well as a synthesis of old technology in a new form.  After Herzog’s tumultuous time articulating his artistic urge to make Fitzcarraldo, it is refreshing to see such a simple but beautiful art form in this man’s pictures.

Although Burden of Dreams is more complex than many of Blank’s other films, his attachment to images from the natural rainforest and the native Indians conveys the same simple poetry in his other films.  I believe Blank’s films are important in the study of folklore because they make you sense and feel experiences rather than comprehend them.  In his essay, Toelken explains that “by singing, we become closer to experiencing the possible emotional dimensions and cultural meanings of a song, and we continue to deepen our own capacity to resonate to these important, but often unexplained ingredients of our culture,” and I believe viewing Les Blank’s films can do the same.

Blank’s films exemplify a very ethical, appreciative, and respectful form of filmmaking that is refreshing in modern society.  They present all aspects of culture, and prove that folklore is contained in many more moments in life than a person may think. Even though Blank is a white man from middle class suburbia, he easily adapts with other groups and people, and I believe this empathy is necessary in understanding my own identity.  Most importantly, I enjoy watching people enjoy themselves in honest and unique ways.  Blank’s statement “people spend their time crying over the loss of Christ, and they don’t really think about the pleasures of life.  One of the things I’ve come to see is that people do have a limited time span on the earth.  Knowing this, it would be well to fill those hours as pleasurable as possible, playing music, getting along with people, eating well, drinking, enjoying the pleasure of one’s company and helping others do the same,” illustrates what I believe to be at the core of all his films – pleasure.  Instead of money, pleasure is the currency of Blank’s films because Blank, his subject, and the viewer is motivated by pleasure.  These honest meanings and motivations behind Blanks films are the same characteristics that define folk culture.  These films help me understand the importance and manifestations of folklife and illuminate the rich folk presence in the world as well as my personal life.