Les Is More

Left: Les Blank, Gap-Toothed Women, 1987, still from a color film, 31 minutes. Right: Les Blank, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, 1980, still from a black-and-white film, 20 minutes.

VIEWERS FAMILIAR WITH FILMMAKER LES BLANK’S extensive catalogue of slice-of-life Americana may be surprised at the opening shots of All in This Tea (2007), which depict street scenes in Hangzhou, China, and women conducting an elaborate tea ceremony. The hourlong film, which was coproduced and codirected by Gina Leibrecht, is Blank’s first feature in a dozen years and also his first shot on digital video. It follows avid tea enthusiast and importer David Lee Hoffman on his quest to acquire the finest teas produced on China’s terraced mountain slopes. Blank, who followed Werner Herzog up and down another mountain for his classic 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, scrambles after Hoffman as he sinks his nose into bag after bag of fragrant leaves in urban back alleys and in the deep countryside. (Herzog himself makes an appearance in a scene shot in Hoffman’s Northern California home, and a handful of tea experts provide historical information and paeans to the beverage’s virtues.)

What begins as the tale of an intrepid obsessive broadens as Hoffman attempts to disentangle himself from Chinese bureaucracy and import organic teas directly from small farmers. Their livelihoods, he suggests, are endangered by the competition from industrial producers of their crop, and in an attempt to secure their traditions, he introduces compost fertilizer, that Marin County backyard staple, to regional agriculture bureaucrats. One of the film’s few comic moments ensues as Hoffman tries to explain the concept of worm shit to the man seated next to him at a luncheon. Despite Hoffman’s friend-of-the-farmer politics, Blank and Leibrecht’s deft blend of biography and adventure tale is never weighted down by didacticism.

All in This Tea, which ran briefly at New York’s Cinema Village over the summer, anchors an eponymous survey of Blank’s five-decade corpus at the city’s Film Forum. It’s a capricious body of work. Among the titles that will be screened are his humorous portrait of an American group tour through Europe, Innocents Abroad (1991); films celebrating garlic, gap-toothed women, Cajun cooking, Chicano culture, and bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins; and the delightful six-minute Cigarette Blues (1985), which is equal parts music video and PSA. Blank’s Herzog films—the second is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)—are paired with A Well Spent Life (1971), a forty-four-minute portrait of Texas blues legend Mance Lipscomb. That film contrasts Blank’s characteristic close-ups—he dwells on hands and faces—with panoramic skies crisscrossed by telephone wires. “I’ve had it hard, sometimes good. I’ve been a farmer all my life,” Lipscombe announces at the beginning of the film. By the time it was made, he had been blessed with some ease and had made a living as a regional performer for eleven years—evidenced by his finely polished stories about his wife of half a century and how his neighbor lost his leg. Lipscombe’s a showman with great homilies (touching on the big problems, love especially, that beset us all) and even greater music. That Blank tracked him down and artfully captured him on film is something for which we can be thankful.

“Les Blank,” a twenty-six-film retrospective, runs at Film Forum in New York from November 14 to 20. For more information, click here.