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Though less famous than D.A. Pennebaker or the Maysles Brothers, the late Richard Leacock was right there with them at the dawn of Direct Cinema — employing (and helping invent) newly portable sync-sound camera rigs to create a new kind of documentary. A different sort of documentarian, Les Blank, casts his eye on Leacock in How to Smell a Rose, which presents itself as a casual hangout film but proves to be that and more. Moving on a personal level while delivering a meaty chunk of film history (and, this being a Blank film, meaty chunks of food porn as well), the picture deserves to be seen by anyone with a more than casual interest in documentary filmmaking. With luck, attention paid to the recent reissue of Blank’s Leon Russell portrait A Poem is a Naked Person — a very different sort of doc — will spill over to this autumnal gem.
Filmed in 2000 but only completed after Blank’s death in 2013 by his collaborator Gina Leibrecht, the doc begins as a look at how the British born, America-trained filmmaker made a new bucolic life for himself in Normandy — falling in love again and honing his chops in Escoffier-style cuisine. But that new love, Valerie Lalonde, was herself an aspiring filmmaker, and talk of their life together is inevitably talk about filmmaking: Thanks to a cheap and tiny Sony Handycam, they are armed wherever they go, shooting anything they find interesting while “making a movie about nothing in particular.”
While expounding on his desire to make cinema that “doesn’t inform you about a damn thing” but conveys “what it’s like to be someplace, with somebody,” Leacock talks about how this ethic was formed. We get a quick primer on Direct Cinema, on how Life photographer Robert Drew hired Leacock, Pennebaker, et al to make fly-on-wall journalistic films like Primary. “We never asked anybody to do anything,” he declares, insisting that any doc subject being questioned will immediately become a performer doing what he thinks the filmmaker wants. Leacock stretches back further, though, recalling his work with Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty — an occasion for Blank to splice in some truly gorgeous scenes from 1948’s Louisiana Story, and for Leacock to share Flaherty’s sharp insights about the use of close-ups.
Leacock proves to be charming company, sprinkling sometimes hilarious personal anecdotes among the high points of his career. Blank works in enough clips of Leacock’s films to convince the uninitiated of their merit. But throughout this affectionate, easygoing film, one suspects he’d be just as happy watching the man shop for produce and perfect the bouillon for his stews.
Production company: Les Blank Films
Directors-Producers-Directors of Photography: Les Blank, Gina Leibrecht
Editor: Gina Leibrecht
No rating, 61 minutes
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