This is not a Film & Always for Pleasure at the PFA

I attended two separate, and very different events at the Pacific Film Archive last night.

This Is Not a Film
You really want something this important, this courageous, and this amazing in its very existence to also be exceptionally great. Unfortunately, This is Not a Film doesn’t live up artistically to the filmmakers’ courage.

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, awaiting the start of his six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, shot what is basically a one-day video diary in his Tehran thisisnotafilmapartment, with the help of another important cinematic rebel, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Panahi describes the movie he wants to but can’t make, examines scenes from his previous works, and discusses the art of directing actors (but not the films’ political content). He listens to street noise that goes from construction to fireworks to riots. While Panahi and Mirtahmasb made a great big "fuck you" to the Iranian government, their picture’s most memorable moments involve an annoying little dog and an adorable, cat-like iguana. In what’s likely to be his last film, Panahi has made rebellion seem banal.

Part of the PFA series A Theater Near You.

Always for Pleasure
There’s nothing banal about Always for Pleasure, or anything else made by Les Blank. The Berkeley-based Blank makes ethnographic documentaries like none other, filled with joyful enthusiasm and love for the music, culture, and love of his subjects. He also made two documentaries about Werner Herzog, including Burden of Dreams, the only making-of documentary that turned out better than the film whose making it recorded.

Last night’s presentation launched a two-month series at the PFA, appropriately titled Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank. For me, this is a chance to reacquaint myself with a cinematic friend I haven’t been in touch with for decades.

The screening started with two shorts–a 1960 student film called "Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off" (not a documentary) and 1973’s "Dry Wood." The feature, Always for Pleasure, was almost a short itself, running just 58 minutes.

But what a wonderful 58 minutes they are! Always for Pleasure celebrates the street alwaysforpleasureparades of New Orleans, not only during Mardi Gras, but after funerals, on St. Patrick’s Day, and for other occasions. This 1978 documentary records people dressing up in wild costumes and dancing in the streets. There’s no narration aside from a few title cards, but plenty is explained by the interviewed participants. The strongest explanations come from the visuals and the music: This is human nature at its best.

All three films were presented, as they were shot, in 16mm. I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw a 16mm print of anything. Always for Pleasure was screened in a pristine, brand-new archival print. It was a thing of beauty.

One warning: Blank loves to show down-to-earth people preparing their food in detail. That includes the slaughtering and butchering of animals, where those details can get gruesome. Oddly, these images bothered me less last night than they did 20 years ago. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been a vegetarian since 1970.)

After the films, Blank and his sound recordist/film editor Maureen Gosling stepped up front for some Q&A. Blank started the session by tossing mardi gras swag into the audience. I got necklace, which is perfect since my family just acquired a new kitten.

Some comments:

  • Blank "originally wanted to be a fiction filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman," but he soon discovered that photographing real people "was a whole lot more fun."
  • On the lack of narration: "I attempt to not have an intermediary between the pictures and the audience.
  • "I don’t go around talking to people. People scare me."