A Poem Is a Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank
Opens July 1 at Film Forum
“I seem to gravitate to those things which I felt were beautiful and valuable that I guess a lot of people took for granted because it was all around them. The songs, the way people interrelate with one another, the sincerity of feeling, and people being true to themselves and not being hypocritical… In a family, the feeling of love among various family members. I wanted to document it, record it, in case it changes in the future.”
That was Les Blank in an interview with me a few years ago, on the occasion of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work. And that was Les Blank’s films, celebrations of life in sound and image which—he said in the same conversation while eating squid—became a whole new medium when combined. But that didn’t happen with just anyone shooting, and upon the death of Blank in 2013, film lost another invigorating, original voice, comparable to two other virtuoso cameramen of the moment, Ricky Leacock (who’d passed two years earlier) and the late Albert Maysles. If Leacock and Maysles were better known for photographing better-known performers, Blank was drawn to food, music, and people that maybe didn’t have a high profile, and to fellow feeling wherever he found it.
A Poem Is a Naked Person was a work for hire, brought to Blank when Leon Russell, like other star musicians of the era, wanted to have his own concert documentary. The thirtyish filmmaker, similarly recruited for his 1965 Dizzy Gillespie short, had been recommended on the strength of films like The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. But after the 1972–1974 shoot, Russell vetoed the final creation, likely for the reason that Poem is more like another chapter in Blank’s book of American life than a vehicle to get crowds going. Not that it couldn’t do just that: the film’s first half-hour is pure Blank magic, a pinwheeling exultation in river, people, music, shot in and around Russell’s Oklahoma recording studio and at shows. Blank loves Russell’s mischievous face as he plays, a luxuriantly bearded master of ceremonies, party-making pianist, onstage snacker, appealing even within the backstage bubble.
Blank doesn’t so much puncture that bubble as ignore it, or treat fame in passing—again and again, Poem slots Russell in performance (or Willie Nelson) right alongside other gatherings of people doing their thing. One marvelous segue cuts from a song to a man talking about Native American ritual, as if his speech were just another verse, and then to the ceremony. Likewise we get glimpses of a black reverend and his flock communing with Jesus in song, a little girl singing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” for two ladies, quicksilver fiddler Sweet Mary Egan, and a crowd of gawkers at a building scheduled for demolition. (One Dont Look Back-esque scene makes the question of folk tradition explicit when Eric Andersen quizzes Russell on whether he’s revivalist or just putting one over.)
There is of course plenty of Russell in front of jazzed-up audiences (among the most expressive being his own drummer), but Blank also plays “I’m So Lonesome” over an almost comically suited shot of a full moon alone in the sky, finding a matching rhythm in nature itself. “The day of the director is dead” is the Godard epigraph plunked in the credits, sounding oddly aggressive (even if we have seen a shot of a snake slithering under a chick). But it does express a selfless feeling to Blank’s devotion to his subjects, still garnering audiences’ deep enjoyment decades later.
It’s funny to see Nicolas Rapold write the phrase “oddly aggressive.” I find his reviews and writing to be oddly aggressive, and snarky. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder and mixes sarcasm and anger with misunderstanding and confusion. Film criticism is dying.