|Les Blank and Maureen Gosling filming Burden of Dreams. Photos courtesy of Maureen Gosling.|
On November 25, the Criterion Collection will be releasing Les Blank: Always for Pleasure. This highly anticipated three-disc, Blu-ray collection includes several classic documentaries on regional music. I caught up with film director and editor Maureen Gosling — one of Blank's key collaborators — to discuss her longtime association with the late, great auteur. This is an interview that was conducted last month when Gosling returned home after a theatrical tour of her latest film This Ain't No Mouse Music! (2013).
EM: How did you two first meet?
MG: I was going to school in Ann Arbor and I found out that there was a festival of anthropological films. I got very excited because I was a film fanatic, especially watching foreign films. So I ended up going to this festival at Temple University in Philadelphia. I think two or three of Les' films were showing there. I just thought they were beautiful and very poetic. I believe that included The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), A Well Spent Life (1971) and Spend It All (1971). So I got my nerve up and talked to Les at a party, just asked him if he ever got reviews of his films, when he screened them in film festivals. I knew he was going to be showing films at a film festival in Ann Arbor. He said, "Yes sometimes the films get reviewed." I told him I'd send him the reviews.
So I did and he started to write to me. I was just ecstatic. Here I was, this little student graduating from her university and here was this seasoned filmmaker writing to me. I was sort of starstruck. At one point I asked him if he ever needed an assistant, I didn't really know what that meant but I figured he would tell me what to do (laughs). In about November he was saying that he had this film coming up and he was deciding whether or not to even do it. I kind of convinced him to go ahead and do it. He asked me to be his assistant because his film partner (Skip Gerson), who he had made two or three films with, was living with Les' ex-wife, so he was all upset. Suddenly he didn't have a sound recordist anymore and he didn't have his best friend anymore. So he took me on, even though I didn't know anything. It was very much a trial by fire, and the first film we did was in Southwest Louisiana. The result was Dry Wood (1973) and Hot Pepper (1973).
EM: Why was it split into two and what were your contributions to those early works?
MG: We ended up making it into two films because one of the sections seemed to focus more on (Zydeco accordionist) Clifton (Chenier). The other part focused on the Fontenot family, that was connected with (Creole accordionist) Bois-Sec Ardoin. They sort of lived near each other and it was hard to figure out how to integrate those two stories. In the Fontenot family, the mother Eva, was this very strong personality and she really stood out to me. We didn't do that many interviews with people but I know that I told Les that we should interview Eva. Her interview is featured in the film. We see her cooking, talking about her family, and so forth. You can hear my voice in the background asking questions. I was really interested in what women thought, women's point of view. That was one of the things I did, I really was just learning on the job at that point.
I always felt like I was doing things wrong because Les didn't tell me when I was doing it right. He would just complain when I was doing it wrong. I felt like I was getting worse because he was criticizing me so much. At one point I told him, "You have to tell me when I'm doing right because I keep feeling like I'm doing everything wrong." He didn't like the idea of having to give me positive feedback but I said, "You better do it or I'm going to keep screwing up." I was getting a real complex and he finally started to do it, very begrudgingly. It really helped (laughs).
EM: I haven't seen the unreleased A Poem Is a Naked Person (1974), but my friend Tom has, and he asks: "What was it like working on something where Blank was contemptuous of the artist versus his other work?"
MG: Things started out fairly well with Leon Russell. The conversations that are in the film, between Leon and Les, were really early on in the process. You could hear that they are having an interesting conversation. But at a certain point, and I'm not really sure what the problem was, Les just kept trying to get Leon to sign a contract. And Leon didn't want to do it, he would disappear. There were some times, as the process went on, that there just became more of a tension between Les and Leon. There was one point when Les sort of drank too much and got to be a little obnoxious. We were on tour with them and they told us we should go home (laughs). They threw us out, basically. So we had to go back home. Somehow we managed to finish the film, but when it was all done, Leon didn't want it to be released. We never found out what the problem was.
Harrod Blank, Les' son who took on Les' business after Les passed away, has had a mission to try to tie up all the loose ends in all the films. Especially the ones we had problems with like the Leon Russell film and the Ry Cooder film (Ry Cooder Group ’88 in Santa Cruz). So Harrod is now having conversations with Leon and has been meeting with him. He's actually making some progress. I saw Leon with Harrod one time when he was here in Oakland and it was kind of wonderful to see him after all these years. I avoided seeing him for 25, 30 years. We caught his concert in Oakland and went to his tour bus. We stayed there for like 45 minutes. He was very funny and kind of wry. So that was like breaking the ice. Harrod is still trying to make things work out with Leon, which would be a wonderful ending to this story because Les wasn't able to do it.
EM: You're credited as the assistant editor to Chulas Fronteras (1976), which was partially shot here in the Rio Grande Valley. What was your experience like working on that production?
MG: I didn't go on the shoot but Les and Chris Strachwitz shot the film. Because I had been Les' assistant (in those early films), he called on me to be his assistant on Chulas Fronteras. I moved from Austin to Berkeley to do that. It was really a fascinating experience for me because we had just made these films about Creole folks, and Clifton Chenier, who was kind of overtly soulful. All these people getting down in the dance hall. Suddenly we were working on a film about these very quiet, dignified musicians like Los Alegres de Terán, who just stand there and sing. They don't jump around, they don't have big expressive motions. So it took me a while to get into the music. I wasn't that familiar with Mexican music, I'd live in the north and hadn't really heard it. I wasn't that crazy about it but the more I learned about the songs, the passion of the music, where the passion lies in the songs, I just started getting really fascinated. I grew to love the music very much.
With Strachwitz being such an aficionado, and so knowledgeable about the music and traditions, I felt like I learned so much. I was just an assistant, Les edited the film, and I thought it was so beautiful the way he put it together. The music combined with the scenes of the family, people doing work, and all this kind of stuff, I just thought it was such a beautiful piece. I also helped with the translations of the songs, which was really fun. That made me appreciate the music even more. That started my interest in Latino, Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin-American culture.
|Maureen Gosling editing Del Mero Corazón|
EM: Like an earlier production, this became two separate films with Chulas Fronteras (1976) and Del Mero Corazón (1979), right?
MG: Chris Strachwitz couldn't handle leaving any of the good songs just sitting on the editing room floor. He just wanted to do something with the outtakes. I said, "Well I can put something together." And I looked at all the stuff that was left over and realized that they were mostly love songs. I thought, "Let's make something about the love songs." So Guillermo Hernandez, who helped us with Chulas Fronteras, helped me figure out how to put a film together about the love songs. We realized that it would be really nice to have a reference to some of the poetry in Mexican tradition. We got a woman (María Antonia Contreras) with a beautiful voice to read poems in-between the music. It kind of complimented the songs, and that became Del Mero Corazón, which is a half-an-hour film. I realized years later that I kind of directed that film because I had the idea. For me it was an opportunity, it was the first time I really got to edit something. Those films were really key to a foundation for what I ended up doing later, which was working on many Spanish-language films, making a film in Mexico, and so forth.
EM: Were there any films that you and Les would have loved to have done but the financing just wasn't there?
MG: Way back, Les was interested in doing a film on James Booker, who is an incredible New Orleans piano player. Someone did that recently (but Les wanted to do it) in the early 1980's. Another film that we talked about, that I would have loved, was a film about the African influence on music on the coasts of the Americas. I just thought that would have been incredible. In every country, especially near the coasts, there is a lot of African influence in the music.
EM: One of the more memorable sequences of In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984) is the "Who Stole The Kishka" montage. Is that you making a cameo?
MG: Yeah (laughs). Yes and (Les' ex-wife and collaborator) Chris Simon is also in there, briefly.
It was a funny little thing that we did. That was unusual, not typical of what we would do.
EM: What's the story behind Blank, yourself, Simon and Susan Kell all getting equal "A Film By" credit at the beginning of Gap-Toothed Women (1986)?
MG: That is because every person did something of equal weight. Not only in giving feedback during the process but for example, Susan Kell interviewed all the women. She was basically the casting director and she figured out who should be in the film. Simon was involved in producing, she was also involved in the interviews, choosing who was to be in the film. It was a film about women, it would be unfair not to give proper credit to the women involved in the production. We all shared the weight of that film, and that's why everyone has a credit like that.
EM: Do you feel, having you, Simon and Kell involved helped the women being interviewed feel more comfortable about opening up about their ideas about this unique topic, as opposed to just having Les or other men do the interviews?
MG: Sure. You bet. Chris was married to Les at the time, she just wasn't sure what his motivation was to make this film about women. She just wanted to make sure that it was properly done. Sensitively done. And I felt that way too.
EM: For years, one could only buy Les' work through his website, or through Les himself, was there any particular reason why this was case?
MG: He started out by having other people distribute his films in the 60's, and he would get a check for $45.00 at the end of the year. He just said, "That's not acceptable, I know that there are people that are interested in this film, and would buy it. Clearly this company doesn't know how to distribute my films." He decided he better start doing it himself. I would say he's one of the first DIY filmmaking distributors, and it really worked because he could do niche marketing. He found the market for his films, and developed this incredible mailing list of universities, organizations, microcinemas, independent cinemas, festivals. He realized that he just needed to reach those communities. Nobody else was going to do it as well as he could because he had a lot of interest in promoting his own films. He didn't have to worry about other people's films. It really paid off, and he was actually quite successful doing self-distribution.
EM: Now that he's passed away, was it his son that made the deal with the Criterion Collection?
MG: I believe that Les did that before he passed away, and Harrod is following through with that. There are a few films that Criterion doesn't have. They don't have the films that Les did with Strachwitz, for example. Harrod still has the rights for 16 mm and broadcast, I think.
EM: Ah okay, yeah I also noticed Criterion wasn't releasing Marc and Ann (1991) in this collection.
MG: Oh, I'm not sure why that would be. That's interesting, I didn't even know that.
EM: Speaking of (Cajun accordionist) Marc (Savoy), one of the things I like about Les' work is that you see Marc grow up from the early 70's to the early 90's. You see the young accordionist develop into a spokesperson and authoritative voice for Cajun music and culture.
MG: It's true.
EM: And he comes out in your latest film This Ain't No Mouse Music (2013) as well, right? So between Les and you, it goes beyond the 90's.
MG: Yeah, he's also in our film. It's like that film Boyhood (2014), seeing this kid grow up. We've got Marc's boyhood (laughs).
I met Marc in 1972 when I first started working with Les, and I was just at his house like two weeks ago (laughs). Strachwitz is really close to the Savoys, and we're pretty close to them too. That's one of the by-products of making these kind of films, some of the amazing friendships you make. It's really cool.