Saturday, November 5, 2011

Feast Your Eyes

This weekend is the SF Film Society's annual Cinema By The Bay festival, a smörgåsbord of film screenings showing off the quality and diversity of Frisco Bay filmmaking, and culminating in an awards ceremony tomorrow honoring documentarians Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Allie Light and Irving Saraf, impresario/filmmaker Joshua Grannell, writer/editor Susan Gerhard, publicist Karen Larsen, and the 50-year-old distribution institution Canyon Cinema. All exceedingly worthy honorees, and I wish I were available to attend the event tomorrow evening.

Not long ago I sat down for an interview with one of last year's honorees, the amazing, undervalued chronicler of music, cuisine, and the cultures encircling and encircled by them both, Les Blank. The interview was for an article to be published in the next issue of First Person Magazine, entitled "Radical Foods". When editor Betty Nguyen told me of this theme, Blank came to mind immediately as an ideal person to get involved. One of the most unique aspects of his filmmaking is his integration of food into the presentation of his films, as I experienced several years ago at a screening of his 1980 film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. Here's Blank's response to my question about the difference between "Smell-O-Vision" and "Aromaround":

Well, I've never used Smell-O-Vision. I use Smell-Around. Smell-O-Vision was, I believe, a patented system. When they first brought this concept out in the theatres I think they piped in smells. One theatre I think even had them under the seat. They had an exhaust fan to get 'em out, but they had trouble getting one smell out in order to make room for the next one.

John Waters had scratch and sniff cards. I didn't care for that myself. No one I know has the actual food being cooked in the actual theatre. When I'd screen Always For Pleasure and cook red beans and rice, I'd call that Smell-Around. If I was showing Yum Yum Yum or Spend It All, which has gumbo in it, I would call it Smell-Around too. But the garlic film, I'd always call Aromaround.

An elaborate version would be to take the pot of beans that hasn't been completely cooked yet. They're still in the small-making phase. Once you start cooking they let off their aromas and then, the aromas dwindle down, so the cooking beans don't really smell that much towards the end of the cooking period, but if you take a portion of the beans you're gonna be serving the public, and hold them back, then get 'em going to the point where they make the most smell, then you take that into the theatre, and one person carries the pot, one person stirs the pot, and the other person has a fan and they fan the fumes into the audience. You walk all the way around the theatre so everyone sees this whole operation. during the part of the film, where the film is being cooked or served, or in the cajun films, there's the gumbo.

With the garlic film you put toaster ovens in the front or the rear of the theatre, and then you turn on the oven to 350 degrees. If you turn it on in the beginning, the smell will be full strength about halfway through, about 20-25 minutes in. I like it best when it hits its peak when Alice Waters says "can you smell the garlic?" The audience might yell back. It might laugh, or sigh.
To read more from my interview with Blank, you'll have to find a copy of the magazine. I'm not sure of all the locations where it will be sold as yet, but it will certainly be available at the issue launch event this Thursday night at St. John's Church. The ticket price includes a dinner prepared by issue co-editor and artist chef Leif Hedendal, an edible sculpture presented by artist Leah Rosenberg, and Les Blank in attendance with a screening of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. Hope to see you there!

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