Props to Les Blank

Who doesn’t love a 76 year old man wearing a cardigan? Les blank is cool and approachable and at the end of his presentation I wanted to walk over to him and smell his sweater. Thankfully for my co-workers, I decided against it and shook his hand instead.

He spoke at an event hosted by the SF Film Society called “Master Class: Les Blank on Documentary” — thank you ITVS! Most film fanatics out there have heard of Les Blank, or, at the very least they are familiar with some of his films such as Burden of Dreams or A Poem Is a Naked Person. For me, it wasn’t until attending this seminar that I was introduced to some of his other work and got a taste of his unique voice as a documentarian.

Les Blank is tall, thin, and has a wonderfully trimmed, thick white beard. He is soft spoken, goes straight to the point, and most importantly, he is one of the most humble filmmakers I’ve ever met. If you tell Les Blank he is a true artist, he will give you a puzzled look followed by a nonchalant ‘thanks’; when you ask him what his secret is, he will tell you he has none; and if somebody comments on his amazing ability to get unlimited access he will make a joke and say ‘I just hang around until eventually people get tired of me’. Les Blank’s vision is not simple but he doesn’t waste much time presenting himself as a superior visionaire.

I have seen about four of his films, all produced by his production company Flower Films. After watching them I began to admire how Les Blank captures situations and people is a very gentle way. He doesn’t stage any of his interviews and he may toss cue cards up in the air to give himself a fresh start in the editing room. Rather than producing with his thinking mind, Les Blank feels the story and then goes from there.

By looking him up on imdb it becomes obvious that Les is constantly working, always looking for the next interesting story to tell. His films capture family, traditions, soul, passion, and so many other aspects of life. Without documentary filmmakers like him, we would miss out on a great opportunity to experience the world through a different point of view, from another angle, with a different lens. That’s what a brilliant documentary filmmaker does, he lets a subject be free to express itself without judgements or hesitation. Les knows how to be patient behind the camera yet he is fearless when it comes to finding the true nature of the story. And regardless of his liking of the label, I think Les Blank is a genuine, passionate artist whose films inspire, educate, and resonate with audiences of all ages, all around the world.

Why The Smoking Fish?

I grew up watching movies. Every weekend my parents, brother and I went to a video store owned by very close family friends. The deal: one free rental for every five VCR tapes. Each family member picked one title and together we decided on a movie that was good for the whole family. Finally, we took turns selecting the free rental. We did this for years, it was simple, joyful, it was our family tradition. My father and I also watched the Oscars every year; we highlighted our favorite films from newspaper clippings and made bets on which ones would win more Academy Awards. Due to the time difference between L.A. and Venezuela (obviously, well before Tivo) I was awake until two in the morning and then up again at six to get ready for school.

I love films that let me experience people and ways of living that are very similar or completely different than mine; when I watch a good movie I can disconnect and let go of my own stress, my own fears, even my own happiness… I step out of my head and connect with somebody else’s. I vaguely remember how I found out about El Pez que Fuma (The Smoking Fish…aha!). I think I asked my dad what his favorite movie was and he drew his answer with a sketch inspired by the poster of the movie…. he told me the story, was not suited for children.

I was in the seventh grade when the Internet came to my parents’ house and I started experimenting with chat rooms, multiple unnecessary email accounts and content that I had never seen before — including snippets of El Pez que Fuma. I absolutely loved it. What I loved about it was that up until then I knew nothing about this world of prostitution, cursing, crime, and city life…  all the good stuff that – thankfully – I had not been exposed to in the up-and-coming industrial town of Puerto Ordaz.

The movie was made in 1977 during the “Golden Age” of Venezuelan cinema… that’s what some people call it anyway. Recently there has been a big effort to invest in Venezuelan productions; for various reasons the government has managed to bring cinema back to the people and there have been many very well made, exciting, Venezuelan films produced over the past 5 years or so.  Now, instead of the national films that were rarely good enough to make it to our North American dominated theaters, most -if not all- theaters have one or two of our own productions showing at a time. That being said, El Pez que Fuma is still my favorite.

I don’t want to spoil the movie because I’m assuming that most of you haven’t seen it (It’s not available on amazon or netflix, but it’s here on youtube). The vintage tone of the art direction, the costume design and the editorial style are perfect for lovers of classic cinema. The performances are really strong; the content is edgy and exciting; and the underlying theme is relevant, still today. I hope you watch it and tell me what you think, it’s definitely worth it.

Is this my favorite film? Frankly, I think it’s silly when people ask me to narrow things down to one single title. It’s like asking me what kind of jacket I like to wear. But, what if I had to pick a favorite film? Would it be El Pez que Fuma? Maybe. But I love them all… I even love complaining about films that I don’t like! which is why I started this blog. I’m combining my passion for movies, for collaborating in projects, for watching and discussing films, and I’m wrapping it all with one fishy blanket, like a burrito, a smoked fish burrito. El Pez que Fuma is a film by Roman Chalbaud and one of my many inspirations. I hope that all of you watch it and hopefully, enjoy it.

Props to these gals

I’ve been told that when it comes to social media, one has to be generous. I find that to be good advice for pretty much anything we do. In generosity one finds self satisfaction; it’s the karma thing and the fact that ‘what goes around comes around’ because only in generosity we can grow. Got it? Very well then, enough of that.

In an effort to be generous with my writing, I would like to make a habit out of posting one “appreciation blog” every month. For this month’s post I will focus on three fantastic women in the entertainment industry. I decided to group them together because: They are all still active in their careers; they have achieved significant fame and recognition and they have all incorporated quality writing into their original art of choice. And of course, I like them all.

Amanda July (Filmmaker, Writer, Artist) – I was just in the bookstore this weekend when I ran into a copy of No One Belongs Here More than You. In the beginning, I didn’t realize that the writer, was the same Miranda that directed all those corky, off-beat indie comedies about awkward relationships. I have always loved her films but I found out from visiting her website that she is a very well-rounded artist with plenty to say and the creativity to make it interesting. Amanda: Thank you for your awesome hair.

PJ Harvey (Musician, Songwriter, Actress) – I chose PJ because I have the same birthday! Okay, maybe not because of that. In her Uh Huh Her album (released in 2004) PJ Harvey not only played all the instruments, but, she was also the producer for it. Unfortunately, unlike the movie Laurel Canyon (by Lisa Cholodenko) there are not many women music producers out there. Because of that, I want to to say PJ Harvey: Thank you for representing.

Debora Copaken Kogan (Photojournalist, Writer, Performer) – Despite the fact that she is also a Libra -obviously the best sign, ever- through Debora’s acclaimed book ShutterbabeI am learning about the tremendous hard work that goes behind being a photojournalist. Through her beautiful photos and her honest words she shares meaningful stories and she does so freely. Debora: Thank you for being fearless.

 

Reality TV – A friendly breakdown

I am the proud follower of only one reality show: Project Runway. Back when I had cable, I used to watch The Next Food Network Star and Man vs. Wild -The later mostly due to my interest in Bear Grylls’ pectorals. But never with the same addictive commitment that I invest into PR.

I came up with three broad categories that should encompass all different kinds of reality television:

1- Drama, drama, and more drama
Think MTV. These are the kind of shows that have a very broad premise and no clear objective. Some examples are The Jersey Shore, Big Brother, The Real Housewives…. and unfortunately, so many others.

2- Contest and competition
Most of the reality shows that spark my interest fit here. These are the shows that deal with a very concrete goal, like winning money or gaining prestige. Both, Project Runway and The Next Food Network Star, fit here. There are many more such as American Idol, almost all of TNT’s reality shows, Survivor… You get the drill.

3- Entertaining and educational
Here we have shows with the main objective of educating audiences. The first reality show ever, An American Family, belongs here. I’m talking Animal Planet series with Gorillas smooching each other. Old school stuff. I would put  Man vs. Wild here, along with many other Discovery programs such as Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs.

You might be thinking: “Who cares? I don’t even watch television!” And to that I say, good for you. But with all the recent talk about how authentic “Silicon Valley” is going to be, I can’t help but wonder: who thinks that any of these shows are authentic anyway? Most importantly, does it matter? The audience does not care.

Silicon Valley  is going to be a program about the rich, geeky, hipster entrepreneurs on Northern California. I wonder if they are going to make them get wasted while they write code! Oh wait, that’s been done. You better get ready anyway, ’cause it’s gonna be a hit.

Take This Waltz – Film Review

Take This Waltz is a romantic dramedy starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby. I was hesitant to watch it based on the ambiguous name and uncreative poster. But, there was something that called my attention when I saw the trailer, so I decided to rent it through apple tv anyway.

The distributors advertised it with misleading materials for supposedly another easy-to-watch romantic comedy, but, I don’t think that was a good fit for this film. This drama had some consistent kind-of-funny moments but ultimately it didn’t make me  laugh out loud; the content was heavy, the cuts were long and the music was moody. I like moody, but in this case those stylistic choices created room for Margot to come across as too depressed and Daniel to read as a little too cool.

In one of the first scenes Margot is in the kitchen baking and we accompany her from a very intimate, low-angle perspective. The camera work is engaging throughout the film and it is successfully in tune with Margot’s perception of her community and her life. The over-stylized blues and oranges are clever -for about a minute- but they become too much when the set dressing and the heavy handed color correction meet. Sarah Polley decided to make her film stand out but she forgot an important sense of subtlety. In some cases, it came across as the product of an artist who was trying too hard.

A young couple has a seemingly happy marriage; the wife meets someone else and despite some efforts to control the attraction, they fall in love. Nothing new. But what I liked about this film is that it doesn’t romanticize the devastation that comes from a simple change of hearts. One of my favorite scenes is when Margot and her husband Lou are in the kitchen; he is cooking chicken while she is trying to seduce him, he asks her to leave him alone because he is busy. The scene is choreographed beautifully, everything about it is desperate and common. Margot’s approach is awkward and Lou’s response is hilarious. He tells her “I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m just making chicken”, “you are always making chicken” she says. Oh! the joys of subtext.

Michelle Williams allows herself to become Margot; she is a woman yet still a girl, she is insecure, confused, and to be honest, a completely hateable character. I found myself saying “who the hell wants to be this woman?”: nobody. Nobody wants to be Margot, yet, many of us can sympathize. Seth Rogen wasn’t in the film for very long but just like Michelle he allows Lou to be simple; he cooks, he writes, he is silly and he loves his wife. The end. For some, this could be considered poor character development, but, I dig it. I think it takes certain sensibility to appreciate the depth behind minimalist actions; Lou is real. Then there is Daniel, a character that was possibly already bad on the page but could have been improved through a stronger performance; he was flat. Daniel is handsome, a talented artist, an amazing lover… but, I don’t buy him. At the end of the film I was engaged wondering if Margot made the right decision or if Lou still loves her. But with Daniel…. well, I kind of don’t care.

I’m glad I saw this movie in the comfort of my own home, I was able to sink into the couch and connect with “the grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. I was surprised to see that in Rotten Tomatoes the audience vote was in the underwhelming 60%, yet the critic’s vote was almost up in the 80%. I would’ve predicted that it would be the other way around, specially with the triple full frontal nudity. Oh, well!

To me, this films deserves three and a half stars (out of five).

imdb | rotten tomatoes