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Les Blank: Folklife on Film

Les Blank (courtesy
Les Blank (courtesy

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 t