Last year I attended the Pocono Garlic Festival for the first time, hopefully the start of a great tradition, since I loved it. It’s a two-day event that takes place over Labor Day weekend, celebrating the history, the future, the life, and death (and consumption!) of one of the greatest plants known to mankind: the “stinking rose,” as it’s called in Les Blank’s 1980 documentary, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. At this festival, I probably ate about five garlic heads, contained in the various foods. Barbecue pork sandwiches, with whole cloves slow-cooked until they were practically liquid; garlic chocolate chip cookies; roasted garlic dipped in chocolate; garlic salsa… etc. The point is, I ate a lot of garlic on that day, and went home feeling very contented.
Enter, Les Blank, world-renowned documentarian. Only two short years before creating his magnum opus, Burden of Dreams (a beautifully thrown-together snapshot of humanity, documenting a man’s pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream—watch it, it’s great!), Blank headed over to a different garlic festival, taking place in Gilroy, California, in 1980. He interviewed festival attendees, restaurant owners, and anyone else he could find who had even a mild opinion about the odorous plant.
Some of the interviewees have a very casual love for garlic, it’s simply a food that they adore. Others take a more fanatical approach (bear in mind, this movie was made in 1980, so when you hear a guy describing a “garlic high” as a more “earthy” experience than a “marijuana high,” just nod, smile, and move on without ever looking back). There are a few short history lessons, several short cooking lessons, and many, many, MANY gratuitous displays of garlic and a garlic dishes being paraded in front of the camera like literal food porn.
I love Les Blank’s style of filmmaking. The movie features almost zero commentary from him, letting the interviewees speak for themselves, and letting the audience make up their own minds. (There were one or two garlic-crackpots interviewed, which is something I didn’t even know existed prior to seeing this film.) He clearly believes in cinéma vérité, allowing real life to simply unfold in front of the camera. Several of the cooking scenes take place in people’s private homes, or in the back of restaurants, and he’s OK with people being uncomfortable in front of the camera. The music played throughout the film was all recorded live by him, and he’s comfortable catching the simple beauty of every day, rather than setting up elaborate shots.
Les Blank was one of the world’s greatest documentarians, and he left us at only seventy-seven years old; far too soon. A frequent symptom of watching his films is an unquenchable desire to get out of the house and live some real life. Join a drum circle. Braid a stranger’s hair. This year, I’ll be attending a garlic festival for the second time ever; it’s not much, but it’s something. What will you be doing?
Watch the trailer: