The 1974 film A Poem Is a Naked Person is one of Les Blank’s least experimental approaches to the documentary form, though anyone familiar with more than a handful of the director’s 40-plus shorts and features knows that even his most conventional work remains an elusive vision, punctuated by cultural insights that elude many filmmakers for their entire careers. In The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, one of Blank’s first short films, the musical-collage approach of God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance is abandoned for what would originate some of the filmmaker’s signature techniques, namely a formal approach that inverts typical notions of causality and explication. Rather than explaining anything from the inside out, Blank makes no distinction between the two, shirking exposition or establishing segments of any sort for a sustained meditation on musical culture, as Blank’s camera weaves in and out of various places with snake-like stealth, much like an actual snake in A Poem Is a Naked Person that’s seen carefully entrapping and consuming a baby chick.
While the film follows Leon Russell, an Oklahoma musician, from 1972 to 1974, whether in his recording studio or on stage, Blank is disinterested in basic tenets of characterization. One could watch the film’s entirety and feel as though Russell’s musical significance and political orientation are inadequately explored, and in some respects they are, at least if such information is expected from the horse’s mouth, either from Russell or Blank. For Blank, texture is more essential than text; a couple drifting down a river boasting that “we’re just pleasure seekers” speaks more about a mentality than anything Blank could add in post-production. That’s because the moment has an autonomy that can’t be exactly explained, much like an elongated sequence in which a young child performs Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” The child’s relatives gather around, dressed in upper-middle-class garb and flashing looks of warmth, but also appearing slightly embarrassed and awkward, seemingly unsure of how to respond to a scenario where they’re being filmed while being expected to plaster a look of excitement to their well-kempt faces.
Even Les Blank’s most conventional work remains punctuated by cultural insights that elude many filmmakers for their entire careers.
The scene epitomizes Blank’s insistence that knowledge cannot be derived from a litany of facts or textbook information, since reflective historicism via mediated distance necessitates a false remove from the originary source. There’s specificity to the Oklahoma territories, Blank implies, where varying cultures are tightly juxtaposed in a manner that borders on the absurd. In a pair of sequences, a Native American ceremony is indirectly juxtaposed to an African-American church, where the movement of bodies and procession of ritual are made one, as if every single human interaction can be understood in similar terms. Blank later made a film called Always for Pleasure, but this one could be called Everything Is Ritual, given how certain acts are performed specifically for the camera. The most memorable instance of this comes when a man downs a beer, and then unsuccessfully attempts to break the glass with his teeth. Minutes later, Blank restages the effort, this time successful, as the man subsequently chews on the glass as if it were a blade of country grass.
Russell remains at both the center and periphery of Blank’s film, since the majority of what’s seen further contextualizes Russell’s circumstances, even if he’s out of frame for a significant period of time. When Russell does take the stage, Blank resorts to fairly standard concert footage, cutting between shots of performers and the crowd, though the camera is adept at finding worthwhile behavior, as when one woman at once flashes a peace sign and a middle finger.
At an after-party one evening, Russell is asked if he would still be singing if he didn’t make any money from it. Russell repeats the question to himself, but neglects to offer an answer. It’s an encapsulating moment for the film’s entire circumstances, but also Blank’s career aims, where a narrative of love and devotion is conventionally proffered as the true reasons for artistry. In the world of independent filmmaking, “passion” is a word that’s often used, but to reduce the artist’s plight to purely one of either communal bond or commerce, Blank suggests, is to miss the point altogether. The circumstances are irreducible, so an attempt to conceptualize motivation in the form of a hypothetical statement only stalls cultural or personal progress. As an idea, A Poem Is a Naked Person masterfully relays that struggle.