The Real McCoy

by Phil Anderson

In Heaven There Is No Beer?

The Maestro: King
of the Cowboy Artists

Oak Street Cinema, 7:30 p.m. Friday

IT'S IN THE air these days like a bad rumor or a language virus. It's a term long since abused and a concept growing ever more vague. It's "in-de-pend-ent," and whatever the Oscar-watchers think it is, it mostly isn't. In the best sense of the word, "independent" means no allegiances except to one's own muse, and if ever there was a role model for the genuine idea, it's Les Blank.

Ironically, this native Floridian is coming to town this Friday to headline the Northern Lights Film Festival, a weekend of local independent films. He has a long history as a visitor in the area, however, and he makes a great filmmakers' figurehead. For Blank, who's been making his own kind of movies since the Coens were in grade school, it's the idea of "culture" as coming from the "folk" (or at least the defiant eccentric) that gets him going in general. He's devoted films to rural blues artists (Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins) and people of various ethnicities (Hispanic, Cajun, Appalachian), as well as to garlic and gap-toothed women. His investigations of his pal Werner Herzog (especially Burden of Dreams, about Herzog's foolishness in making Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon) remain a rare study of cinematic mania.

Blank's newest film, premiering locally this weekend, is The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists. It's about Gerry Gaxiola, whose art is equal parts posing as an artist and making actual works. The "cowboy" part is misleading since the Maestro doesn't always paint Western stuff; he's actually a halfway-postmodernist performance goof who used to be a printing salesman and champion bodybuilder. Gaxiola has a gap-toothed smile, buckets of energy and charm, and a wardrobe of outlandish cowboy gear he mostly made himself. He can also paint like everyone from Odilon Redon to the Rev. Howard Finster and Thomas Hart Benton, passably well, and he refuses to sell his work.

This makes him more interesting than his wardrobe or his limited songwriting skills, and Blank wisely lets us understand this only gradually. As a documentary filmmaker, Blank follows no particular "-ism." He doesn't appear on camera but you can hear his offscreen voice (or collaborator Maureen Gosling's) asking a question here and there. He occasionally throws in hand-lettered text explanations or subtitles; they look like garage-sale advertisements. His tone can seem awestruck or even sentimental, but he's not afraid to ask the hard question or even distrust his own subjects.

More importantly, Blank structures his movies as tight little mosaics: Each follows pretty much the same pattern of early action, which is explained by snatches of conversation or seemingly casual interviews, then builds to a fuller and deeper picture of the issue by film's end. In Maestro, Gaxiola finally comes off as someone who, beyond his self-aggrandizing bluster, has a real history worth listening to.

Blank's familiarity in these parts stems from visits to the Walker and the U Film Society beginning in the late 1970s. As he did at other places, the filmmaker would quietly show up and cook some red beans and rice, or fry some garlic, just outside the auditorium to aromatize the cinematic experience. Once, on a joint visit with Herzog, someone let a chicken loose on the stage from which they were speaking; it all seemed perfectly natural somehow. It also seemed natural, during these visits, for someone to point out that polka could be as fit a Les Blank subject as garlic, conjunto, or blues. A former U Film staffer pushed for making what became In Heaven There Is No Beer?, though I also mentioned the idea to Blank once in 1977, while on a bus in Colorado. (Remember, Les?)

The point here is not to take credit for inspiration, but to see how open and accessible this true "independent" is. What Blank eventually did with polka in his 1984 film was both more and less than what it looks like on paper: He follows dancers at a Connecticut "polka-bration," checks in on a polka mass, and interviews musicians (some of them Minnesotan) about their compositional and cultural nuances (two trumpets or one? concertina or accordion?). What he doesn't do--as in all his films--is deal with the other side of ethnic identity, the divisions of politics. What defines "us" also identifies others as "them," but Blank, as the unaffiliated observer, is more interested in how differences can bring people together.

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