Positively Kick Ass

Take Your Ugly and Run

Lauren Hutton represents!

Lauren Hutton represents!

It's been too long since I checked in with Les Blank. Not that he's missed me - we've never met - but I've missed him. Blank is a documentary filmmaker, probably best known by those who know him at all for Burden of Dreams, his record of the making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. (That sounds so dull and innocuous, but it's a journey to the ragged edge of madness, as you can see from the clip below.)

There was a stretch of years in my twenties when I leaned hard on Blank's example. What seems at first glance ironic about his choice of Herzog as a subject is that, while Herzog's aesthetic and philosophical bent is decidedly bleak, Blank's is unabashedly celebratory. His two favorite subjects are music and food  - titles include Yum, Yum, Yum! and Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. His first filmic record of Herzog was not The Burden of Dreams, but Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the comic consequence of an imprudent bet Herzog had made with another documentarian, Errol Morris. (Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, kindly braised the shoe in a garlicky stock for five hours before Herzog dug in. He declined to eat the sole, noting that he would not be expected to eat the bones of a chicken.)

However ill-matched these two directors may superficially appear, they share an invincible curiosity. Both men relish life: Blank for its unquenchable joys, Herzog for its excruciating absurdities. They are wide-lens visionaries, illuminating what is peripheral, neglected, obscure. Their films continually generate small shocks of surprise and recognition, also of gratitude: the world through their eyes is richer than I knew it and stranger than I had the courage to admit.

If for no other film, Les Blank has a permanent home in my heart because he made Gap-Toothed Women, a cinematic ode to my lisping sorority, from the Wife of Bath to Lauren Hutton. I spent four years in braces - even had the muscle between my front teeth surgically snipped when I was seventeen! My gap got smaller but never surrendered, and Blank taught me to be glad of it. He interviewed a couple dozen women for his film, most of them anonymous, all of them vivid. But if memory serves, it was the underground comic artist and sculptor Dori Seda who revealed the magic of the gap and let me see my adolescent struggles by the light of her own. She said she'd once hated & been violently embarrassed by the stubborn, suggestive space between her teeth. She thought it made her ugly, feared she'd never get a boyfriend (not a "nice" one, anyway), envied the pretty girls to whom everything seemed to come easy. But if she had been pretty, she now figured, she would never have been forced to grow interesting (and strange and strong). She would never have become an artist, would never have found true love. Her gap was her public flaw and her secret power.

An exaggeration, yes, a fable with a temporary happy ending. (Seda died much too young of too much smoking and inhaling of ceramic dust.) But there's truth in it - much the same truth as in Tom Waits' immortal line "If I exorcise my devils, well, my angels may leave too."

What's the devil and the flaw and the power in you?