In 1948, documentarian Robert Flaherty made a film that is now regarded as one of American cinema's best evocation of a place -- the Louisiana bayou. Forty years later, cultural documentarian Les Blank took a wide-ranging musical tour across the bayou and prairies of this same region to film a landmark music documentary. Both films are now available on DVD; in their own way, both recall a time in Louisiana that has passed on.
How curious it is that the legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty's masterpiece would feature an obsession with an oil derrick. After all, the man who practically invented the genre began his career with the groundbreaking Nanook of the North, and his magnificent camera lens rarely strayed from the wonders of man and nature in such future works as Man of Aran and Elephant Boy. Who would have thought his last great work, 1948's Louisiana Story -- recently released on DVD, along with Man of Aran, by Home Vision Entertainment (www.homevision.com) -- would throw industry into the mix?
Part of it was the set-up; Flaherty, in the twilight of both his career and life (he died in 1951), accepted a commission from Standard Oil to film a positive look at its initial work in the Louisiana bayou. Flaherty and his wife and collaborator, Frances, explored the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma before Flaherty finally found his inspiration: his father had been a mining engineer (for gold, not black gold) in Canada, and the 64-year-old Flaherty would use the piece as a bit of an autobiography.
The result is a breathtaking visual and symphonic poem to a land and its people; the Flahertys received Oscar nominations for Motion Picture Story (as opposed to screenplay), while Virgil Thomson's swirling score won a Pulitzer Prize. The film eventually was selected for the National Film Registry, confirming its status as a cinematic national treasure.
Never one to simply shoot and run, Flaherty developed his narrative using all of his storytelling repertoire, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening shot, which features Flaherty offering three haikus. A young Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux, whom Flaherty had recruited from a nearby town) snakes his way through the waters of the Petit Anse Bayou in his pirogue. But even before that, Flaherty's camera has captured perfect bayou images: an alligator struggling onto a half-submerged log, a heron perched on a tree limb, flecks of water glistening on a plant. And then the boy floats into the screen, at first obscured by moss and tree. His eyes sparkle with wonder and delight at the nature crawling, floating and planted about him.
Flaherty speaks: "His name is Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour. Mermaids, their hair is green, he says, swim up these waters from the sea. He's seen their bubbles often. And werewolves, with long noses and big red eyes, come to dance on moonless nights. He'd never dream of being without this little bag of salt at his waist. And the little something he carries inside his shirt." The camera continues to follow the boy, changing his size and scale from shot to shot a major theme throughout the film as Flaherty attempts to place the bayou in its proper visual perspective.
"No one ... ever handled the camera so lovingly," Frances Flaherty says in a recorded interview, one of several bonus features on the DVD. "His attitude towards it was as that of a mystic. The camera was a thing for seeing more than the eye could see. He asked the camera, 'What is this mystery that you can see better than I can see?' It was a purely visual process. Words had nothing to do with it. It went beyond words."
From there, the story follows the boy's wonderment at the arrival of the oil derrick and his relationship with its "roughneck" crew. It ends rather opaquely. Some accused Flaherty of selling out by not taking industry more to task -- without apparently realizing who was funding the thing. But Louisiana Story remains a rare, early, magical look at a people and a place so inextricably woven together. -- Simmons
J'ai Été au Bal
Among the many memorable scenes of Les Blank's documentary J'ai Été au Bal: accordionist Marc Savoy, in the midst of a discussion about accordions, unexpectedly places one on the ground. He steps on top of it and does a little balancing act. "What is this a demonstration of?" asks off-camera interviewer Chris Strachwitz. Savoy says it's the "sheer strength" of the accordion. Then, with a certain air of superiority toward lesser instruments, Savoy asks, "Can you imagine doing this to a fiddle?"
Should a musical instrument really be judged on its ability to withstand the weight of a man? Maybe in south Louisiana. After all, as J'ai Été au Bal recounts, Cajuns were trodden upon throughout their history. They needed music that was tough.
First released in 1989, J'ai Été au Bal is likely to stand as the best cinematic treatment of the historical emergence of Cajun identity through music. The most didactic of Les Blank's often impressionistic films, it features commentary from musician Michael Doucet and folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet and is inspired by Ann Allen Savoy's landmark self-published book Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People.
Cajun and Creole roots are represented by interviews with then-living pioneers such as Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot. Contemporary giants like Dewey Balfa, D.L. Menard and the Hackberry Ramblers all get big play. Zydeco doesn't fare quite so well, however. Clifton Chenier footage is recycled from Blank's previous Chenier film Hot Pepper, and interviews with some zydeco players seem rushed. It bears noting that J'ai Été au Bal appeared years before Beau Jocque and Keith Frank would lead an emerging zydeco renaissance. Witnessed today, Blank's scenes of a younger Boozoo Chavis on a trail ride and playing "Johnny Billy Goat" provide a harbinger of trends and sounds that were yet to come.
Still, J'ai Été au Bal records countless sublime displays of offhand artistry. Dennis McGee doesn't just recall hearing Baudoin Ardoin -- legendary Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin's brother -- stumble down the road after a party. He recreates Baudoin's drunken song, words and hiccups and all. Saxophonist John Hart's stage intro for Clifton Chenier at the 1977 Jazz Fest is a study in stage intros. The Balfa Brothers' performance of "The Criminal Waltz" at the 1979 Tribute to Cajun Music in Lafayette is haunting. And included in the DVD's 30 minutes of bonus footage is Canray Fontenot's elegant recreation of the group drinking song "Allons Chercher" and a head-banging duet by Michael Doucet and Wayne Toups on "Zydeco Sont Pas Sale."
Les Blank's subjects have ranged from flower children to Lightnin' Hopkins, from Werner Herzog to polka. But Blank, a Tulane University graduate, has returned most often to Louisiana music and musicians. As a filmmaker-explorer, he established cinematic lexicons that others followed with varying results. Reportedly, Walter Hill based scenes from his 1981 psychos-in-the-swamp yarn Southern Comfort (a film regarded as degrading to Cajuns) on Blank's folkloric depictions of Cajun life in films like Spend It All and Dry Wood. And if J'ai Été au Bal's generous pans of Louisiana countryside, accompanied by the music of BeauSoleil, seem familiar, it may be because, nearly a decade later, they would be echoed in the opening tracking shot of Jim McBride's 1989 Cajun detective film The Big Easy, which featured BeauSoleil on the soundtrack.
But there are better ways to measure Blank's Louisiana films. J'ai Été au Bal, an edited version of which aired nationally on PBS' "The American Experience" series, captures fleeting moments with some of south Louisiana's most gifted musicians. In doing so, it provides a lasting touchstone for artists yet to emerge. In one scene, zydeco player John Delafose stands to the side while his son, Geno, then a teenager in a baseball cap, picks up the accordion and plays a quick riff. More than a decade later, Geno would be leading his own band. That's a legacy you can stand on. -- Tisserand