Les Blank only passed away a decade ago, at age 77, and a handful of his films were released posthumously—including the long-suppressed 1974 Leon Russell portrait A Poem Is A Naked Person, whose belated 2015 premiere at SXSW I saw with the delighted if by then wheelchair-bound star (who’d opposed its release for decades) in attendance. Still, the late Berkeley-based documentarian already seems part of a distant time, and a very different Bay Area, than where we’re at now.
While he also made films about food, gap-toothed women, his friend Werner Herzog (notably Fitzcarraldo making-of Burden of Dreams), and other subjects, his primary career emphasis was on roots musicians. He was very much the Alan Lomax of 16mm—the guy who’d sit down on somebody’s porch and come away with an invaluable historical record that felt as if it were crafted by the same community it documented. There’s nothing touristic about his work, widely traveled as it is; he seemed to get welcomed into any cultural or artistic milieu like an extended family member.
That is certainly the case with I Went to the Dance: The Cajun and Zydeco Music of Louisiana, which was originally released in 1989 as J’ai ete au Bal (it is depressing that even foreign-language titles now seem too challenging for 21st-century audiences), and is now returning in a 5K remaster. Co-directed with Chris Strachwitz, edited by Maureen Gosling, shot by Blank himself, it is a sampler of bayou talents both famed (Clifton Chenier, Queen Ida, the latter seen performing at the SF Blues Fest) and strictly local. It also weaves in a history of the titular forms, winding back to French settlers’ expulsion by the British from mid-18th-c. Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century, those Acadians ending up in LA where they mixed musically and otherwise with Black Creoles, Native Americans and others.
The resulting sounds, while popular, were considered almost shamefully “backward”—and this movie underlines that it’s just about the least pretentious music on Earth, from instrumentation to vocal style and bemusedly saucy lyrics—for some decades. Then the folk revival came along, embracing every neglected form, introducing them to avid new listeners and performers. In 1950, playing a fiddle or accordion (let alone a washboard) meant you were an embarrassing hick; a few years later, it meant you had fashionable roots credibility.
As with all Blank joints, this one makes business a pleasure—our ethnomusicology lecture goes down as flavorfully as a paper plate of jambalaya at a county picnic. Interviewees seem to be having fun, sharing anecdotes and jokes as well as educational tidbits. The angst that so frequently seems to come with other kinds of artistic territory is not on the road map here. Though doubtless they required a great deal of skill to pull together, these films remain a joy because they feel so organic, almost effortless. You never sense professional obligation from Blank & co.—all indications are that they are living their best life, making movies as a near-incidental byproduct of hanging out with people whose livelihood is a sonic party.
It’s a filmmaking style (even a lifestyle) that seems very much bred by the counterculture and underground-cinema scenes of the 1960s that Blank came out of—something you’d be hard-pressed to find an equivalent to even in today’s greatly expanded field of documentary production.
Gosling and Les’ filmmaker son Harrod Blank will appear for live Q&A’s (with additional musical guests) Thu/14 at the Rialto Cerrito, Fri/15 at the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, and Sat/16 at the Roxie in SF. Those are single shows, but the film also continues a regular run from the 15th at the Elmwood, at the Lark in Larkspur and at the Rialto Sebastapol. A schedule of all its screenings is here.
The historic exile that ultimately led some French-speaking Canadians to Louisiana, creating new musical genres in the process, finds less pleasant present-day echoes in two new narrative features that both arrive on streaming formats this Tue/12.
In director Kevin Abrams and writer Claire Audrey Aguayo’s Marisol, the titular figure is a a southwestern Texas high school senior (Esmeralda Camargo) whose straight-A transcript has earned her a scholarship she hopes to apply to attending UC Davis. Unfortunately, that hard-earned good fortune attracts the attention of Justin (Theo Taplitz), a nerdy kid who works in the principal’s office. When his awkward attempts at flirtation go awry, he turns peevishly vengeful, exposing the fact that Marisol is undocumented—something even she didn’t know.
The aunt who’s raised her (Liana Mendoza) overreacts to a police inquiry, sending her 17-year-old on a multi-state odyssey via a sort of underground railroad for residents at risk of deportation. Meanwhile, a sympathetic cop (Ricky Catter) tries to untangle a case in which he soon susses Justin is more perp than the victim he claims to be—though even that reality may not help Marisol in her now-precarious legal position.
While issues of border security and “illegals” have somewhat retreated from prominence since the high hysteria of the President Drumpf years, this generally astute drama brings back a sense of urgent injustice many felt not long ago. It’s particularly vivid in depicting the arbitrary, vindictive way in which ICE got frequently deployed to break up families and ruin lives spent almost entirely in the US, some deportees (like Marisol) previously unaware of their noncitizen status.
The result is powerful, if marred at times by the script’s more melodramatic turns. The worst of it is the depiction of Justin as a stereotypical dweeb who all too quickly becomes a monster of internet-fueled bigotry. Certainly such people exist, but his evolution comes off as a contrived caricature beside the other, more nuanced characterizations here. Still, this well-cast and crafted movie leaves a haunting impression overall. Marisol releases to On Demand platforms Tues/12.
It’s economic rather than politicized pressure that threatens to un-home another youthful protagonist in Kavich Neang’s Cambodia-France-China-Qatar co-production White Building. Nang (Piseth Chhun) is a bit adrift in Phnom Penh, job prospects nil, his hopes somewhat improbably pinned on potential TV talent-contest fame as a hip-hop dance trio with two equally rudderless mates. At least he’s got a roof over his head—however leaky and beset by black mold—in the apartment his aging parents have had for decades.
But like many cities the world round, this one is upscaling, which means shrinking room for poor families like Nang’s. Developers want to demolish this admittedly crumbling building and erect some luxury housing in its place. Of course, they’re low-balling residents on a buyout, offering sums that won’t cover relocation costs anywhere in Phnom Penh, or possibly even in some cheaper backwater. If our protagonists refuse, however, will they simply end up evicted anyway? God knows this low-income community is used to being swept aside when they stand in the way of someone else’s profit.
If Marisol is arguably a bit overplotted, White Building could have used more narrative spine—its loosely-slung series of incidents and atmospheric interludes lack momentum. Nonetheless, it’s a graceful first feature with a poetical sense of loss that lingers after the final credit crawl. KimStim is releasing it to On Demand platforms (including Amazon Prime and Vimeo) as well as DVD this Tues/12.