Les Blank: Another Cup

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By Jonathan Marlow

On the occasion of the U.S. Premiere of Les Blank’s latest documentary, All in This Tea, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Jonathan Marlow spoke with the remarkably accomplished filmmaker about his legendary career. What follows is the second of two parts, the first part can be found here.

 



Werner appears in both of those films [Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe and Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers]. Later, you were invited to go and document the filming of Fitzcarraldo. How did you come to publish your letters about the filming?

After it was done, I was traveling around and showing the film. One of the places that I showed The Burden of Dreams was at the University of Arkansas. There was a man there in the art department who liked my films and said that he would like to have me out there to show them to his students in the art department. I had a little tour where I would go there and then Kansas City, St. Louis and maybe Chicago. One day he was driving me from down to Kansas City and we discussed the idea of doing a book. I told him that I had written these letters to my girlfriend while I was down there. He was interested in reading them and he had his staff type them out and then he edited them into the book.

I presume, when it was originally published, that the book was longer than the version that is included with the Criterion disc?

Much longer, yes.

That’s what I thought. It’s merely a digest.

I don’t think it’s very accurate. It seems like I’m always wanting a beer -- which is true, but it seems to be more weighted towards my thirst for beer [than the complete version].

Like we discussed earlier, your films generally have no commentary or narration, but at PBS’s insistence, Burden of Dreams has commentary throughout. Was this at PBS’ insistence? Was it at all difficult to get used to editing the film with this stylistic difference?

Actually, I was trying to figure out a way to put the film together without narration and I got the distinct feeling from the PBS people that they were expecting narration. Thinking through it all, I realized that maybe narration wouldn’t be so bad after all. The story is kind of complicated to tell. Usually, I would have someone in the story, like Werner [Herzog] himself, tell the story of Fitzcarraldo and usually I can piece together some kind of structure just from what the subjects have to say on their own. This time it seemed like the film could benefit from an external narration. I worked really hard with the writer Michael Goodwin to make it almost like haiku poetry. It is sparse and each time he says something, something that really ties things together, it doesn’t create added weight. I don’t think that it’s obnoxious. Narration is usually just way overdone and not needed. It gets in the way of the emotions and the aesthetics of the filmmaking itself.

 

If you could say that anything unites all of your films, it’s a particular embrace of nonconformists. Obviously Werner falls into such a classification but perhaps most important is the handful of films you made with Marc Savoy. Spend it All begins with handmade titles that describe the history of the Cajuns, covering Arcadia and the whereabouts of where those people end up. When we first see Marc in that film, appropriately enough he’s cooking. Did you discover the Savoy Music Center before settling in to make Spend it All or did you find Marc and Ann during the shooting process?

 

No, that was a surprise learning experience once I started. I was told that there was this guy that I had to meet. So I went over to the store to see who this guy was. He was a likable guy but he wouldn’t let me film him because he was in a hurry to go out in the bayou and drink some beer and cook some food. He told me that I could bring the camera and shoot it but, by the time he finished up his work in the store, it was too dark to shoot when we got to the bayou. This went on about three times. We waited until the last day of shooting when he was actually available during the sunlight hours. We killed a pig.

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