Two Les Blank Films:
A Well Spent Life
Chulas Fronteras

Reviewed by
Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

For almost 20 years, Les Blank has scoured modern America for the remnants of a simpler, happier, richer life. A life that usually centers around such indigenous music as blues, zydeco and norteño. His lyric documentaries honor the origins and settings that beget such music in what has evolved into a personal visual language: skies and rivers and roads and fields and pastures; tools and wildflowers; well-worked hands and well-earned faces; and, above all, food–the festive, greasy, smoking, aromatic indelicacies of America’s regional cuisines. His work is a national treasure and is worth a look almost without exception.

In A Well Spent Life all of Blank’s visual and philosophical trademarks combine with a protagonist who can make a case for them: then 75-year-old Mance Lipscomb, lifelong husband and farmer and recently rediscovered singer and guitarist. Two odd tales of marriage, one involving 50 years of separate dinners and another a lost leg–add a twist to Lipscomb’s praise of domestic tranquility without making it seem false, and his seamed face adds its own ripple to the placid pastoral surface. We’re glimpsing the inside of a man, not the outside of a symbol.

Best of all of these programs is Del Mero Corazon, apparently constructed from Chulas Fronteras outtakes, in which Blank acknowledges, for once, the contradictions of contemporary simplicity. Associative yet acutely shaped, this is a movie in which the cantina way of life is at once celebrated and found wanting. Here homes are broken up, and not just by migrant work–sometimes even by the music itself. There’s more ugliness and sexuality than innocence and nobility of the faces, and the gorgeous two-dimensionality of the hot pastel backgrounds urbanizes Blank’s tone. A yearning lovesong belted over a UFW mural at the finale has more political power than all the slogans in Chulas Fronteras.

Blank’s work is so warm, human-scale and casual that it’s ideal for home viewing, especially as an opener for one of those mouth-watering meals he always makes you crave.