They Were There
by Jeff Reichert

How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy
Dir. Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, U.S., Kino Lorber

The 1991 film Les Oeufs àla coque de Richard Leacock, an early digital-video documentary Ricky Leacock created in collaboration with his then new girlfriend, Valérie Lalonde, is a rare kind of art work. In it (the title puns on the similarity between the French word for soft-boiled eggs and Leacock’s surname), nonfiction pioneer Leacock, having become enamored of the new technology of digital video, allows us to witness his aesthetic reinvention on the fly. The France-set Les Oeufs jumps from self-contained scene to scene—or, better, one impression to another—without a sense of narrative drive or hurry. The only real connective tissue between the things we see are a few reappearing faces and, more importantly, the overarching knowledge that we are watching these specific images because Leacock’s unerring eye thought them worthy of capture. So we might spy a few Japanese tourists puzzling over a payphone for a little while, then pop into a dress store where Valérie is being outfitted in some gaudy finery, only to then witness a grave-faced older woman riding in a car while running her horse with the reins flapping out the window.

As Valérie tells it in Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy, the film was a record of Ricky falling in love with her. It is that, indeed, but Les Oeufs also reveals a filmmaker falling in love with living in France and back in love with the possibilities of his art. There are few films as warm and bursting with life. Just as the 1960 Primary—shot with unfettered, lightweight, sync-sound cameras invented by the Drew Associates team (Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, and Leacock)—jumpstarted a new kind of nonfiction filmmaking in the U.S., Les Oeufs, had it been more widely seen, might have inspired a generation of discursive, free-flowing documentary films without any agenda beyond that which was Leacock’s filmmaking motto: to share what it was like to be there at the moment of filming.

These are the kinds of thoughts that cross one’s mind while watching How to Smell a Rose, which, though it alleges, in typically modest Les Blank fashion, to be merely “a visit,” is actually a covert, rigorously structured study of Ricky Leacock’s huge career and import. Blank did indeed visit Leacock in Normandy in 2000—and much of the film is derived from footage with this smiling patrician Brit, white hair askew, still solid at 78 in rugged flannels and chunky sweaters, responding to Blank’s slowly drawled queries about working with Robert Flaherty on Louisiana Story, about Direct Cinema, about his love of new digital editing tools. Rose is a showcase for one filmmaker’s adoration and respect for another, and clips of Leacock’s work, from all stages of his career, are lovingly chosen and placed throughout the film. This is Blank’s last film, and with both he and Leacock now gone (Leacock died at 89 in 2011, Blank at 77 just this past year), the genial sweetness of their ramble through the history of documentary film takes on an overwhelming poignancy.

Blank is behind the camera, so a meal is likely to be prepared. How to Smell a Rose doesn’t disappoint on this score—watch as Leacock festishizes some fresh endive at the local market, prepares a chicken for pot au feu, rubs a fresh lamb shank with garlic. While discussing Blank’s career with me recently, a colleague said he would love to package the Tampa native’s films together under the banner “Advertisements for Life.” Throughout his portraits of regional delights and delicacies, from Dry Wood to Spend It All to Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Blank has reveled in the pleasures of the simple, the homespun. After spending some time with his work one feels that all one might actually need for a life well lived is a place to call home, some good dinner recipes, and loud, roughly played music.

These ingredients are all present in How to Smell a Rose, a film in which a close-up of a fresh tomato being cut is given as much visual weight as a clip from Louisiana Story. Given the warmly appealing qualities of Blank’s filmmaking and the brevity of Rose, one could argue for more footage of Leacock in Normandy and fewer clips from his films. But it’s clear that Blank is quietly trying to make a complete work of portraiture, however brief, and however idiosyncratic. Rose may take us first to the seminal Les Oeufs, but it isn’t long before we trip back to 1935 to look at Leacock’s first film, Canary Bananas, which he shot in his teens. We also see footage from Primary, Monterey Pop, and lesser known shorts like Happy Mother’s Day. Leacock observes how wildly uncinematic that latter commission seemed—how would they possibly make a film about a woman who’d just given birth to quintuplets, his team wondered? As soon as footage from the film appears on screen, you know immediately: by watching, by digging, by paying sensitive attention to life as it happens.

In a moment when documentary film seems back under the thrall of all things cinema vérité (setting aside those trendy chimeras, hybrids, and what-have-yous), How to Smell a Rose is a terrific reminder that vérité is not merely the avoidance of interviewing subjects on camera, the eschewal of tripods and lighting, or acting the proverbial “fly on the wall.” Those were technical tricks thought up to execute a philosophy stemming from a certain way of looking and being in space with a camera; a way that demands a rounded human on the other side of the lens, not merely a “filmmaker.” The title How to Smell a Rose comes from a question once asked Flaherty. When queried on how to create a good shot, he responded directly, obliquely, “How do you know how to smell a rose?” Documentary filmmakers don’t ever really know. The best of them, like Leacock and Blank, just get into a space with a camera, and hope to see. Ah, to consider all that those two have seen and shown to us! How to Smell a Rose is like a parting gift from them to cinema, a vision from beyond the grave.