"If I could bring the old days back," says a woman in Les Blank's film, Dry Wood, "I would do it." Those were the good times, she says, when we had time to talk all day long. Shot in the 1970s, Spend It All, about Cajun life, featuring Dewey Balfa and Nathan Abshire, Hot Pepper, on Clifton Chenier and Dry Wood, about Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, bring back a time that mostly exists in memory today.
Blank, an award-winning independent filmmaker, is returning to Lafayette after an absence of 20 years, and will be presenting three of his films J'ai Été Au Bal/I Went to the Dance, Hot Pepper and Yum, Yum, Yum! in the Main Gallery of the Acadiana Center for the Arts March 24 and 25 beginning at 7 p.m.
The films are a poetic vision of the Cajun and Creole attitude toward life: earthy, at times brutal, and yet imbued with the joyous joie de vivre that permeates the local culture. I asked Blank, 75, a native of Tampa, Fla., how he was able to enter the hidden world of Cajun and Creole culture back in the 1970s, long before Cajun was cool.
"I used to work summers on a sea-going tug boat in the Gulf, between Tampa, my home, and Texas and Mobile and New Orleans and on one trip, I got off in New Orleans and saw the sights and a friend of mine from school lived here and we saw the French Quarter and I was living in an all boy's prep school at the time and I thought this was a pretty interesting place. I came to school here after high school. I wanted to play football. It wasn't the best place for academics...but that's how I got here.
"[I spent] four years taking a degree in English at Tulane, then I went off to California to take a masters in English and dropped out and came back and took a master of Fine Arts in theater, so I was here for another two years to do that. It was in play writing.
"When I was at Tulane, those were the days when Cajuns were under the carpet somewhere, you didn't talk about them much, they were kind of a mythical creature who lived back in the bayous. On the radio in New Orleans, there was a radio commercial for Tichenor's Antiseptic, the chords and the music were Cajun sounding, it was sort of dissonant sounding but to my mind a pleasing, catching kind of music. On the football team, there were a couple of Cajuns and I noticed they were quite different from everybody else and I enjoyed their outlook and their humor and their kind of crazy sensibilities. And they told me about these dance halls out in the woods and I thought this would be interesting, so my girlfriend and I drove over there, and I attended one of these functions down a dirt road in an old barn type building made out of old wood and the floor was jam-packed with people dancing around in a circle and sweating and the beer was really cold and they were doing the two-step and everybody was in perfect sync with one another and every time they hit their feet down on the floor, the whole floor would cave in and bounce back up. They didn't speak much English at all. I was studying French, I could get by, I could get my beer ordered and I had a lot of fun. It made a deep impression on me. I wanted to come back and do something later.
"I was in Houston, doing an industrial film for a Gulfport tube company that makes oil pipes. To entertain myself, I went to a Cajun dance I saw advertised in the Houston paper. Again, it was the same kind of people doing the same kind of dancing. I made friends with the leader of the musical group and he invited me and my girlfriend over to his house for chicken gumbo. He cooked a delicious chicken gumbo. I was very moved by his deep affection for his food as well as his music. I wanted to experience more of that. So later, when I saw Dewey Balfa in Chicago, I introduced myself, he invited me backstage and he shared some of his moonshine with me, and he said, Come on down to Louisiana and I'll help you make a film.'
"Down there, I met Marc Savoy and he was very helpful as well. Paul Tate and Revon Reed also were most helpful. Revon Reed let me live in his garage apartment in Mamou. When I was shooting Spend it All, (1971), I intended to include the African-American element of the scene, but every time I'd go to a Cajun supper or a party they'd invite me to another one the next day, and before I knew what was happening, I'd shot all my film, spent all my money, and had to leave, sadly, without any of the black experience.
"Then the National Endowment for the arts was starting their first grant sessions and I applied for one of their grants and got it, thus I could come back and shoot two films. I thought I was shooting one film, but it was separating out into Hot Pepper, (1973), about Clifton Chenier, around Lafayette and Breaux Bridge and his world, and then the more rural area of Mamou, of Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot. The sharecropping people, I guess you could say are closer to the earth. That became Dry Wood, (1973)."
Blank's style is pure storytelling without the interference of a an interviewer or narrator coming between his subject and the camera. "I try hard not to let the subject feel like a subject. I try to not make a big deal about the camera. When I was hanging around with Clifton, because Clifton accepted me, other people didn't have any reservations about opening up for me.
"Then I came back from time to time. Michael P. Smith, the late and great Michael P. Smith, who was the great photographer of the streets of New Orleans, who has covered every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he was a brother of a friend of mine in prep school back east. I got to be friends with him, he showed me around town, and inspired me to do the film called Always for Pleasure, (1977), about New Orleans music and Mardi Gras.
"Then almost 20 years later, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, who has done a lot of recording of Cajun, zydeco and Creole music, he wanted me to help him make a film, to be the definitive film on Cajun and zydeco music. So I came down with him, and that became J'ai Été Au Bal, (1989). And while doing that I was following my personal interest in documenting food ways, and made Yum Yum Yum, (1990), about Cajun and Creole cooking, all the music on the sound track is about food, and while I was at it, realized I was accumulating some interesting footage on Marc and Ann Savoy that wasn't being used in the other two films, so I made a third film called Marc and Ann, (1991)."
The two-night event, March 24 and 25 beginning at 7 p.m., will reunite Blank with his subjects featured in the documentaries for the first time in more than 25 years. Tickets are $3 for students, $5 for members of the AcA, $7 for one night and $10 for both nights. Tickets can be purchased at the AcA's box office located at 101 W. Vermilion St., by calling 233-7060 or at the door the night of the event.