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“It’s one of the greatest places in the world. They call it ‘The City that Care Forgot’; It’s probably the last place in America that you can feel . . . well, just sort of free to live, you know?”
—Slightly tipsy, sage-like parade attendee on New Orleans, ca. March 17, 1977, in Always for Pleasure
If I had my own personal Voyager explorer, a rocket that I’d send to the farthest reaches of space to show whatever alien that found it that humanity wasn’t all that bad, or a time capsule to instruct future generations on how to rebuild the best parts of our society, Les Blank’s 1978 documentary Always for Pleasure would have a place of honor at its center, nestled among the collected comics of Jack Kirby. Why? Because it captures lightning in a bottle, distilling the soul and spirit of what it means to celebrate life and death and Mardi Gras in New Orleans into 58 beautiful minutes. It’s unfussy and quietly gorgeous. Around my house, it’s essential viewing once Carnival season begins, kind of like the Mardi Gras equivalent of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sometimes I watch it intently, but just as often I let it play on a loop and listen to it, like a favorite song. But it’s a tonic at any time of year when you need something to remind you that life is for the living.
It begins with a montage of New Orleans life set to Frankie Ford’s classic “Sea Cruise,” a juxtaposition that, in clumsier hands, would come off as a corny travelogue. But Les Blank, who passed away in 2013 with an extensive filmography of equally beautiful docs to his credit, never forces his hand or announces anything as gauche as a “thesis.” He lets his rough and colorful 16mm cinematography and sharp editing draw you in; footage of people dancing in the street seamlessly transition to Kid Thomas Valentine joking about mortality, to a funeral, to Allen Toussaint murmuring about second lines, to Irma Thomas reciting a recipe for red beans and rice and back to a street parade, to Professor Longhair playing “Big Chief” in a dive bar, and beyond. It’s in no hurry to get anywhere and it’s all the more profound for it.
Many modern documentaries emulate some of the most negative aspects of narrative film, particularly with their slavish devotion to “plot” over feeling, where something HAS to happen. In Always for Pleasure, NOTHING happens, except sublime, lazy, superior beauty. It’s about lives that aren’t lived in constant forward motion, but rather lives lived acknowledging that death is what awaits us all, so why not digress when the opportunity presents itself? Lives not made up of pure ambition but with a keen sense of submission—to the moment, to the sound of a street band, to life itself.
You can stream Always For Pleasure now on Filmstruck.com by clicking here