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Les Blank Documentaries
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Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers

There's an old saying: "Garlic is as good as ten mothers...for keeping the girls (boys) away." The quote is meant as a comment on the powerful repellent qualities of the culinary ingredient known as the "stinking rose," a term that may have been in use as early as Greek or Roman times. Anything that's strong enough to keep vampires at bay must certainly have the power to ward off unwanted suitors. Watching Les Blank's engrossing documentary, however, you'd be inclined to believe--quite rightly--that the title had more to do with such motherly qualities as warmth, nurturing, comfort and good health.

Blank's film does indeed make a virtue of this universally used ingredient, most closely associated with Italian food but equally important to the cuisines of France, Latin America, and many Middle Eastern and Asian countries as well. Once considered exotic by Northern Europeans, garlic has become extremely popular stateside in recent decades. Did Blank's film have anything to do with that? It's possible, if only because it introduced a variety of audiences not only to some little-known facts and mythology about the plant but to great proponents of its use, among them Lloyd John Harris, founder of the alliophiliac organization Lovers of the Stinking Rose and author of 1974's The Book of Garlic. That tome did much to begin reversing what Harris, in the film, calls "the American, puritan, Anglo thing," linking increased use of garlic with the collapse of tired and restrictive societal structures. "Everything is falling apart," Harris says, "And people are looking to the old ways, the traditional folk, basic, historical roots of what it is to be a human being, and garlic figures very substantially in that."

One person who certainly agrees is Alice Waters, pioneering proponent of organic, locally grown food and one of the most influential figures in the culinary world of the past half-century. The film prominently features Waters and her landmark Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, opened in 1971. At the time this documentary was made, Waters had been doing a special event at her eatery for several years, featuring an all-garlic menu every Bastille Day (July 14). Blank shoots footage in Waters' restaurant at the time of the annual event and also at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, one of the largest food festivals in the U.S., founded in 1979, just one year before it was featured here.

Knowing what we do of Waters today, her work as a food activist and humanitarian and an important force in public policy of recent years, it's fascinating to see her in an early stage of her career. She has since appeared in several documentaries and television profiles of her work and philosophy, but this was her first introduction to film audiences, along with her brief appearance in another Blank film that came out at the same time, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which she helps German film director Herzog cook the titular piece of apparel in the kitchen at Chez Panisse to fulfill his promise that he would eat his shoe if documentarian Errol Morris ever completed Gates of Heaven (1978).

Herzog turns up in this one, too, asked why he didn't include garlic lore in his film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Blank went on to make Burden of Dreams (1982), a feature-length documentary about Herzog's arduous and chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo (1982). (Herzog and crew members can be seen wearing Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers t-shirts.) Burden... is now probably Blank's most famous film--a shame in a way, good as it is, since his documents of regional America and the music and food of its inhabitants are the true heart and soul of his work.

Here, Blank displays what he always did best--an unobtrusive, casual-seeming, but highly observant style that links the food so prominent in many of his films (barbecue in The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins 1970; black creole cuisine and Cajun cooking in his Louisiana-based music films; Tex-Mex in Chulas Fronteras, 1976) to all aspects of the cultures he documents. Food in a Les Blank film isn't simply sustenance or even just a sensual pleasure. It is tied to each culture as much as the idiom its people speak. Blank depicts regional music in the same way, and his style and point of view have been highly influential in documentary filmmaking.

The food, music, and culture here reflect the multiplicity of Northern California and the subcultures (of which garlic lovers are shown to be one) that provide counterpoint to the region's modernity. Much of the film is without comment; Blank prefers to let the talking be done by the people lovingly preparing a wide array of garlic-based foods, respecting the observation of their culinary techniques and tuning in to the music that is such a vital part of their lives.

Blank was known for having some of the food featured in his films prepared for the audience during screenings, creating a delicious "smell-o-vision" that added to the experience. For Garlic..., he recommended that a toaster oven containing several heads of garlic be turned on at the beginning of the screening to fill the auditorium with the aroma of "stinking rose." At one screening, Blank recalled, when Alice Waters says in the film, "Can you smell the garlic?" the audience yelled back, "Yes!"

The film was premiered at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival. In 2004, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Director: Les Blank
Producer: Les Blank
Cinematography: Les Blank
Editing: Maureen Gosling
Cast: Antzonini Del Puerto, Kathleen Bendel, Alice Waters, Lloyd John Harris, Werner Herzog (Themselves)

By Rob Nixon

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