Garlic is perfect. It smells like that delicious dinner that’s so close to being ready. When you cook with it, you feel the soft burn in your nostrils—the garlic saying, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” When you eat it, you get a high from the mix of flavor and sensation, the recognition that you’re an adult who enjoys life’s finer things. Roast it. Pickle it. Grill it. Sauté it. Garlic doesn’t judge; it will taste like a mix of pleasure and success no matter what.
Sadly, garlic has gotten a bad rap: its smell and flavor are so potent that it alone can ward off vampires (well, that and telling the bloodsuckers that, no, they can’t come inside). Who hasn’t heard that no one will want to kiss you if you have garlic breath? Well, Mom, you’re wrong. People who are sane and realize how amazing garlic is will have no problem kissing me, and really, that’s the only type of person I want to kiss.
Luckily, Les Blank realized
he wants to kiss me how great garlic is not only as a food, but also an aspect of culture. So, he decided to use his considerable talents (he made one of the best documentaries of all time, and one of my favorites films: Burden of Dreams) to capture these qualities in his documentary, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. Blank’s style is perfectly executed here: he allows for space and quiet shots, avoiding a breakneck pace but presenting more information thanks to his detail-oriented eye. This film rarely has a big moment, but rather captures the magic of people talking about garlic, people preparing garlic for a meal, people harvesting garlic, and—most enjoyably—people singing odes to the smelly bulb.
Ten Mothers uses this casual but intentional selection of images and sounds to simultaneously explore the culinary, cultural, economic, and mythical qualities of what many would consider a simple food. At first, we listen to people from California and Spain describe their experiences with it—something as simple as a woman recounting her father’s demand that his dinner contain an entire head of garlic. We also look at the more fanatical responses: a religious man who wears dozens of heads of garlic around his neck and discusses supposedly obvious “historical” vampires; another dude who is probably fun at parties but kind of scary in one-on-one conversation discuss his surprise at the recent (for the 80s) spike in popularity. These people are not famous, or obvious poster boys for garlic, but by having such specific experiences and viewpoints, they communicate the extent to which something so simple can affect so many.
Toward the end, Blank starts to lean away from the personal and move into the economic. He lets farmers discuss their desire to keep garlic as a food grown by passionate folks, rather than massively distributed by heartless organizations. The last twenty minutes of this movie could have appeared on BuzzFeed, given the world’s current obsession with locally grown food. Although not as intoxicatingly bizarre as the first chunk of the film, Blank merely takes his depiction of garlic as socially pervasive to its logical conclusion. You can’t fault him for that.
Further, even in the movie’s weaker points, it still engages because of the clear love that Blank has for the subject. He seems to be enamored with the world of garlic, in that pleasant head-space that follows a garlic-heavy dish. The result is a bizarre movie that I must admit, the first time I saw it, registered more as a point of confusion than a heartfelt masterpiece. The editing and choice of subjects didn’t make sense to me at the time, as I was more oriented toward traditional documentaries. However, the result of the editing—a reliance on feeling, I would guess, more than perfect narrative development and coherence—is that Ten Mothers is endearing, and I imagine that it would warm even people who hate garlic to its passionate embrace of the topic.
And, of course, there is the pure delight of a man asking Werner Herzog a question. Blank says to Herzog, “Can I ask: in Nosferatu, how come there’s no mention of or allusion to garlic?” Confused, Herzog stammers out a response: “It’s part of the vampire mythology. I must confess, I have never thought about it, but the film deviates from the saga anyway to some extent. For example, the vampire is a very sympathetic human being, a being who tries to be…to participate in human things like death, or love, or other things. But you are right: there is a lot of references in Bram Stoker’s novel about garlic. … Why do you ask this question?” Herzog’s befuddlement is great not only because it follows such a briefly elegant (i.e. Herzogian) answer, but because it perfectly captures the counter to the others in this film: those who don’t understand a great love for such a simple thing.
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers presents a good case for why such a love is warranted. If you are in the mood for a weird, short delight of a film, then you can’t do much better. Or, you could just roast a head of garlic, eat the whole thing, and revel in your excellent life choices.