Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Poem Is A Naked Person

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 29,2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Critics with an auteurist bent are sometimes accused of being in the tank for their favorite directors, spinning even their lesser films as unappreciated masterpieces and justifying even the most questionable decisions as inspirations by a visionary whose only weakness is being too sophisticated for audiences. Sometimes these charges are valid, cf. random critic arguing “Under Capricorn” as Hitchcock's true masterpiece.

Regardless, I state this as a matter of fact: Les Blank could do no wrong.

I've seen at least twenty-five Les Blank films. They're all good. Many of them are great, but they are all good. Every single one. Blank could immerse you neck-deep in a local cultural scene, be it music or food-based or otherwise, with the very first shot of a movie and take you deeper with each successive shot until you drowned in the joy of it all. He could pull it off because he had an uncanny knack for always pointing his hand-held camera at the right place at the right time; he just had a laser-beam eye, innate talent, sorry, you can't imitate it. We need more talk about Blank as one of the great cinematographers.

His ability to capture the essence of his subjects with efficiency and confidence yielded ecstatic celebrations of creativity, eccentricity, and devotion like no other. Though he picked his subjects wisely, I don't think it mattered much. Ask him to shoot a documentary about a dumb brick just lying there being a brick and I bet you would get movie gold. Les Blank could do no wrong.

Musician Leon Russell, subject of Blank's little-seen “A Poem Is A Naked Person” (1974), would not agree. Russell and music producer Denny Cordell hired Blank to shoot a documentary about the singer/songwriter/piano man/studio musician and weren't at all pleased with the final results. In Russell's words, it felt more like a film about Les Blank than about Leon Russell, though a better way to put it is that it was a film about what interested Les Blank. And that wasn't always Leon Russell.

It shouldn't have been such a big shock. Blank was hired primarily on the strength of his early masterpiece “The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins” (1968) and while his film showcased Hopkins as an irresistible artist and force of nature, it was also a movie about many other people and events 'round about Hopkins. Blank immediately displayed his career-shaping belief that a man or woman could only be understood in the context of their environment. Music comes from a specific time and a specific place, and nobody was better able to illustrate that than Les Blank. “Illustrate” doesn't suffice; maybe “radiate” comes closer.

Therefore, while “A Poem” shows us plenty of Russell performing on stage (he's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n roll, a little bit blues), it also cuts away from his performances to show life in rural Oklahoma where Russell was building his recording studio and much of the film is set: nearby fishermen at work, a local artist pontificating on consumerism while capturing scorpions in glass jars, a man at a parachuting contest who drinks a toast to the film then chomps down his glass, a hotel being demolished, and even Les Blank himself enjoying a shot of booze and a passionate kiss. Always for pleasure, that Les. Blank followed his instincts and trusted his unerring eye for colorful detail, abetted by creative, free-form editing with the crucial assistance of long-time collaborator Maureen Gosling.

In one scene, we hear the traditional wedding vows begin in voice-over, only for them to be interrupted by a little girl we've seen briefly before as she insists that she has not yet finished singing her song. Blank respectfully cedes the stage to her so she can belt out “Joy To The World.” Why? It felt right (in the editing room, that is). Plus there are all kinds of talented performers in the world, not just the top-line talent. And isn't a little girl innocently singing “Make sweet love to you” more interesting than some dumb old wedding? It just works. Les Blank could do no wrong.

Russell comes off pretty darned well; he certainly rocks though he's no Lightnin' Hopkins. He gets into arguments with other musicians and barks orders at his inner circle, but he never seems anything less than driven and fully committed to his craft. It's an endearing if occasionally troublesome portrait that you'd think would please most subjects. However, Blank's film wasn't Russell's idea of the film – perhaps he just wanted a standard, worshipful, and more focused portrait of a genius artist – and the two big personalities reportedly clashed on set on multiple occasions. So Russell put the kibosh on the movie. It was his project (Blank wasn't even promised a director's credit) and he didn't want it to be seen, so it wouldn't be.

Except under certain conditions. Blank's contract guaranteed that he could exhibit the film at non-commercial venues as long as he was actually present at the screening, and so “A Poem Is A Naked Person” subsisted for the next four decades in a peripatetic existence, never quite disappearing, but never quite all there either. Blank increasingly came to view it as his (all but) lost masterpiece and its uncertain status remained a thorn in his side for the rest of his life.

After Blank's death in 2013, his son Harrod broke the long thaw with Leon Russell and set in motion the steps that would eventually to the film's first official release, and now to this Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. And thank goodness. I don't think it's Blank's best work. But it's pretty darned good. Because Les Blank could... well, you know.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot in 16 mm so we get a heavy grain look in this 2K high-def restoration. I felt that the opening title sequence with its hand-made title cards looked a bit like video, but I didn't feel like that about the rest of the film. Color contrast looks subtle and entirely naturalistic – Blank seemed to know how to film people in just the right sunlight to make them glow. The tiniest bit of flecking is visible from time to time, but overall this looks great and, of course, we'd have all been happy to have just about any version of Blank's “lost” film.

The linear PCM mono track is pretty flat but crisp, which is what matters. The music won't blow you away with depth but it sounds good, and all dialogue is clear. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has packed a surprising amount of extra features with this feature-length film.

First up is an interview with Harrod Blank (Les's son) and Leon Russell (2015, 27 min.) Russell sports a mighty fine beard in the movie. Forty years later the beard is even more impressive and all-white. Russell is fairly diplomatic in discussing his “difference of opinion” with Les regarding the film, and Harrod helps by acknowledging that his father (who he calls Les) could certainly be challenging at times, in no small part because of his alcohol and drug consumption during the time of the film. Blank and his team (including Maureen Gosling) spent two years shooting the film, and also used the time (as permitted in their contract) to edit two other Blank films, “Dry Wood” and “Hot Pepper.” Harrod also discusses how difficult it was to clear the music licensing for the film's national release.

The disc also includes a short clip (8 min.) of Les Blank in 2013, shortly before his death, at one final screening of “A Poem” for friends and family. Speaking from stage, a feeble looking but still energetic Blank (he was dying from cancer) Blank mentions that he soon discovered that Russell didn't much like being interviewed and so had to change his plans on the fly. Of course he was pretty good at that.

“A Film's Forty-Year Journey” (2015, 37 min.) is a documentary shot for Criterion which features interviews with Harrod Blank, Maureen Gosling, and artist Jim Franklin who we meet in “A Poem.” This feature includes more details about Blank's for-hire experience on his first feature-length film as well as the struggles in securing the film's belated release. Blank actually returned to edit the film in 2011, but Harrod sticks with the original cut which screened at select venues over the years.

“Out In The Woods” (13 min.) is an impressionistic documentary by Maureen Gosling consisting of Super-8 footage she shot during the two years spent shooting “A Poem” combined with text from letters she wrote to her parents back home. It's a gauzy reminiscence with some richly layere sound design, and I found it quite moving.

The disc also includes three Trailers: a Theatrical (2 min.), an Extended (3 min.) and an Alternate Unused (2 min.) all featuring the Janus logo for the film's recent release.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones.

Final Thoughts:
Just a few years ago, you had to work hard to find a Les Blank film. With Criterion's release of the sprawling box set “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure” and now this, we have a treasure trove on our shelves.

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