I’m writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the Gimme Some Truth documentary film festival. It’s cold and snowy here and perfect weather for snuggling up in dark rooms with media. While I’m here for three days, I’m going to send a few Art Threat posts out, starting with this one.
Yesterday myself and Tom Waugh spoke on a panel we put together on the National Film Board of Canada’s famous Challenge for Change project – a government initiative that lasted throughout the seventies and was mandated to use documentary film to engage communities in the process of production and dissemination in order to effect positive social and political change. Many of the 200 films produced under the banner were considered quite radical because they were funded by the state, and like the classic and powerful film we screened after our presentation, You are on Indian Land (Ransen, Mitchell, Starblanket 1967), ended up being highly critical of the state.
After our panel was finished the politics of copyright and creative ownership were brought to the forefront during a special screening of Les Blank’s mystery masterpiece documentary from 1974. According to a court order, Blank is only allowed to show the film if he is present at the screening and if the film’s title is not promoted publicly. The small theatre at the Winnipeg Cinematheque was packed as Blank introduced his rock-and-roll odyssey. We were then treated to a two hour portrait of the counter-culture music “scene” in the American south during the early seventies – complete with typical Blank oddities fraying constantly from the central narrative thread throughout the entire piece. Such divergent strands as an esoteric “spaced out” artist painting a deep sea-meets-deep space mural on the bottom of a pool; a snake slowly consuming a cute baby chick whole; a man eating glass at an amateur parachuting contest; and lengthy meditations on the sun reflecting on a lake all add to Blank’s inimitable distinct style and form. The film is about a rock star for sure, and there are many sequences of live shows and studio recordings that make this film the rock odyssey it is. There are also many close-up shots of women’s legs, stomachs, breasts, and some conspicuous male-gazing camera work throughout. When I asked Blank if this was symptomatic of 70s doc filmmaking he responded that he’s been accused of objectifying women before, but that he films what he’s “interested in.” This response elicited an elated ovation from the audience, which apparently didn’t want to see the discussion careen into critical engagement with Blank’s work. This was disappointing, as I find that despite Blank’s utter brilliance as a storyteller, shooter and editor – I find women are often “ornaments” in his documentaries, the few that I have seen that is. Blank sold me five of his most “political” documentaries later last night over beer, and I hope to redeem this perspective I have of us his work, after watching them all.
While Blank doesn’t describe himself as a “political filmmaker,” his works touch on many political issues, ranging from food politics, to the political economy of tea, to sub-cultures in the states, to immigration and racial relations in the American south. This 1974 classic from the censored vault is one of his best works and its absence from the publicly available catelogue of his work shows how a litigative society can result in the strangling and silencing of artistic works. And besides, LXXX RXXXXl, the rock star who is homaged in the documentary, is in his seventies – time to move on and release this important artistic rendering of American counterculture.