On Chulas Fronteras & Del Mero Corazón

Chulas Fronteras Les Blank
Jim Browne, Maureen Gosling, and Harrod Blank in the Metrograph lobby, June 2019.

ON Chulas Fronteras & Del Mero Corazón

By Metrograph

Editor Maureen Gosling, a co-director of Del Mero Corazón and a longtime collaborator of Les Blank, and Harrod Blank, Les’s son and a filmmaker who oversaw the restoration of the films, joined Argot Pictures’s Jim Browne for a talk in June 2019.

Gosling & Blank
Gosling & Blank

Maureen, can you talk about working with Les—about his style, the poetry of what he captures, and his looking for “the golden moments.”

Maureen Gosling: Yes, when I first started working with Les in 1972, I was a total greenhorn. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, so everything I learned was on the job at the minute. It was intense and scary, but here we were in Black French Louisiana [for Dry Wood] going to dance halls and Mardi Gras in the countryside, and it was like, “Oh my god, this is incredible.” So the first day of filming, we got up at like 6am, and before we went out and started shooting, Les said, “We’re looking for the golden moments.” I had seen some of his films before, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins [1969], A Well Spent Life [1971], and Spend It All [1971], and I really got what he was talking about. He was just really great at catching the most expressive thing going on in a frame, either people’s body language, people’s expressions, and especially musicians’ when they’re performing and singing. And also just people on the street; just the humanity, really.

And, Harrod, can you talk about how the choice came about for doing the restoration of these two films in particular? Was this a long-standing wish from Les?

Harrod Blank: Yeah, actually the big one for Les was A Poem Is a Naked Person [1974], about Leon Russell, which was the first one that I worked on. After that came out, PBS approached me about licensing footage for their series American Epic. They wanted stuff from Chulas Fronteras, but they wanted it in 4K. And it was like, “Oh my god, really?” because the higher the resolution the more work it is… But we took that opportunity—they paid for the scanning, and we then worked for two years doing the remastering. Maureen came in and helped redo the subtitles with a friend of mine, David Sweet-Cordero.

The interesting thing is that these films were done back-to-back, so first Poem was done in 1973/74, and then this one right after the Leon Russell experience—which Les actually took to heart because Leon was over his shoulder, constantly telling him what to do, and he did not like that. In this film, he was freer to do what Les Blank wanted to do. So Chulas Fronteras is sort of like the pinnacle of Les’s expression, where he could just shoot the way he wanted to. He did have [Chris] Strachwitz trying to guide him, and they had differing opinions about how a film should be made, so I know there was some bickering going on, but I think it was actually a good match. It made the film stronger because Strachwitz really knew who the key musicians were and what the songs were, and it was a good marriage on that level. But Les was able to get the iconography of these people and a time. I was just thinking of the shot in Del Mero Corazón that  starts out with the fingers on the guitar, and it’s actually the very beginning of a song. So he started out consciously knowing, “I’m gonna start this with the hand on the guitar…” And as the scene unravels, the song goes on and it reveals them singing in front of the ladies and men’s bathroom. And then there’s a guy dancing by himself, drunk. And he comes in and out of camera—and that’s the magic of not having an agenda. I think it’s really challenging to make a movie with no narration, just using songs and images to tell a story. That’s why I think this is such a strong film.

“LES was just really great at catching the most expressive thing going on in a frame, either people’s body language, people’s expressions, and especially musicians’ when they’re performing and singing.”

So most of the time it was only Les and one camera, correct? But we see Les putting a beer can on top of his camera in Chulas Fronteras—who shot that?

MG: Les always took a hand-cranked Bell & Howell camera with him, and in this case, Pacho Lane, the translator and interpreter, was along. Pacho was also a filmmaker, and I think Les would every once in a while give the Bell & Howell to Pacho to do some extra stuff.

HB: The other thing Les did was he would shoot a 400-foot load, which is 11 minutes on an interview or a song, and then while that was being changed, by an assistant generally, he would take a short end or a shorter roll and just go shoot B-roll shots of the crowd dancing or of signs. He liked textures in buildings, like those shingles, and a lot of other textural stuff… flowers, barbed wire. I actually I think his B roll was really, really strong, poetic imagery.

Audience Member: This movie feels so incredibly relaxed when you’re watching it. I just wondered how much other stuff there is.

MG: Well, there are three films that got made out of this footage. Les was done when he did Chulas Fronteras. He felt like it was the best film and the best footage, the best music and so forth, and Chris Strachwitz thought, “Well, what are we going to do with all these other great songs? I can’t let them sit on the shelf.” Les didn’t want to deal with it, but I said, “Well, um, I could do that… maybe?” I was just getting started editing and so Chris said, “Okay.” And I noticed that most of the songs that were “left over” were love songs, so I asked Guillermo Hernandez, who did a lot of the translations and gave us feedback to make sure we were getting things right as gringos, “Well, wouldn’t it be kind of cool if there were connections with the poetry of the ancestors of the Aztecs, for example, the indigenous people in Mexico—maybe there’s a connection between the kind of things they wrote poetry about and the music that the people are singing now?” He thought that was a cool idea, so he researched and found these poems, and that was the idea for Del Mera Corazón. There were some scenes that Les had cut out that I was able to use and then I edited everything else. And on the DVD, we have a half hour more of songs, so Chris Strachwitz got his wish to give life to all of these great songs by pioneers of music. And on the “outtakes,” there are complete songs that also appear on the CD soundtrack.

Audience Member: Can you talk a little about how different Les was when he was filming and when he wasn’t filming?

HB: You know, a lot of people wonder, “Well, how did Les, who hardly says anything, gain the trust of people to let him into their world and just be one of them?” The way that he did it was that he partook in the eating and the drinking. He wouldn’t do any talking, but he would eat and drink everything that they had available. Everything. And he would indulge to the point where he’d have seconds and thirds, and they were like, “Oh my god, he really likes our food,” and that really helped gain trust. The other thing that Les did was he did drink quite a bit, so sometimes he would pound some beers and get into this zone where his mind was more fluid and he wouldn’t have the hang-ups of “what should I be doing?” rather than “what I’m going to do.” He says that hang-up is like writer’s block. So when he would just go into this fluid zone and he would just let the camera flow, and then when the people would see him shooting the cutaways, they’d be like, “God, he’s so into us, he’s even shooting the shingles on our house.” [Audience laughs]

MG: And the other thing was that sometimes because he didn’t say very much, people who did like to talk would come up to him and they would just talk and talk and talk, and he didn’t have to say anything. He would be able to appear to be participating and sometimes he would respond and other times not, but people would come up to him because he was easy to deal with and he would listen to them.

Del Mero Corazón
Del Mero Corazón

Audience Member: It sounds like Les would often shoot a lot of footage. For the first film, how much actually was there, and what was the editing process and relationship like?

MG: Well, I didn’t edit Chulas Fronteras, Les edited that. I edited Del Mera Corazón, but in those days because it was 16mm, the ratio was much smaller, and I don’t know how many hours he shot, maybe as much as 20. And because each camera roll was 11 minutes, he had to be selective about what he shot. He was very careful when he was filming so that the percentage of good stuff would be higher—although he definitely varied quite a bit in quality. [Laughs] I would say there were times when he wasn’t in the mood to shoot something and you could really tell. The images weren’t as great. But when he was really into it, he would be amazing, and so as an editor it was just a joy to see this beautiful stuff. I think in terms of him working with Strachwitz, it’s possible that their dynamic was kind of similar, that Les would always try to narrow things down, get to the essence, get the best piece that he could find, or the most expressive piece, but Strachwitz would want to add more because he was totally into the music. I would imagine there was a lot of battling going on when they were working on Chulas Fronteras in the editing, because Les was aiming for something artistic and Strachwitz just loved all the music and all the songs and made sure that certain songs got in there, and so I don’t recall specifically how their relationship was in the editing room but that definitely was how it was when I was editing another film with them, J’ai Été Au Bal [1989], and I was in the middle. I had to balance Chris wanting to keep things in and Les wanting to take things out, and I had to play little tricks so that they would each think that they were getting their way.

Audience Member: Can you talk a little bit about the audio transfers. These films were shot on 16mm and was it with separate sound?

MG: Yeah, it was definitely separate. We always used a Nagra tape recorder and very often either a Schoeps or shotgun mic. I think Strachwitz used the shotgun mic a lot.

You see him at the bar with Lydia…

MG: Right. And I don’t know what his other setups were for this film … I mean Les had this 4-channel mixer that could plug into the Nagra, which I used on Dry Wood and Hot Pepper, the Leon Russell film, and so forth. So that’s pretty minimal, and it was live mixing, so basically you got what you got.

Audience Member: Did you have to reconstruct any of the sound?

HB: Nope, we went to Nick Berg in Los Angeles, who put it through his machine and cleaned it up a little bit. But I thought the audio held up really well. We had a quarter-inch master tape, thank god, because a lot of those old Nagra tapes from the ’70s shed. You run them through the machine one time and you get one play… so you really want to take care of those tapes and digitize them sooner than later.

Maureen, can you tell us the Lydia Mendoza story about where her songs came from?

MG: Yeah, it’s pretty great. Chris Strachwitz worked with a guy named Jaime Nicolopulos and they did a book about Lydia Mendoza and family. They interviewed them before they passed away and heard stories about their beginnings. Lydia tells a story about how she would go to Saturday morning matinees, you know variety shows that they used to have in theaters, and there would be singers or other kinds of acts and also films. And then in those days there were song lyrics on bubble-gum wrappers, so she collected them and apparently she had a boxful under her bed—and she found “Mal Hombre” on a bubble-gum wrapper.

Harrod, Les gave you your first camera when you were about 17… when did you actually start working with him on his movies?

HB: Oh before that…

You were carrying cameras around when you were like 12 years old?

HB: Yeah, and I hated it. There was no way I wanted to be a filmmaker. I remember carrying the tripod around for Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe [1980] all day in Berkeley, and I was just like, “This sucks. Being a documentary filmmaker sucks.” [Audience laughs] I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. When I was in college, I wanted to do anything but be a filmmaker, so I studied creative writing and played basketball. But anyway, Les gave me that camera when I was 17, and he said, “Here’s a present for you, but it’s not the camera that does the picture—that’s your eye, and you really need to know what you want to see.” •

Les Blank
Lydia Mendoza from Chulas Fronteras