More Les! Churchill Films and Pieter Van Deusen’s What Is Music?

As the films of Les Blank are inaugurated into the canon of “important classic and contemporary films” IU Libraries Moving Image Archive (IULMIA) brings to light some of his less well known work, as cameraman for a series of late 60s classroom films produced by Churchill Films and director Pieter Van Deusen. In late 2014 the Criterion Collection released Les Blank: Always For Pleasure, a DVD/Blu-Ray edition including 14 of the documentary maker’s films and a raft of supplementary material befitting a filmmaker with as long and varied a career as Blank. While this much deserved rediscovery of Blank proceeds and his own films are now more available to be seen than ever, the time is ripe to unearth these works-for-hire intended for the primary school classroom.

In the months after Blank’s death in April, 2013, numerous tributes and memorial screenings were organized around the country. In the midst of the season of celebrating Les, IULMIA staff processing newly acquired 16mm films from circulating library and classroom film collections noted some unfaded polyester prints of music education titles produced by Los Angeles-based Churchill Films in the late 60s. A little research and a flatbed viewing of the prints of these mostly innocuous-sounding educational films soon revealed that they are not only well-made works by a great ensemble of filmmakers of the era, but also contain excellent documentation of music performances and figures of the late 60s Californian milieu that Van Deusen and Blank were a part of. This post focuses on Blank’s notable contributions to the 1968 short film What Is Music? An upcoming post will profile New Sounds In Music and its documentation of experimental music composition happening at Mills College, Oakland, CA circa 1968.

Churchill Films distributed a series of music films for young audiences written, produced and directed Pieter Van Deusen. Thanks to the work of fellow-archivist Geoff Alexander and the Academic Film Archive of North America  in documenting the auteurs of educational film, there exists a biographical/filmography page on Pieter Van Deusen and his work. IULMIA holds prints of all known titles in the series, including: What Is Music?, New Sounds In Music, Wind Sounds, String Sounds and Percussion Sounds. Production credits on the music series of films included Robert Kaufman as director of photography (credited as one of the cinematographers on Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles), and the team of Les Blank and Skip Gershon as 2nd camera and assistant.

Recently IULMIA sought out Pieter Van Deusen to ask about his work on the music films for Churchill, and his acquaintance with Les Blank. Pieter and Les began working together very early in their respective careers, with both appearing in Blank’s 1960 student film Running Around Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off. While we hope to present a more in-depth conversation with Pieter Van Deusen in an upcoming post, he was gracious enough send this reminiscence:

Les Blank and I were good friends during the year we studied filmmaking together at USC Cinema.  We cast each other in leading roles in our student films and wound up as neighbors in Woodland Hills (at the far end of the San Fernando Valley).  Also Lisa and Gail (our wives at that time) both gave birth to two boys close to the same age. […]
In 1968, when I had the opportunity of making a series of music films for Churchill Films, I naturally turned to Les to do some of the camerawork.  When he showed up at one location in Hollywood (an Indian Music school), he had just returned from shooting one of his pig roast scenes somewhere in the south.  When he arrived at our location, he said that he’d been so engrossed in the easy-going life that surrounded his time in the south, that he’d been absolutely terrified during his drive along the freeway.  It may be just that combination of easy-going, almost meditative absence of thought and that heightened sensitivity to the experience of seeing that made his cinematography so remarkable.

What Is Music? includes a two and a half minute section (shown in the video above) composed of outtakes from Les Blank and Skip Gershon’s 1968 film The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  This was the first of the music and folk culture films that would become a hallmark of Blank’s style, and in some respects propelled his career from USC film school graduate freelancing educational film work, to making documentary films reaching broader audiences. According to Blank, the success of The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ was helped by its being programmed as a short playing before that 1967 art-house hit, J.L. Godard’s  Weekend. To the best of our knowledge the footage in the scenes found in What Is Music? appear nowhere in Blank’s work, found hiding away unassumingly in this educational film.

What Is Music? tours young viewers through a distinctly late ‘60s panorama of musical sounds.  We begin with the “accidental” sounds of nature and conclude with a long silent scene of a girl frolicking with dogs in a forest, as the narrator asks viewers to “try and imagine music of your own for a moment…what kind of music would be like this moment in life?” The Hopkins passage is framed as an example of “country blues” and African-American folk culture, appearing just after a segment with traditional Chinese instruments and just before a collage of aboriginal didgeridoo and Indian raga-psychedelia. The music track for the segment  is another in the style of the many improvised, riffing performances Hopkins gives in Blank and Gershon’s documentary. The song plays uninterrupted as Blank’s camera cuts between Hopkins’ performance, posed portraits of a churchgoing group somewhere near Centerville, TX, and country landscapes in the same region taken from a car window.

[Those interested in researching Lightnin’ Hopkins on film are advised of a 1971 episode of the National Educational Television series “Artists In America” titled Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, produced by Houston, TX KUHT-TV, which IULMIA holds several 16mm prints of.]

Coming soon from the IULMIA blog: we’ll discuss the Harry Partch instruments, Tape Music and prepared pianos in New Sounds In Music, and further conversation with Pieter Van Deusen.

We leave you with another excerpt from What Is Music?  The final segment in the film’s panorama of world musics, with dazzling animation credited to Roberto Chavez.

~Seth Mitter