Documentary Storytelling According to Les Blank

It is rare to find film documentaries that are narrator-less and avoid having a first person point of view. Even more rare, is to find documentaries that are at the same time poetic, lyric, and musical. Last week I discovered the works of Les Blank, an American filmmaker that creates documentaries with such unconventional characteristics. Watching his films immerse you in a particular atmosphere that is rich in music, colors, and flavors. Les Blank portrays local cultures as in a thick visual ethnography and at the same time creates powerful metaphors and suggestive images as in poetry.

Although I was exposed to just 5 of his films during a retrospective that the Texas History Museum organized, I felt that I needed write about them. I was moved by those films, the intensity of their music, the simplicity of the stories, the representation of the people (especially african americans), was something I had never seen before in documentaries about the USA. I was intrigued (and still I am) about the manner in which Les Blank told stories as if they were a visual ethnography and a short fiction, using music as structure and montage as a rhythm keeper.The result is a very powerful piece of art that reveals the intensity of culture and place.

Two films about Lightnin’ Hopkins, an African American blues artists from Texas, called my attention because they presented a culture I have never experienced around here. Although many people says that Austin is the live music capital of the world, the truth is that it is more like a slogan than a reality. There is music, it is true, and many bands come here to play, and there is also people giving free concerts, but one cannot really identify a unique and authentic music culture in this town. In contrast, the music culture that Les Blank presents in his two films about Lightinin’ Hopkins
[The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969), The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969)] is way more alive. These two films show a rural Texas landscape that looks poor and humble, and contrasts with the richness of the music that Hopkins creates and the rituals that the local community of African Americans practices. This rural landscape reminded me of some areas of Colombia, where the modernity appears to have never arrived, but where the local music traditions are plenty of flavor, stories, and dances.

It is specially in The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins, where one can feel the sophisticated approach of Les Blank to storytelling and documentary. Besides listening constantly to different songs, the film introduces through images to the local community of a rural town near Houston, where Hopkins lives. The effect of the music is quite hypnotic, and the rough voice of Hopkins goes from songs, to little sentences and sayings, to excerpts of dialogue with friends and family. While the music is playing with an excellent recording quality, we see images of the grass, fields, farms, flowers, trees, houses, roads, telephone polls, passing on the screen and being mixed with close ups of African American people listening, talking, singing, eating. We see their faces, hands, eyes, mouths, dances, laughs, and teeth from a very close perspective that makes us feel as if we were there.

The film, let us enter some of the rituals of African Americans in Texas that sometimes are ignored. Les Blank introduces as to blues jamming and dancing, cooking, and even rodeoing (cattle roundup). By showing us the culture with such delicacy and art, the film is very respectful of the other. Perhaps the most interesting effect of not having a narrator is that the lyrics of Hopkins’ songs end telling the story of a feeling, the story of the blues. That blues, as Hopkins says early in the film,is hard to explain, “…but whenever you get a sad feeling… you get nothing but the blues.”

In The Sun’s Gonna Shine Les Blank developed a more fictional approach to the story of Hopkins and recreated his early life, focusing in the moment when he decides to become a musician and stop chopping cotton. Although we see footage of the other film in this one, they are presented with lyricism. The landscape, for instance, is revealed through long shots where young Hopkins runs and plays. The feeling of blue in this film is more intimate and personal and it is not revealed through the local community.

The retrospective of Les Blank showed also other films that I can not review this time. However, I would provide some links here so they can be found easily for further reference. Always For Pleasure (1978) tells the story of New Orleans carnival celebrations, music and food. Cigarette Blues (1985) is a sort of public service film portraying musician Sonny Rhodes singing a song that compares cigarettes to bullets. A Well Spent Life (1971) is a film about another Texan bluesman called Mance Lipscomb. I highly recommend watching these films and I am looking forward to seeing more of Les Blank’s works.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *