Les Blank's "All in this Tea"

Dennis Harvey December 20, 2007

In our celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV-clogged culture, it seems just about everybody wants to be a star. Yet ask most established actors, and they’ll tell you what they really want to do is direct. Ask a director, and despite whatever professional frustrations, most likely he or she will tell you there’s no job they’d rather have.

Even amongst the luckiest stiffs, however, there can be few directors who love what they do more than Les Blank. His enthusiasm and fun practically radiate from the screen; a documentarian for nearly 50 years now, he doesn’t seem to be interviewing or investigating his subjects so much as amiably hanging out with them. Or sampling them like a connoisseur — the vast majority of Blank’s movies have been celebrations of good-time music and good food, sometimes both at once. Really, who wouldn’t like this guy’s job?

His latest, “All in This Tea” (which was co-directed with his editor Gina Leibrecht), is typical Blank.

It’s short (just 69 minutes) but rich, savory, packed with info and local color, yet goes down as easily as…well, a leisurely afternoon tea break. This holiday season will be packed as usual with bigger, splashier entertainments — but few if any are likely to prove as simply delightful as this “Tea.”

Shot over several years’ course, the film’s primary focus is on David Lee Hoffman, a genial Northern Californian. He first became interested in the social, ritual and historical roles of tea — not to mention its sensory pleasure — whilst traveling solo throughout Asia on the “hippie trail,” like many young counterculture types in the late ’60s and 1970s. When he finally settled back home, that interest gradually grew into a one-man operation as importer and promoter of “handcrafted” teas he found himself during journeys (with translator) into seldom-touristed agricultural regions on the Chinese mainland.

As “All This” emphasizes, such teas are entirely unlike the samey, factory-processed brands we’re familiar with in the west. (Why and how Western teas got that way is explained in a fascinating Victorian-era footnote I won’t give away here.) They’re complex, distinctive, and can be prized as highly as the most rarefied vintage wine by China’s leading tea mavens. But they are also — despite the growing market for such high-grade “boutique” teas abroad — increasingly hard to come by. As Hoffman notes with frequent dismay, widespread pesticide use and mass factory production have largely replaced the old organic farming methods, creating a much larger yet lower quality yield.

What’s more, the inevitable burden of bureaucracy in China — especially toward foreign business interests — makes his attempts to buy directly from growers an endless negotiating struggle. Still, he’s such a booster for the stuff, he can’t give up.

As Blank and Leibrecht follow his travels, they also detour to check in with other experts like the flamboyant gastronomical author James Norwood Pratt. There’s insight into the general principles of sustainable agriculture and international agri-politics. There’s also plenty of flavor of the non-liquid kind, including a musical score played on traditional Chinese instruments and some visual delights, including possibly the year’s most charming closing shot.

No talking-head kinda documentarian, Blank (with Leibrecht’s superb editorial assistance) is the type whose skill is such that the result feels utterly casual, yet without a single wasted moment. One can only imagine how much footage ends up on the cutting room floor to make a perfectly cut gem like “Tea.” It’s 72-year-old Blank’s first feature in 12 years (and his first ever shot on digital), but there’s nothing the least bit rusty or fusty about it.

The Bay Area-based filmmaker used to be a rep-house regular, but his earlier movies aren’t seen so often anymore, so if “Tea” leaves you thirsting for more, you would be well advised to do a little digging in the dvd and vhs bins. (Or you can just cut to the chase and go to www.lesblank.com) A full tour of his filmography ought to come packaged with a double-major degree in musicology and ethnology. Though sitting through these films is no doubt a lot more fun than four years of lectures.

After finishing his own college years in New Orleans — a place he’s frequently returned to as an artist — Blank started Flower Films, his production company to this day. He is nothing if not consistent: By the mid/late ’60s he was already making flicks about jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, chicken farming, and people enjoying themselves (at an L.A. love-in in “God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance”).

But his breakthrough came with 1970’s “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” a much-loved portrait of the Texas bluesman. Though only a half-hour long, it was a popular item, leading to much more of the same: “A Well Spent Life” (1972, about Texas guitar legend Mance Lipscomb), “Spend It All” (Cajun history and culture), “Hot Pepper” (1973, Zydeco star Clifton Chenier), “Chulas Fronteras” (1976, Tex-Mex border music), and the quintessentially titled “Always for Pleasure” (1978, about New Orleans in general).

A famous 1980 short called “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” chronicles the titular aftermath of a bet the German filmmaker lost to his friend Blank. (Not being a mean guy, Les let Werner boil and season the leather item before ingesting it.) Two years later came his first official feature, also about Herzog: The memorable “Burden of Dreams,” which chronicled the latter’s problem-blighted, obsessive struggle to make the epic historical drama “Fitzcarraldo.” (The problems included original leads Jason Robards and Mick Jagger dropping out mid-shoot, and duplicating the real-life hero’s 19th feat of dragging a vast showboat over an Amazonian mountain.) Many thought that this “making of” was better than the movie itself. Herzog and Blank must still be pals — the latter shows up briefly in “Tea.”

A more careerist mind might have used that success to move into bigger budgets and more commercial work, but Blank stayed the course. There followed more documentaries, both shorts and feature length, on subjects like “Gap-Toothed Women” (including famous ones like Lauren Hutton and Sandra Day O’Connor), polka dancing (“In Heaven There Is No Beer?”), Appalachian bluegrass sounds (“Sprout Wings and Fly”), rocker Ry Cooder, more on Cajun cooking (“Yum, Yum, Yum!”) and music (“J’ai ete au bal”), fiddler Tommy Jarrell, garlic, Afro-Cuban drumming, Serbian-American culture, folk painter Gerald Gaxiola (“The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists)…well, you get the idea.

It should also be noted, for you trivia fans, that he was second cameraman on “Easy Rider,” starring Peter “Captain America” Fonda and directed by Dennis “Captain Wha?” Hopper. Now that’s a making-of story we’d like to hear. Les Blank sure has hung out with a lot of interesting people — his movies providing ample, wonderfully entertaining evidence of that. Still, I wouldn’t mind one bit if he put the camera down long enough to write an autobiographical memoir. Hint?

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