I Belong To The Blank Generation

The documentary While You Live, Shine receives its world premiere in Dublin this week. Its director Paul Duane talks about the filmmaker who influenced it the most.

Musicians in Pyrsogianni, Epirus
Musicians in Pyrsogianni, Epirus

Epirus, in Northern Greece, is a land that time forgot. Bounded on one side by the Vikos Gorge, Europe’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon, and on the other by the Pindus mountain range, its staggering beauty is offset by the difficulty of earning a living there. Goat-herding isn’t quite attraction enough for the youth, who, generation after generation, emigrate for Athens, London or New York. Those who stay behind are subjected to fierce, snowbound winters when even animals can’t be left outdoors.

Like that other, more famous musical bedrock, Appalachia, it’s a remote and poverty-stricken area which has preserved a rich and deep culture that’s been lost everywhere else.

In 2016 I had the opportunity to make a film about the ‘panegyri’ – festivals, celebrated on religious feast-days in Epirus, where a form of music that can be traced back to pre-Christian times is played by musicians who think nothing of ten or twelve-hour sets, for dancers who dance themselves into a state of ‘kefi’, or exaltation.

I don’t speak any Greek and at the start of production had never been to Greece. I haven’t even read Zorba The Greek, though I used to frequent the legendary Jimmy The Greek’s restaurant on Dean St in Soho, and enjoyed his lamb kleftiko (and these days I know that the dish gets its name from the klephts, rural bandits who roamed the land during the Greek wars of independence).

I basically didn’t have a clue what I was getting into, which, God knows why, I always find an exciting prospect.

Another thing I didn’t have was a coherent story to tell. There was, as far as I could ascertain, no one central character (though Christopher King, the mercurial American record collector and writer who has done more than anyone to popularise the music of Epirus for an international audience, would become a gateway through whom audiences could begin to understand the music and the place). There was no conflict and no resolution, no redemption, no evidence of what they call an ‘arc’.

So I was forced to ask myself, what sort of film could this be, lacking all of these seemingly crucial elements?

Les Blank

My roadmap out of this situation was the Criterion box set Always For Pleasure, the collected films of the late American documentarian Les Blank. Watching them, I realised that what you need to make a documentary is interesting people doing interesting things. In theory, if you’ve chosen your subject well, everything else will follow.

Blank’s films are usually short, between thirty and fifty minutes long, although his most famous film, Burden Of Dreams, is feature-length. He focuses on people living normal, unexceptional lives in out-of-the-way American places, mostly but not exclusively in the American South.

Werner Herzog remembers when Blank came to the Peruvian jungle to film Burden of Dreams, which follows the making of Fitzcarraldo. As the pivotal moment in production came, and hundreds of men began to physically haul the riverboat up the mountain, he saw Blank sitting behind his camera, drinking a beer, watching, but not filming. “Les, don’t you want to get this?” Herzog asked. “This is, I think, an event.” “Werner,” Blank replied, “I didn’t come here to film events.”

les and werner
Les Blank and Werner Herzog

The events in his films are conspicuously ordinary (weddings, parties, cook-outs), and he rarely focuses on an individual, preferring the communal. His characters can be Cajun, Creole, African-American or Polish-American, but they’re always members of well-defined minorities with characteristics and traditions of their own, separated from the mainstream.

Blank’s direction is understated, and his great virtue is his non-judgemental eye, which observes people as they drink, dance, eat, cook, sing and play music, and invariably picks out the particular moments that separate this place and these people from all the others who have danced and cooked before his lens.

He doesn’t use voice-over or ‘talking heads’ interviews, and he drops his audience into situations as they occur, allowing them to figure out for themselves what’s happening. There’s no hand-holding.

Front and centre is Blank’s interest in how poor people enjoy themselves (because rich people everywhere enjoy themselves in the same dull, shiny way). It’s what could be described as humanistic filmmaking.

In the 1970s and 80s when these films came out, they may have seemed conventional. Conservative, even. Blank doesn’t satirise or undermine his subjects, their hand-me-down clothes and unconventional approach to dentistry (Spend It All features a Cajun removing one of his own teeth at a party, with the aid of pliers and, presumably, a considerable quantity of alcohol; Herzog loved this so much he got permission from Blank to recreate it in his feature film Stroszek). His squared-off, uninflected approach to them gives the films a limpid quality.

Blank’s art conceals his artistry, and does its best to present the world bare and fresh. As Herzog says about his favourite Blank film, Spend It All, “There’s no nostalgia. It’s just life. Life.”

And now that the world he filmed has almost completely disappeared, this approach is what makes the films vital.

Dancers in Vitsa
Dancers in Vitsa

I’ve wished from time to time that I could make a Les Blank-type film, but had come to believe that the opportunity doesn’t exist any more. The remote rural communities he visited, with their presiding musical dieties – Lightning Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, Nathan Abshire – have lost the traditions that once separated them from other places, and the people there now listen to the same music people listen to everywhere else.

Even the localised eating habits Blank loved to document (his films are full of cookery, usually dishes involving pork and chicken, usually fried) have been averaged out. Americana is meaningless now, unless you’re looking for a Waffle House.

But the opportunity to film in Epirus, where the music is in direct continuity with the most ancient and pagan traditions of middle Europe, and where the musicians survive, not by recording CDs and selling t-shirts, but by playing epic live sets, ten or more hours in length, and being paid in cash by their audiences as the sun rises over the village square – that seemed to me to be a way I might attempt to use what I’d learned from watching Blank’s films.

It was the first time my cameraman, Paddy Jordan, and I had worked together. He came to my office for a production meeting and instead of telling him what we were going to film, all I could do was to play him some obscure, scratchy folk music and talk vaguely about ‘the circle of life’ and how the film might best work by focussing on visual metaphors – trees, water, animals – rather than interviews.

Luckily, Paddy is empathetic and extraordinarily creative, and he seemed to get what I was talking about. I’m not sure I did, myself.

Director of Photography Patrick Jordan (photo Paul Duane)
Director of Photography Patrick Jordan (photo by Paul Duane)

I also said we should try to let our shots run on, in long takes, whenever possible, rather than aiming to constantly cut from one thing to another. At the same time, however, I was adamant that we didn’t want to do a lot of filming – we would only film what seemed important, the way we would if we were using film stock, rather than the inexhaustible digital rigmarole of the present day. But ‘important’ doesn’t equal ‘events’.

The example I offered Paddy was a shot in Blank’s film The Blues According To Lightnin’ Hopkins. Music plays on the soundtrack as Blank’s zoom lens focuses on a young couple crossing a sunlit street, walking together smiling and talking. The woman parts from the man (are they a couple? Or just friends? It’s hard to tell) and as they separate, Blank pans to follow the man. He turns and walks alone along a boardwalk. He walks and walks and then, all of a sudden, he does a couple of dance steps, seemingly for no reason at all.

But as the camera follows him further, we realise that he’s seen a group of his friends standing at the end of the boardwalk, and he’s walking towards them and the dance is a greeting, a moment of happiness. And, cut. It’s a beautiful and mysterious long take, one that makes you wonder how Blank knew to keep the camera rolling, despite using all that precious film stock. And it preserves an ephemeral, long-gone moment in time, giving this isolated moment of pleasure a golden glow.

After directing three feature documentaries, and watching hundreds made by other people, I’d begun to wonder whether documentary editing needed to be examined further. It seemed to me that every time you cut, in a factual film at least, the audience may subliminally feel you’re hiding something from them, that the cut is a way of forcing their understanding of the story into a particular shape. That, in a time when we were being encouraged to be sceptical of every form that presents itself as factual, the conventional documentary edit was losing its power.

I’d twice worked with the gifted and subtle editor Tony Cranstoun, who’d started out in the golden age of television documentary working with Paul Watson, and whose sensitive approach to factual material seemed to me to offer new possibilities, different ways of working. I approached Tony with my half-formed ideas, asking, what if we edited less, and instead tried to present our shots in as unmediated a form as possible? Would the film become apparently more trustworthy, more transparent? Or would it just be boring and self-indulgent? Well, as Harry Hill would put it, there’s only one way to find out…

Laouto player Michalis Verdis
Laouto player Michalis Verdis

The film has not yet been publicly screened; it will have its world premiere at the Audi Dublin Film Festival on February 28th. I genuinely don’t know whether there’s an audience for this kind of film now – certainly it’s out of step with the Netflix era’s emphasis on ‘documentary-as-low-cost-drama-substitute’.

And it isn’t experimental documentary in the conventional sense, either – there’s no meta element of the sort that’s become fashionable since the brilliant The Act Of Killing changed how people think about the form, neither is it a call to arms designed to expose wrongdoing in the world.

What it is, I can’t yet say. It’s hard for any filmmaker to see their film properly until they’ve seen it with an audience. But it is dedicated, respectfully, to the memory and the work of Les Blank.

Here’s some of what I stole from him:
– Stay up late, till the party’s over, because that’s when things get busy.
– Cooking and eating are universal, but always specific to the place and people you’re filming.
– If the shot’s working, keep the camera running. It might get more interesting without warning, and a shot that develops is better than a cut every time.
– If in doubt, find an animal to film, preferably an old and battered survivor. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a reason, everyone will put their own significance into it.
– Music can help you with almost every situation, if it’s good music.

Now the most I can hope for is that, if I did a good enough job, somebody else will eventually steal something from me.

Grigoris Kapsalis, clarino player, Vitsa (photo Patrick Jordan)
Grigoris Kapsalis, clarino player, Vitsa (photo by Patrick Jordan)

While You Live, Shine premieres at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on Wednesday February 28th. Further screenings will be announced on the film’s Facebook page.

The Les Blank box set Always For Pleasure can be purchased from Amazon US. It has not been released in the UK. If you’d like Criterion UK to release it, you can write to them at suggestions@criterion.com.

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