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Les Blank Movie Reviews: “Chulas Fronteras” and “Del Mero Corazón”

Les Blank Chulas Fronteras

Chulas Fronteras (1976; Les Blank)

GRADE: B+

Del Mero Corazón (1979; Maureen Gosling)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Plays Sept. 26 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and shows later this week in Berkeley, San Rafael, Sebastopol and Chico.

Les Blank made a lot of music documentaries, but he was also one of the cinema’s great ethnographers.  His delightful 1976 film Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders) ostensibly covers culture-blending Tejano musicians along the Mexican-American border.  However, Chulas Fronteras feels more like slices of the life and culture of Texas-Mexicans, lovingly guided by their music.

The songs that play throughout the 58-minute Chulas Fronteras run the gamut from boleros and corridos to waltzes and polkas.  We get love songs, hate songs, protest songs, party songs and more, with intense emotions serving as the common thread.  Lyrics alternately express heartbreak (“this painful loneliness”) or vitriol (“your soul is so vile it has no name”).  Other songs tell stories of abused farm workers and trains “carrying Mexicans to Indiana.”

Meanwhile, Les Blank makes every event feel momentous and immediate, whether it’s a cockfight or an anniversary party.  He offers a thoroughly affectionate portrait, and while the film frequently wanders, it also moves like lightning.  Rather than rely on false framing devices or obnoxious narration, Blanks lets his words and images explain everything.

Chulas Fronteras tours Northern California this week in a shiny, new 4K restoration.  Live music performances and special guests are scheduled at every stop.  The film comes paired with Del Mero Corazón (Straight from the Heart), a 28-minute short that covers the same general subject and region.  Maureen Gosling directed and edited Del Mero Corazón, but Blank gets credited with “Photography, Additional Direction and Special Editing.”

Del Mero Corazón offers the same beautiful intimacy as Chulas Fronteras, but not quite the same charm.  This one feels more weirdly unfocused than amiably scruffy.  It even inexplicably leaps from San Antonio to San Jose for a few strange minutes.  Still, it makes for a satisfying enough companion piece to Chulas Fronteras.

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.