Thanks to the rise of digital video and the increase in box office, documentaries have become far more plentiful in recent years. In some ways that's a good thing; it means more worldly, educated moviegoers walking around. But it's also a bad thing for anyone who has to see more than a half dozen over a year's time. You start to notice the exact same techniques employed: talking heads, archival clips, filmed photographs, perhaps a narrator, and perhaps -- if we're lucky -- some actual new motion picture footage exposed just for the project.
Public television (not to mention Humphrey Jennings and his World War II-era industrials) years ago defined the format and rhythms for documentaries, and most filmmakers slavishly follow them, even if it flies in the face of their subject matter. I've seen documentaries on groundbreaking, and even indefinable artists such as John Cage and Syd Barrett filmed in exactly this same format. You'd think that the filmmakers would get inspired by their subjects and break out of the routine. Even more frustrating was the recent doc An Unreasonable Man, which told the story of Ralph Nader, and used Ralph Nader as one of a series of talking heads -- in his own movie. If the filmmakers had access to Nader, why not actually utilize him?
A few filmmakers do break out of this style, and though they're in the minority, they're often noticed and rewarded for their efforts. Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) is the most obvious example, as well as the recent Oscar-winner Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Shut Up and Sing), Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies), Peter Watkins (The War Game), Claude Lanzmann (Shoah), Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), and of course, the notorious Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Olypmia). We recognize these names because the filmmakers put their personality into their reporting.
One other name may sound familiar, even if few of his films actually ring a bell. Berkeley's Les Blank has been making documentaries since the 1960s, although none of them have tackled subjects that are deemed very important. Whereas other award-winners have taken on war, the Holocaust, insane asylums, sitting presidents, and men toying with Mother Nature, Blank is content to make movies about garlic, gap-toothed women and now tea. He has been known to "sell out," making things like Huey Lewis and the News: Be-FORE! (1986), and he is best known for Burden of Dreams (1982), his documentary about Werner Herzog and the insane experience of making Fitzcarraldo, but that doc did more to make Herzog's name than it did Blank's.
Blank may also come across as kind of a laid-back hippie rather than a hard-nosed journalist, arguing the finer points of food, poetry, music, art, dancing and drinking. It rather fits his profile that he disappeared for over ten years, perhaps resisting the corporate lure of digital video in the making of his films. But after leaving off with The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1995), the 71 year-old has finally returned with All in This Tea, a delightful ode to... tea.
Co-directed with Gina Leibrecht, and premiering at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, the new film follows tea expert David Lee Hoffman on his travels through China, searching for the very finest hand-grown teas. Blank deliberately refrains from talking about money; it's not clear whether Hoffman is a businessman, or simply a wealthy collector. Likewise, he allows Hoffman's personality to come out little by little. At times, this soft-spoken little man in his white suits and straw hats can out-negotiate a strict Chinese bureaucracy, and at other times, he gets touchy-feely over a nice cup of tea. (In one late scene, he casually talks about some cloth he picked up in India while visiting the Dalai Lama.)
Blank and Leibrecht live in the moment, trailing his subjects and capturing details as they happen. Hoffman has learned only a few words of Chinese, which don't particularly help him since he visits many remote regions with different dialects. He bravely blunders through by speaking English and pointing at things, and generally winds up with what he wants. Sometimes tea vendors approach him, holding up bags of tea to his highly sensitive nose. He sniffs, barks out the word "chemical" and moves on. His abruptness and ego are all part of the package, part of the real person, but he also displays a warmth and humility that make him an endearing subject.
The film does have a few talking heads, but they feel spontaneous rather than staged. Blank and Leibrecht provide most of the information about tea simply by watching. We see hands picking through leaves, and we learn that buds provide one kind of taste, while whole leaves provide another. We see experts pouring hot water into tiny pots, and then straining the brewed tea into even tinier cups for tasting. True to Blank's personal touch, Werner Herzog himself shows up in one scene, tasting a cup of tea (the film's lovely title comes from him). Certainly the film isn't going to change the world, and nobody is going to win any Oscars from it, but by the end you long for a nice cup of tea.