Who or what is Les Blank? A documentarian, but more than that. An impish, robustly bearded Pan figure, glimpsed occasionally in the forests of Marin County and at less pretentious film festivals. A national treasure. Possibly a benevolent extraterrestrial sent here long ago to gather evidence that the human species is much too interesting to be annihilated. In any case, an emotionally invested noticer of social and cultural processes, including the making and enjoyment of music, films, food, and life. Also, Thursday evening's special guest at the Red Vic.
To describe Blank's work as anthropology is not wrong, but it sounds too clinical. For that matter, calling it work at all seems to neglect its essential playfulness. The prevailing frame of mind is curious, and somehow calmly ecstatic. It's a voice that draws you closer by speaking softly. There is real respect for viewer intelligence, a confidence that the audience will be curious too. It is likely that the audience also will be grateful.
Until now, it had been easy to suppose that Always for Pleasure, Blank's seductively hip-wiggling 1978 view of the street celebrations of New Orleans, could not be more inviting. But now we have the Red Vic's stated plan to present the film "in glorious Smellaround!!" It is the rare documentarian indeed whose body of work makes such a prospect seem so appealing.
In general, the films are so pure and direct that they become sublime and mysterious. For instance, in 1969's The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, Blank had the presence of mind not just to record Hopkins describing the blues as "something that's hard to get acquainted with, just like death," but also somehow to present that description in an intimate, life-affirming way. With its quick glances at rural Texan late-1960s life and its periodic eruptions of musical feeling, the movie is only half an hour long, but it is emotionally definitive: Never belaboring the point, it hints at how merciless life can be -- and how beautiful in spite of itself. Hence the grand simplicity of Blank's last shot, a gliding pan across a barbed-wire fence gradually permeated with blossoms.
Spending an evening with these films, and with the man/myth himself, is highly encouraged. Not least because your $15 admission fee "includes rice and beans prepared with Les's own special recipe."
An Evening with Les Blank begins at 7:30pm, Thursday, April 7, 2011, at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit redvicmoviehouse.com.