Les Blank Celebrates U.S. Folkways
For more than 25 years, documentarian Les Blank has recorded the folkways of America in a series of infectious, laid-back films that preserve our rich and diverse heritage without embalming it. Since culture tends to persist in food and music--and they go so well together--these are the enticing ingredients of most of Blank’s movies, four of which begin a one-week run today under the title of “Garlic, Blues and Gap-Toothed Women” (Times-rated Family) at the Monica 4-Plex as part of the AFI USA Independent Showcase.
The 31-minute “Yum, Yum, Yum!: A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking” (1990), on which Blank shares co-credit with his longtime collaborator and editor Maureen Gosling, probably shouldn’t be seen on an empty stomach, so mouth-watering are the array of dishes we see prepared by Marc Savoyc of Eunice, La., Margaret Chenier (widow of zydeco great Clifton Chenier), zydeco queen Ida Guillory and New Orleans’ world-famous chef Paul Prudhomme. Among the items we watch being prepared from start to finish are crab and shrimp crepes, okra etouffee and goo courtbouillon. Creole and Cajun recipes are handed down from generation to generation rather than written down, but for all the seemingly casual ways these cooks toss together their many ingredients, Savoy (whose wife Ann is heard singing) stresses the importance of not varying the mixture if the culture is to be preserved authentically.
Who would have thought you could make a 31-minute movie about women who have a space between their two front teeth? Who would have thought that there could be so much folklore and myth about them--e.g., that such women have stronger sex drives. Among the more famous “Gap-Toothed Women” are Cleopatra, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and supermodel-actress Lauren Hutton, who reveals that her skinniness in adolescence caused her far more concern than the space between her two front teeth.
In a subtle, roundabout way, “Gap-Toothed Women” (1987) questions rigid, oppressive standards of feminine beauty. Oddly, no mention is made of the fact that the gap, which of course also occurs in men, is caused by a muscle called the frenum, which when cut in childhood (an easy outpatient procedure) eliminates the gap, allowing the two front teeth to grow closer without the need of braces.
In the 51-minute “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers” (1980), Blank celebrates (perhaps a bit too exhaustively) the so-called “stinking rose” in all its glory, extolled for its many virtues in the folklore of health and superstition and above all in the cuisine of many cultures. As in “Yum, Yum, Yum!” we see many tempting dishes being prepared, a number of them by Alice Waters of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse. Concluding the program is one of Blank’s earliest films, “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” (1969), in which the late, legendary bluesman performs while Blank records not only him but also his Texas environment--highlights are a barbecue (there’s food again!) and a black rodeo. The blues, Hopkins warns us, is “hard to get acquainted with . . . like death.”