Wednesday, April 10, 2013

R.I.P. Bigas Luna and Les Blank

This is a bad month for film. Directors Bigas Luna and Les Blank both died of cancer this past weekend. I have only seen two films each from Luna and Blank, but they were enough to make me a fan, and I'm looking forward to exploring the rest of what they had to offer.

Bigas Luna was sometimes called the Spanish Russ Meyer, which is unfairly reductive, but both men shared a lunatic visual invention, a great sense of humor, and an obsession with breasts. Luna was very much his own man, however, and I strongly recommend the two Luna films I've seen, Anguish and Jamon Jamon. Anguish, an English-language postmodern horror film from 1987, renders foolish anyone who holds up Wes Craven's Scream as an exemplar of meta-horror. Luna's film is a structurally ambitious commentary about how we watch horror films while never forgetting to be a great horror film (maybe even two great horror films), and it does it with more intelligence, humor, respect, excitement, visual invention, beauty, and affection than Craven's obvious, irritating smugfest. Jamon Jamon is an almost indescribable mix of dark comedy, light comedy, live-action cartoon, doomed romance, advertising satire, soap opera, tragedy, critique of Spanish machismo culture, and T&A sex comedy, with early roles for Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Luna films an epic fight scene in which both parties batter each other with generous cuts of pig meat, and another scene prominently features a parrot contributing to something I've definitely never seen in any other film. I'd also like to mention that both movies are massively entertaining and fun in addition to their artistic merits.
The two Les Blank films I've seen have Werner Herzog as their subject. The feature-length Burden of Dreams documents the tortuous making of Fitzcarraldo while the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe shows Herzog making good on the bet he made with Errol Morris that Morris would never finish Gates of Heaven. It's a testament to Blank's skills that the films are admired by both Herzog fans and detractors. Burden of Dreams is a particularly strong look at the folly, hubris, passion, insanity, and drive needed to create art in difficult conditions and a critique of some negative consequences of that drive on the indigenous population and environment. Besides his work about Herzog, Blank made documentaries about garlic, buck-toothed women, Southern music, beer, Creole cooking, and Huey Lewis & The News, among many other subjects.

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