April 20, 2017
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Leibrecht Documents the Documentarians
by Doniphan Blair
Doc director/shooter/producer, Gina Leibrecht, in her office on the 6th floor of the Zaentz Media Center's Documentary Mecca. photo: D. Blair
SOME SAY WE'RE IN A GOLDEN AGE OF
documentaries, from Michael Moore’s slick political pieces to “March of the Penguins” (2005) and other big budget, wild life intimacies. Plus, you can get a decent camera for $119 (GoPro Hero) and anyone who wants to make one, can.
Once upon a time, however, the documentary was a hermeneutic art with pioneers, masters, shamans even, AND they walked amongst us: Les Blank, 1935-2013; Richard Leacock, 1921-2011; Albert Maysles, 1926-2015; Robert Drew, 1924-2014.
Indeed, they are still here. In a modest 12 x 12 office, on the 6th floor of Berkeley’s Zaentz Media Center, which is the West Coast’s documentary Mecca, a lanky, soft-spoken woman carries on the work, full speed ahead—damn the torpedoes, industry critiques or funding longueurs.
just released her second collaboration with Les Blank, “How to Smell a Rose” (2016), which, in turn, is about Ricky Leacock, who helped invent cinema verité in the ‘60s with Robert Drew and the Maysles Brothers. Before that, Leacock apprenticed with Robert Flaherty—talk about the lineage of masters! In fact, Flaherty provides the film’s title, which is his answer to how to teach documentary filmmaking: It’s like teaching someone to smell a rose.
“It is trying to create the feeling of being there,” Leacock says in Leibrecht's new film. “Nothing to do with ‘truth.’ I don’t want to analyze or stuff like that—just the feeling of being there. When I started making films [that] was almost impossible… without synchronous sound. I love [the new digital technology], I would never go back.”
“I showed this film at
[International Documentary Film Amsterdam], the biggest documentary festival in the world,” Leibrecht told me, when we met recently in her small space in the massive media building. “People would come up to me after and say, ‘All the films here are so depressing but yours made me feel inspired, so thank you.’”
The subjects of Leibrecht's 'How to Smell a Rose': documentary filmmakers Les Blank (lft) and Ricky Leacock. photo: courtesy G. Leibrecht
“[The social justice doc] has its place,” Leibrecht added, “but we need an alternative to the mainstream news and I think documentaries are that. We also need good news—we really do need to stay inspired.”
Leibrecht’s first collaboration with Blank was “All In This Tea” (2007), a luxuriant survey of tea, the Chinese people and land which produce it, and a connoisseur importer, organics activist and tea fanatic, David Lee Hoffman, who lives in West Marin. It features all the Blank tropes: food, faraway places, fantastic music, stunning photography.
Now Leibrecht is trying to get the funding to finish their third collaboration, about the man himself, for which she is welcome to the title of cineSOURCE’s 2010 article: “
Less is More Blank
“The way it worked with us, they were Les’s ideas; he started the projects,” Leibrecht explained. “He was at a point in his life [that] he had no funding for anything coming in; his partners had all left; he was sitting all by himself at Flower Films,” in El Cerrito, upstairs from the storied Americana record store,
, recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
“The digital revolution had begun, so he was transitioning away from 16mm. Les missed 16mm and his Aaton camera—those little buttons [on video cameras] drove him crazy. Les had really big hands. He didn’t have an edit system set up for digital. He didn’t want the pressure of making films. He was like, ‘I am going to film these subjects at my leisure; I don’t need a crew anymore; and I am just going to hang out and see what happens.’”
“He was game for anything,” Leibrecht recalled, with a laugh. “If you went to him and said, ‘Hey Les, do you want to hang upside down from your apple tree and eat potato chips,’ he would say, ‘OK.’ He was just sort of curious and game and that gave him a kind of kismet. He was always at the right place at the right time. He was fun to hang out with.”
“Then I came along, saw the footage and said, ‘Wow, you’ve got to make these films.’ He said, ‘If you do all the work.’ I said, ‘OK.’ We didn’t have any interns. It was just the two of us. We shot some more together. I edited both films. I raised all the money. Once they were finished, Les stepped in and helped get them out there.”
While Leibrecht started with a simple love for the doc form, she soon segued into the thick of doc theory. photo: D. Blair
Along the way, Leibrecht also stepped into the middle of some major documentary dialectics.
“I had dinner with the director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Noah Cowan, and we had this discussion,” Leibrecht recalled. “Apparently someone showed their documentary [at the festival] and in the Q&A couldn’t answer some of the questions about the subject. He thought that was really bad.”
“I said, ‘A lot of times filmmakers bring their subject [spokesperson] to the screenings because they know the [film’s] subject better then anyone.’ For the tea film, I took [Hoffman] to a lot my screenings because he could talk about tea. I am not an expert on tea.”
“I said, ‘Filmmakers are just storytellers. You find your topic and you are just the transmitter of the information to an audience. It doesn’t mean you become an expert.’ [Cowan] disagreed. He said, ‘I think that is wrong. The filmmaker does have to be an expert.’”
“Another good example is I worked with an environmental filmmaker and he said ‘I didn’t like ‘DamNation’ [2014, Ben Knight] because the facts were wrong.’ I said, ‘Who cares! It got seen and a gazillion people know about dams now because it was a good story. Maybe the facts were wrong but people don’t remember that.’”
“Journalism is one thing, documentary filmmaking is another, I think,” Leibrecht concluded. “Les would go even further and say, ‘It is just entertainment.’ I am a little bit with him on that.”
“I have a hard time with difficult subject matter. I don’t think I would be very good making a film about the sex trade or starving children. I think there are enough people out there doing the hard stuff. We need more films about art and artists and inspiration, about good things happening in the world, but you can’t get them funded. I can’t get money for my film on Les because it is not issue oriented.”
Then there’s Werner Herzog, a dialectic onto himself and the subject of two Blank films, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1980) and “Burden of Dreams” (1982). Ironically, when Herzog was hanging out in Berkeley in the late ‘70s, he was a world-famous, cutting-edge narrative filmmaker, but in the last two decades he has become known for his docs: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), “Grizzly Man” (2005), and “My Best Fiend” (1999), among others.
Herzog sought out Blank to film the making of his feature “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), which was shot in the same Peruvian jungle, and with the same lead, Klaus Kinski, as his most famous film, “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972), although some say Blank's documentary, “Burden of Dreams”, is the best of the three, given its titanic and adversarial protagonists and thrilling conclusion.
Leibrecht and Blank back in 2005. photo: Larry Laszlo
When Kinski has a hissy fit in the middle of the jungle, over the soundman supposedly making faces at him and insists he be replaced immediately, Herzog is well-prepared. Having known Kinski since he was a boarder in Herzog’s childhood Munich home (see “My Best Fiend”), Herzog tells him: I have a pistol with two bullets; one for you and one me. Kinski completed the picture without further disruption.
Herzog also disagreed with Kinski about the beauty of nature. In a long, shrill complaint captured by Blank, Herzog insists, “The birds aren’t singing, they are screaming!” Such anti-Romanticism and the exposing power of documentaries so frightened German director emeritus and Herzog-friend Volker Schlöndorff that he offered Blank tens of thousands of dollars on the spot to burn the negative.
“I’d like to ask Werner: what is the connection between him and Les?” ruminated Leibrecht. “They made two films together but they didn’t really have that much to do with each other and they are so different as people. I feel there is some deeper thread there. I want to know how Les inspired Werner, [whose documentaries] are very intense.”
In fact, in 1999, Herzog issued the “
”, a repudiation of cinema verité and a dedication to documentary story telling.
While point 10 reiterates his Peruvian jungle diatribe, “Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts,” #3 and #5 are more intelligible. “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones,” says the newly-appointed documentary shaman, who could learn a thing or two from the Cinema Veritérs: notably, lighten or excise entirely the narration.
“[T]here is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization,” Herzog concludes.
“We gave [the “Minnesota Declaration”] to Ricky,” Leibrecht said, when she and Blank were in France filming Leacock. “He had a really strong reaction. They both think they are right, which I think is funny.”
Ironically, when Leibrecht finished “How to Smell a Rose”, the first person she gave it to was Tom Luddy, an old Berkeley film hand as well as a well-known producer (“Barfly”, 1987, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, 1985, and “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”, among others), who currently runs the Telluride Film Festival. “That is what Blank would have done,” she said. But then Luddy not only invited the film to debut at Telluride, he showed it to Herzog.
“The whole time I am thinking, ‘Werner doesn’t like Ricky Leacock,’” Leibrecht continued. “[Luddy] probably wanted to show it to him because it was a Les film but Ricky is all about cinema verité and for Werner: ‘This shit is dead! This is shit, basically.’”
“Werner, I realized, really is a storyteller. When he goes into a situation, he doesn’t make friends with his subjects. He just goes in, gets the story and gets out. Les hangs out with his subjects for years and stays friends with them when the film is over. He keeps filming them even though there is no movie [any more].”
Leibrecht's ideas and influences range widely and she's not averse to opposing the supposed establishment. photo: D. Blair
Indeed, Blank maintained relations with all of his subjects, except for, famously, the prodigy piano player Leon Russell. In the early ‘70s, Russell invited Blank and Maureen Gosling, his soundperson and editor at the time, to document him working and living in his recording studio/commune. Indeed, they moved in and lived there for TWO YEARS! Alas, Russell and his producer were unhappy with the result and forbid the film to be shown except at a nonprofit, for free and with no advertising.
“I just met [Russell] last night,” Leibrecht told me, “we saw him at Yoshi’s [Club in Oakland]. They had a falling out. [But,] when [Blank] was sick, [his son] Harrod reached out to Leon. It took a year of Harrod chipping away. Leon warmed up to Harrod and came around and Criterion just released the DVD. It was for sale at Leon’s table last night at Yoshi’s. It is one of Les’s best films. It is quintessential Les Blank.”
And what, pray tell, is that little known and largely unviewed Blank masterpiece called… wait for it: “A Poem Is a Naked Person” (1974)!
“I wouldn’t put Les in the same camp as Ricky,” said Leibrecht, trying to parse the documentary wars that stretch from Cowan, who insists on only verifiable facts, to Leacock, who eschewed narration and felt facts were whatever you could figure out on your own, to Werner “I am a goddamn artist and will narrate all I want” Herzog, with Blank essentially encompassing the latter two.
“I think one of the things Werner liked so much about Les’s films is that they were stylized. Les was never attached to a narrative arc—beginning, middle, end—or ‘I have to get my facts right.’ His films are more like tone poems. They create a feeling and each scene is a song. You watch the film and it is like listening to an album.”
“He filmed what fascinated him and what he loved and he didn’t necessarily feel obligated to connect the dots. There are a lot of scenes in his films that have no explanations and don’t really move anything forward.”
Leibrecht herself was drawn to documentary-making in the 1990s, after working on features as a sound person, PA, gopher—you know the drill. One day, an environmental filmmaker asked her to shoot production stills as he filmed an oil refinery and, “I had this ‘Aha!’ moment: three-person crew, natural light, real people, real stories.”
“I thought, ‘Wow!’ This is WAY more interesting then sitting around on the set for hours and hours and you don’t have a life and you are just a cog in a gigantic machine. I never looked back.”
About a year later she met Blank, whom she knew from seeing “Burden” at the University of Oregon, where she studied film and shot a doc about a Portland bridge, the one on which the Golden Gate was modeled and where activists now hang political banners. Blank was giving a seminar at the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation. Leibrecht attended, sat in the front row and they ended up going to lunch.
Leibrecht and documentary filmmaker Ricky Leacock, at his 80th birthday party at Halibut Point, Massachusetts, 2001. photo: courtesy G. Leibrecht
“I called Les two months after and said, ‘Can I just come and show you my footage?’” Leibrecht recalled. “He said, ‘Sure.’ I thought he would be too busy but he invited me in; I showed him my footage; and we talked for two hours.”
Once they agreed to collaborate, Leibrecht began working at Flower Films in El Cerrito, transferring his films to DVD and editing the tea film. Then Blank went to France for a few days to film Leacock and when Leibrecht saw the rushes, she encouraged him to make the film.
“So we went back and spent five days with Ricky and Valerie [his girlfriend]. It was then that I realized the film really needed to include Les because it was really a conversation between these two guys. Alas, Les didn’t go for that. ‘Ah, I don’t want to be in it.’ He never put himself in his films—maybe a cameo now and then.”
“When we came home from France and I started editing,” Leibrecht said, “I [also] realized I needed all these clips. The most important work [Leacock] did was with Robert Drew. We contacted him and we got a fax back. It had one sentence: ‘The films are not available for this purpose.’”
“There was a little bit of resentment between them, which I don’t really understand. [And] at that time, Drew’s films were in a vault; they had not been digitized; there were no DVDs; it was not going to be easy to get high-quality clips.”
“I felt I hit a wall. The project got pushed aside. I made the tea film. 12 years went by. Ricky died in 2011 and Les got sick. He had bladder cancer. A couple days before Les died—I had applied to the NEA for a grant to finish the Leacock film—I got an email saying they were giving us the money. He was really happy about that.”
A couple of weeks before that, Leibrecht had finally convinced Blank, a shy, stoic, man-of-the-West, to let her put him in the film. “Then Harrod stepped in.”
Famous for his art cars (
), Harrod is also a filmmaker. Indeed, he has been shooting Burning Man for 25 years, often dragging his old man out to the desert for high-quality cinematography. Although Blank’s health was careening up and down, Harrod caught him on a decent day, sat him down in the back yard and did a short interview about his relationship with Leacock. It became the introduction to “How to Smell a Rose”.
“Then I went back to the footage and found all the places where he asks questions,” Leibrecht continued. “I rejiggered the film so that it was Les’s visit with Ricky. Les saw a 40-minute version [before he died].”
“Then Robert Drew came through. I called him again and I was kind of scared—but he was so kind. He said, ‘Yes, of course, I will give you the clips. I love Ricky.’ I went to the East Coast and filmed an interview with him and [D.A.] Pennebaker.”
Leibrecht from a photo from the film site Owsley Brown Presents. photo: courtesy OBP
And so “How to Smell a Rose” became a master’s class in documentary filmmaking.
“People think that the closeup is to reveal detail,” notes Leacock in the film's beginning, recalling Flaherty’s film philosophy. “No, no, no! The thing about the closeup is it withholds information. It builds up in the audience a visual tension: wanting to see more.”
“In the whole ‘Louisiana Story’ (1955, Flaherty), you never see a single shot of the whole oil rig—just an ordinary oil rig. But, by the time we are finished with it, we have built up in the audience’s psyches the feeling that this is the greatest, biggest oil rig in the whole world.”
“A lot of the process was getting out of the habits, the rituals of the professional cameraman. ‘You do this, you do that,’” Leacock elaborated. “You look and look with the camera and you see the rushes and you look and look.”
“I never knew anyone in my life—before or since—who looked at rushes the way [Flaherty] did. Over and over again until I was ready to scream. [But] things began to emerge that you couldn’t preconceive. Things that were amazing to me. It was a miraculous experience. Unique.”
“’Film, one day, will be made by amateurs,’” Flaherty told Leacock, three decades before Francis Ford Coppola made a similar remark. “Get rid of the horrible professionalism, movie crews with 150 people, actors being paid millions of dollars—100 years ago actors weren’t even allowed to be buried in the cemetery!”
“How to Smell a Rose” is also a very Blank film, all about cooking, romance and art, with Leacock in his kitchen in Normandy, France, dicing, saucing and telling stories, including ribald ones, like about the lamb, a future dinner running around his house, which sucked fingers and induced orgasms.
“I love what Ricky says in the film,” recalled Leibrecht, referring to his comment about a Robert Drew film, “Primary” (1960), which he shot. “’Here is a film about a presidential campaign and it doesn’t inform you about a damn thing.’”
Another fan of “Primary” was Robert Redford, who borrowed verbatim—O.K. stole—a scene where Goldwater operatives are discussing politics but then segue, without missing a beat, to which steaks to order for dinner. It appeared in Redford’s “The Candidate” (1972), although Leacock found the rehash contrived.
'All in This Tea' team (lft-rt): Leibrecht, Blank, Bee Ratchanee Chaikamnung and tea master David Hoffman, at the latter two's home in Lagunitas, CA. photo: courtesy Kurt Rodgers
“We thought we had a winner with ‘Montery Pop’ [1968, directed by Pennebaker], which was made for ABC,” Leacock said. “The president of ABC came to the screening and, afterwards, he said, ‘This film does not meet industry standards.’ I turned to him and said, ‘I didn’t know you had any’—that didn’t help.”
“They refused to pay for it and we had all these contracts with the groups for television. We had to renegotiate for a year. Finally, Pennebaker opened it in San Francisco, on his own dime and without a distributer. It did very well.”
Indeed, “Monterey Pop” is still one of the best concert films EVER, replete with the first images of Hendrix firing up his guitar, literally, and Joplin blasting the blues, although her scenes were re-enactments, violating Leacock and company's sacred cinema verité oaths. “I remember when we showed it to Ravi Shankar,” recalled Leacock, “he went out of his mind at that last sequence of him playing.”
Leacock also helped integrate the film industry, I was told by Chris Puello, whose father Bob studied with him at film school in New York in the late '40s on the GI Bill. When the film workers union, Local 644, accepted Leacock's entire class except Puello, who was Afro-Cuban, he replied, "You take Bob or you take no one." Later they worked together on a shoot in the South, where the local film workers appointed Puello foreman, because he knew all the equipment.
Now Leibrecht is trying to finish her film about Blank, which she began shooting early in their relationship in that offhand way that Blank himself used to such disarming good effect on his own subjects.
“The California Council for the Humanities has turned me down five times [for a grant]. I don’t get it. Don’t they want their name on this movie? He is such a California personage,” if originally from Florida—but not only that:
“[Blank] changed people’s idea of what you can make a documentary film about. He was the first to put a mise en scene in a documentary, to bring poetry into a documentary. His eye, his cinematography, it was so incredible. He expanded the notion of the documentary more than cinema verité [did], I think.”
“Films about creativity and inspiration are the black sheep of the documentary world. I know that there are now some initiatives where they are trying to change that. Like at Sundance, Tabitha Jackson is really trying to change that. If you go Europe, they make a lot of films about artists and art.”
“So I guess we just have to keep plugging away and figure it out. The NEA is really our only hope in funding and they can’t fund a whole film any more.”
A classic Les Blank shot—indeed, it's the one which graced his website. photo: Harrod Blank
Fortunately, “The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins” (1970) or “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” (1980), not to mention “Burden” or “A Poem is a Naked Person” will not fade away, especially since they were digitized by Leibrecht. Perhaps Leibrecht will get a Leibrecht of her own. Either way, the master documentarian lineage will undoubtedly keep marching on, into the social media society of the spectacle, and keep teaching people how to smell a rose.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 17, 2016 - 05:52 PM