All In This Tea: Les Blank’s Return


As vital as Fitzcarraldo may be, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams—his 1982 fly-on-the-tree chronicle of Werner Herzog’s tumultuous jungle production—may be the more riveting film, and is certainly the keystone work in the California documentarian’s near half-century canon. Here partnered with filmmaker-editor Gina Leibrecht, Blank’s first feature in over a decade (and his first to take advantage of the portability of DV) visually recalls Burden in a couple ways. His subject is again compulsive: The film follows the eccentric path of affable tea importer David Lee Hoffman, a well-traveled leaf obsessive who frequently visits the dewy corners of China in order to deal directly with the farmers (rather than the mass-producing factory execs); his pristine white suit, straw hat, and unpopular dreams of fair trade and organic composting seem remarkably Kinski-esque. Secondly, Herzog himself turns up for an in-home tasting, then volunteers the film’s title. Although the word “tea” gets mighty repetitive, and Blank obviously can’t share the experience when Hoffman and other oolong-heads wax profoundly about how their green buds smell and taste (at times coming across like stoners marveling over High Times centerfolds), the film’s quick-and-dirty vérité yields some delightful caught moments, steeped in historical footnotes that only enhance.