Kieran Rogers from Harbour Lights, introduces this week’s Discover Tuesdays title A Poem Is A Naked Person.
Director: Les Blank. 1974. USA. 90min.
Film, like any other art form, can have a transcendent quality, transporting us back to a particular time and place. Operating around musician and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alumnus Leon Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person reflects cinema’s ability to act as a time capsule. The time captured: the early 1970s. The place: north-east Oklahoma, USA.
A Poem Is A Naked Person began life in 1972, when director Les Blank and Russell agreed to film at the latter’s Paradise Studios (a rural and idealistic kibbutz) in Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees. Over the course of two years, Blank filmed 60 hours of footage. A first cut was set to screen at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, but the show was cancelled when the film arrived late. With a disapproving Russell, who thought little of the initial vision, and a director without rights (Blank was merely a worker for hire), the film went unreleased for 40 years. Following Blank’s death in 2013, his son Harrod restored the film and established friendly communication with Russell. Russell agreed to a release, and in 2015 it premiered at SXSW.
Watching a film largely untouched since 1974 (save for minor edits) and previously seen by very few feels like unearthing a modern-day relic. It’s a slice of history that reveals the values and spirit, music and culture of its place and time – pure, authentic 1970s Americana.
Blank’s style is free-form, somewhere between the candidly observational and the quaintly avant-garde. There is no conventional narrative or technical wizardry; it’s all driven by a toe-tapping soundtrack, rambling dialogue, and imagery that is sometimes striking, sometimes seemingly unrelated. Mundane moments at the studio are intercut with Russell’s concert performances, where he’s at his most spellbinding, orchestrating crowds who have come together to sing and feel good. It’s never explicitly stated, but there’s a sense that either the local community is what influences Russell’s music, or that Russell is giving back to the community in his performances. Perhaps it’s both.
There’s no doubting that A Poem Is A Naked Person is better for having been stuck (and then unstuck) in time. This is fortuitous and certainly unintentional, since its sole intended purpose was to document a subculture. It still does this to suitable effect, but the circumstances of its release give it an extra dimension and allow greater retrospection. Time and place, the two things that it conveys so well, have altered how we react to what we see and hear, and to how we perceive the film – as an esoteric, time-travelling, historical and philosophical escapade, rather than just a concert documentary. Not many films can claim to be that – which makes taking the trip back, in 2016, an enticing, intriguing luxury.
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