Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2019

Chulas Fronteras; Del Mero Corazón

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

New Yorkers have the opportunity to see a couple of Les Blank documentaries opening at the Metrograph, a new theater that has an outstanding commitment to the sort of films that make New York City still a worthwhile place to live despite the gradual transformation of the city into something resembling Abu Dhabi.

Indeed, Les Blank’s sensibility was about as opposed to such places as can be imagined. In a career that spanned 53 years, he always sought out communities of people who were culturally rich even if materially not that well off. The Metrograph is showing a remastered version of “Chulas Fronteras”, a 1976 introduction to Tex-Mex music and the people who dance to it, as well as “Del Mero Corazón”, a 28-minute film based on its outtakes. Taken together, you are transported to the border towns of Texas that gave birth to a musical genre that mixed together the polka that German immigrants brought to Texas in the 19th century and lyrics written by the original occupants of that part of Mexico, which was colonized by the gringos in the Mexican-American War of 1845-1847. Those lyrics encompass the entire Chicano experience, ranging from bluesy love songs reminiscent of Hank Williams to protest songs about the ongoing racism and economic exploitation faced by farmworkers and truck drivers.

Despite the hardships faced by Chicanos, the films show them enjoying a life of abundance. There are barbecues, weddings, dances, bull sessions, interviews with musicians, and—above all—performances that are enthralling.

Like Anthony Bourdain and Harvey Pekar, Les Blank was totally devoted to “local color”. He started out as a commercial film maker but soon switched over to making the kinds of films he really wanted to make—those that celebrated “roots” type music and the people who helped keep it alive.

His artistic partner was Chris Strachwitz, who is still alive at the age of 87. Strachwitz was the founder of Arhoolie records, a label that was devoted to the same kind of music that Blank filmed. If you were buying blues, Cajun, or authentic C&W records in the 1960s, Arhoolie was your first stop. Strachwitz reminds me a lot of Alfred Lion, the German immigrant who founded Blue Note records in the 1930s and who was the subject of a documentary I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Unlike the men and women who worshipped Hitler, they loved the cultural and racial diversity of the USA that despite the country’s racism was able to create an environment that made Tex-Mex music and culture possible.

There was a poignant moment in “Del Mero Corazón” when one elderly musician reminisced about performing on the streets during the Great Depression for 10 cents a song, his only means of survival. Given the economic collapse of much of Mexico, it is not surprising that the same kind of performances turn up in New York City’s subways.

 

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