Home Video Hovel: A Poem Is a Naked Person, by David Bax
Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person is ostensibly a documentary about singer/songwriter/producer Leon Russell. But, since Blank seems just as content to fix his camera on, say, a snake as he is on his subject, the film is not what it seems. In truth, it is both bigger and smaller than its apparent mission statement, serving as a gonzo anthropology of the Tulsa outskirts where Russell’s studio sits as well as a point-of-view testimonial, an experiential dose of the psycho-spiritual moment that attached itself to Russell during the heyday of post-hippie, outlaw country music.
Blank was present for most of that time, following Russell and those around him from 1972 to 1974, the year the film was completed. Yet A Poem Is a Naked Person wasn’t officially released for more than forty years, technically premiering at South by Southwest in 2015. This was partially due to music clearances but also, reportedly, because Russell simply didn’t like the movie very much and didn’t want people to see it. Something must have changed his mind, however, because even with Blank having died in 2013, he relented. Now, the film is available in a lovely Blu-ray edition from Criterion.
If the song rights were as much a hurdle to the film’s release as the stories tell, at least it was worth it. The early 1970s represent a major moment in country music, when a generation of disillusioned and jaded youngish folks repurposed the traditional song styles of twenty years previous into something angry and melancholy, drunken and wistful. This movie is crammed with the stuff, including appearances from outlaw country mainstay Willie Nelson and honky tonk veteran George Jones
With its lyrical title, one might assume the film is an arty and pretentious affair. Though its fiercely anti-narrative abstractions and meanderings might indeed prove frustrating to those seeking a conventional documentary, it would be wrong to describe the movie as grandiloquent or turgid. Blank repeatedly aims for fun and laughs, by interviewing a colorful elderly couple who live near the studio or by cutting from a person talking about “eating shit” in the metaphorical sense directly to a messy pie-eating contest. These moments don’t have any more to do with Russell than the lovely, extended section that details the painting of a mural in an empty swimming pool. But all of it put together makes you feel almost as if you know what it was like to hang out in this time and place. A Poem Is a Naked Person may not impart many facts but it does provide understanding. What more could you ask of a documentary?
The 2K transfer comes from a mostly well-preserved original 16mm print and is up to the standard we expect from a Criterion release. Perhaps even more important for this film, the sound has been extensively remastered.
Special features include an interview with Russell and Les Blank’s son, Harrod, a brief clip of Blank talking about the film, a couple of making-of docs, multiple trailers and an essay by Kent Jones.