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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • Excerpt from Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, an upcoming documentary by Gina Leibrecht
  • New 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 Waters
  • Short Films

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Les Blank
2014 | 569 Minutes | Licensor: Les Blank Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $124.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #737
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: November 25, 2014
Review Date: January 3, 2015

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SYNOPSIS

An uncompromisingly independent filmmaker, Les Blank made documentaries for nearly fifty years, elegantly disappearing with his camera into cultural spots rarely seen on-screen-mostly on the peripheries of the United States, but also occasionally abroad. Seemingly off-the-cuff yet poetically constructed, these films are humane, sometimes wry, always engaging tributes to musicians, food, and all sorts of regionally specific delights. This collector's set provides a diverse survey of Les Blank's vast output, including the warmly funny The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, about the legendary Texas musician; Always for Pleasure, which captures the vivacious spirit of New Orleans; Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, a hilarious celebration of the pungent, flavorful "stinking rose" of the title; and eleven other unexpected features, plus eight of Blank's short films.

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

Criterion assembles an impressive Blu-ray collector’s set containing a number of short documentaries by filmmaker Les Blank. The set—entitled Les Blank: Always for Pleasure—features 14 films over three dual-layer discs: The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins; God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance; Spend It All; A Well Spent Life; Dry Wood; Hot Pepper; Always for Pleasure; Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers; Sprout Wings and Fly; In Heaven There Is No Beer?; Gap-Toothed Women; Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking; The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists; and Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella. All 14 films are presented in the aspect ratio of about 1.33:1, give-or-take.

Each one of the films has been given a new 2K restoration and they all look fantastic on the whole, and, surprisingly, they’re all of the same quality, whether filmed in 1968 or 1995. Blemishes and marks are very few, all materials in astounding condition on the whole. Colours look a bit dull and have the same consistency throughout the films, but this look seems intended. Black levels are fairly strong but can lean more grayish in areas.

The digital transfer also looks consistent through the films, each film delivering a sharp, highly detailed image in both close-ups and long shots, at least where the source allows. Motion is clean and natural and artifacts aren’t too much of a concern. Film grain is present, getting heavier at moments, I assume either from the type of film stock used or just general shooting or lighting conditions. Grain mostly looks natural but the heavier sequences, like a few in In Heaven There Is No beer?, look a bit blotchy and noisy, looking to suffer from compression. Otherwise there’s nothing of note to the digital transfer.

Despite a hiccup or two we get an excellent set of presentations, a lot of work obviously going into each film, all of them looking as though they could have been filmed just yesterday.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins

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The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins

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God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance

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Spend it All

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A Well Spent Life

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A Well Spent Life

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Dry Wood

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Dry Wood

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Hot Pepper

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Hot Pepper

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Always for Pleasure

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Always for Pleasure

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Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers

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Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers

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Sprout Wings and Fly

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In Heaven There Is No Beer?

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Gap-Toothed Women

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Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking

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The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists

Screen Capture
Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella

AUDIO

Most of the films come with lossless 1.0 PCM mono tracks, except for Sworn to the Drum, which comes with a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo track. That last track still sounds mono as a whole but has a few moments where the sound field feels wider in the fronts. The tracks all grouped together are, similar to the video, of the same quality and all sound surprisingly strong. There are moments where dialogue can come off a little muffled and/or mumbled, but this is a mix of how audio was recorded, accents, or just how the subjects in the film talk. Otherwise the tracks present a nice amount of range, with nicely mixed volume levels, and are clean without any noticeable noise or distortion. Considering the age and the nature of some the films the audio comes as a very pleasant surprise.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

From the main menu of each disc you can select a film and from there you can then do the usual operations: chapter stops, timelines, and so on. Most of the films are also accompanied by supplemental material, usually specific to the film they’re found under.

Disc 1

The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins

This film is first accompanied by 10-minute short film created by Blank around the same time Hopkins was recorded. The Sun’s Gonna Shine is based on a story Hopkins told Blank (Hopkins actually narrates it over the film) about when he decided to stop chopping cotton and sing instead. The film is far more lyrical than Blank’s documentaries, taking a more Terrence Malick like approach telling the story through a variety of images and recreations, creating more of a feeling than a straight forward narrative. It’s an incredibly effective short, accompanying the main feature rather nicely.

Criterion then includes two performances of Hopkins’ that Blank recorded: Mr. Charlie, Your Rollin’ Mill is Burnin’ Down and Lightnin’ Les, running around 7-minutes and 3-minutes respectively. I’m assuming Blank wasn’t sure where to place the former but it’s at least presented here as an outtake. The latter is more personal, made more for Les (it tells how Les Blank was finally able to talk Hopkins into letting him film him after a game of cards) so it didn’t have much of a place in the film. Both are entertaining performances to watch.

We then get an over 8-minute interview with Blank’s collaborator Skip Gerson under Making Lightnin’. Here Skip gives a detailed account about how the film came into being and how Les was able to convince Hopkins to be the subject of his film. As we learn throughout the interviews on this set Blank was a fairly shy and reserved individual and despite working his way into groups to film them he usually had others interact with his subjects, which in this case was Skip’s job. His later film, A Well Spent Life, about Mance Lipscomb, was born from this after managing to get Lipscomb and Hopkins together. It’s the first of many interviews (which I do wish Criterion compiled into one big feature in all honesty) but it works as a great intro to Blank’s working style and his personality.

Another interview follows this, this time with director Taylor Hackford, and here he talks about his admiration for Blank’s films, and explains how they so perfectly capture the respective cultures they’re about. He also talks about his style, his visuals, and his editing. It runs about 10-minutes.

God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance

This film only features one supplement, a short 6-minute segment called Flower Power featuring Gerson again, along with Blank’s son Harrod. This segment is more about the founding of Flower Films, Blank’s company, and then offers a bit of back story for God Respects Us…, which was actually made for PBS (though aired in a different version not found here). Harrod also shares a story about the first camera his father got for him.

Spend it All

Accompanying this film is an appreciation by Werner Herzog and it’s a great interview. The director expands on Hackford’s interview explaining how Blank’s films captured various cultures within the States and how he feels he’s learned more about America through Blank’s representation of “Americana on the margins.” He admires Blank’s ability to rely more on imagery in his documentaries and how they just present life as it is. He also talks a bit about working with him on Burden of Dreams (clips of which are shown in high-definition, so maybe we’ll see a Blu-ray sometime soon). Probably my favourite interview to be found within the set.

Sadly nothing else about the film or even the food is found in the supplements here, though the film does get mentioned in other features.

A Well Spent Life

Criterion includes another set of interviews with this film about singer Mance Lipscomb. No Man Like Mance features Gerson, sons Harrod and Beau Blank, and Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, Lipscomb’s record label. This feature focuses a lot on how Blank’s films weren’t really about their subject (in this case Lipscomb) and were more on how a culture influenced said subject. They go over Blank’s techniques and style, and how Blank actually planned out his films (surprisingly there was a lot of planning). Again we get more about Blank’s personality and his style of filmmaking. The feature runs 13-minutes.

Arhoolie Records’ founder Strachwitz then gets his own 7-minute interview under Meeting Mance, where he talks about discovering the performer and talks about his fondness for Blank’s film.

Dry Wood

One feature is found here, a compilation of interviews featuring Maureen Gosling, Beau Blank, and Taylor Hackford. Interestingly the set of interviews found here cover both Dry Wood and the next film, Hot Pepper. Here the participants cover the origins of the project and then talk about how the films capture a culture, especially through food, while also examining the editing and the mix of image and music. There’s also a bit of talk about how Blank manages to work his way into a group or at least how he would gain the trust of a subject he wanted to film (apparently the subject of Hot Pepper, Creole musician Clifton Chenier, was especially wary of Blank). This is one of the lengthier interview pieces found on the set, and it gives further insight into Blank’s working methods.

Also on the disc is 10-minutes worth of excerpts from a documentary by Harrod Blank and Gina Leibreicht, Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation. The excerpts are primarily made up of Blank talking about his work, what inspired him or drew him to subjects and so on. There’s also a little about Burden of Dreams and Herzog even shows up to talk about Blank. Sadly the footage is brief but I was happy to get any film with Blank talking about his work.

Disc 2

Hot Pepper

Criterion actually doesn’t provide any special features for Hot Pepper, but the interview feature found under Dry Wood on the first disc does contain material about the film.

Always For Pleasure

This film gets a couple of supplements related to it. First is Lagniappe, 25-minutes’ worth of additional footage featuring more of the French quarter, additional interviews, and a few more performances. Celebrating a City features Maureen Gosling and David Silberberg talking about the film. Silberberg only gets a little bit of time, talking more about the technical aspects including how the opening was constructed, while Gosling talks more about the film’s subject matter and capturing the footage. She talks about Blank’s fascination with death and the Jazz funerals he captures in the film, along with recalling filming Mardi Gras. Gosling even talks about how Blank liked creating immersive experiences at his screenings, ] cooking up red beans and rice at showings of the film so audiences could smell it. (He would do this for other films as well, using foods represented in the screened film.)

Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers

For the Love of Garlic is another set of interviews, this time featuring Maureen Gosling, Harrod Blank, and chef Alice Waters. Blank loved garlic, so, of course, he wanted to make a film about it. This feature gets more into how Blank financed his films and it’s not shocking to hear he had troubles raising money for this film. Waters talks about the experience making the film and then seeing it again, and Gosling talks about how the film was structured (it apparently had a whole different structure during the early stages of filming).

Next up is Remembering Les, a 10-minute reflection featuring Waters and program coordinator Tom Luddy. Waters talks about Blank’s way of presenting food in his films, how he uses it to represent a culture or time, and then also talk about the type of man he was. Luddy talks about first discovering his films and how he would show them to as many people as possible, including a young Werner Herzog, which would lead to Burden of Dreams.

Sprout Wings and Fly

The supplements for this film feature additional footage presented as two separate films. There’s a 12-minute piece entitled Julie: Old Timer Tales of the Blue Ridge, which features more footage of and on Tommy Jarrel’s sister (all of which is great, so I’m glad Blank saw fit to create a separate film of the footage), along with the 17-minute My Old Fiddle, featuring more footage of Jarrel, including a song about frying rabbits and some footage where he tries to play on an actual Stradivarius, which he doesn’t seem too thrilled with (he likes his violin, which is actually a copy of a Stradivarius).

An Elemental Approach is a short 5-minute segment featuring Maureen Gosling talking about editing the film together while also giving a better idea on how Blank’s films come together from early conception to final edit, which can usually take years.

Disc 3

In Heaven There Is No Beer?

Polka Happiness is yet another interview segment, this time featuring collaborator Chris Simon. While Simon gives some backstory on how the film came to be (Blank was depressed and looking for something to cheer himself up) Simon also talks about how Blank shot his films and edited them together, Blank hoping to give the audience a sense of discovery.

Gap-Toothed Women

This film comes with one of the more fascinating interview compilations. Entitled Mind the Gap and featuring Susan Kell, Chris Simon, and Harrod Blank, it gives a bit of background on the film, from casting calls to trying to get Madonna and Whoopi Goldberg in the film (it sounds as though they almost got Goldberg, who was actually a fan of Blank’s films, but her career took off and was no longer available). What I found more enthralling about the feature, though, were more anecdotes about Blank and his personality (he was shy so he had the people working for him talk to the women he was filming) and some other films he thought about doing. There’s even some great footage of his office and some discussion about various paraphernalia he actually sold around his films. This segment runs about 11-minutes.

Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking

Marc and Les features Chris Simon and Chris Strachwitz talking about the film, accordionist Marc Savoy, and the presentation of food in Blank’s films. It runs about 7-minutes.

The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists

The film itself is fascinating for a number of reasons thanks to its central subject, The Maestro, Gerald Gaxiola, so unsurprisingly we get some great material here, starting with The Maestro Rides Again, a 29-minute short film made by Blank featuring footage he recorded after the main film. Blank follows Gaxiola around a bit more, capturing some other eccentric moments around the man, including an obsession with McDonald’s. It’s an entertaining addition, though sadly looks to be a standard-definition upgrade.

Criterion then nicely gives us a new interview with The Maestro himself, recorded exclusively for this release. He talks about the film and working with Blank, but expresses an annoyance at how Blank seemed more concerned about his persona and look than much else (though I thought his cowboy look was all part of his thing, so I’m not sure why he objects to Blank’s handling). He also expresses some frustrations about his work, how he hasn’t been able to get it recognized, and how the general public doesn’t seem to care: he notes that YouTube videos about him and his recent interest in body building get far more views than any videos on his art. This part of the interview comes off a bit bitter, which I guess isn’t too shocking, but the interview as a whole is a gem. It runs about 12-minutes.

There’s then another interview with editor Chris Simon under Art for Art’s Sake. Here Simon talks a little about editing Blank’s films, why they took so long to complete, and then talks a bit about filming The Maestro, which took Blank into certain areas that made him uncomfortable, like when Gaxiola wanted to deface Christo’s yellow umbrellas with red paint balls, which Blank obviously had problems with and was able to talk Gaxiola to go another route. This interview lasts about 7-minutes.

Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella

A Master Percussionist closes off the supplements of the set. The 10-minute interview features Tom Luddy and Chris Simon, who give a back story to the making of the film and then offer some points about Blank’s films and their timelessness. Not the most insightful of the interviews found in the set but it is a nice capper to everything.

A 55-page booklet also comes with the set. It features a write-up on each film by Michael Koresky and then concludes with a nice essay on Blank, his work, and career by Andrew Horton. You’ll also find a couple of recipes scattered about inside.

Overall it’s a very satisfying compilation of supplements that nicely goes over Blank’s work and his career, making for not only a great primer for newcomers but also an excellent examination for those already familiar with the films.

10/10

CLOSING

This is an excellent, lovingly put together box set of Les Blank’s work. A lot of care has been put into it, from transfer to restoration and then accompanying supplemental material. It’s expensive, at an MSRP of about $124.95, but I’d say it was worthwhile for the curious. One of Criterion’s best releases of 2014.


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