Les Blank’s movies are not cool. They’re joyful, occasionally soulful films that often focus on how members of different American subcultures like to party. But his subjects aren’t concerned enough with how the outside world sees them to qualify as hip. (Even Blank’s Werner Herzog documentaries came long before Herzog became a fashionable pop-culture reference.) That’s especially true of In Heaven There Is No Beer?, Blank and his frequent collaborator Maureen Gosling’s 1984 film about the (predominantly) Polish-American polka community (participants point out that German and Czech polka communities exist as well).
While middle-aged white people in polo shirts might not be the most exotic subjects, Blank doesn’t discriminate. All he asks of his subjects is passion, and the polkaholics in In Heaven There Is No Beer? have plenty of that. An ex-coal-miner says he works every day of the year except for the 11 days he attends the Polkabration festival, and one man claims that young people in his community don’t need to do drugs because they’re high on polka (beer is a beverage, not a drug, he explains). Not even a detour into the history of Polish immigration in America—rather unusual for Blank, who preferred impressionistic montages to talking-heads narration—can dampen the celebratory mood.
Blank was known for taking years to complete his films, a habit that was absolutely necessary to complete the subtle, sensitive collages of images—birds fluttering over a working-class neighborhood, a woman’s hands breaking down a chicken, a man’s torso in an “I’m A Polka Pal” T-shirt—that he and Gosling assembled for each scene. Juxtaposed with audio interviews, concert footage, and lots of polka tunes, these little details reveal cultural nuances that straightforward music documentaries miss.
Blank’s artistry and contagious enthusiasm led In Heaven There Is No Beer? to a Special Jury Recognition Documentary prize at the second Sundance Film Festival in 1985, but the film has gained a new layer of meaning in the 30 years since. Commentators have been decrying the death of “social capital” in American culture since the late ’90s, and the way of life depicted in In Heaven There Is No Beer?, based around church and factory and family, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. (The film’s emphasis on white ethnic identity—one interviewee says polka crosses all cultural barriers, why, sometimes Irish and Italians show up for dances!—appears similarly antiquated.) Blank’s film is a form of ethnography in the WPA Folklore Project tradition, documenting this then-thriving subculture with the same loving care he used to tell the story of The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In Heaven There Is No Beer? ends on a hopeful note. Although an older musician says he’s done trying to “convert” people, young polka dancers describe the feelings of belonging and community they receive from participating in the culture. One reveals that she sometimes daydreams about bringing a boom box to the beach and playing polka cassettes for her peers. “I know they’d like it,” she says. She may not have been correct—“Weird” Al Yankovic is currently the only chart-topping accordion player, and the revived Polkabration, now called the Ocean Beach Park Polka Days, lasts for four days instead of 11. But the lyrics of the title song express a sentiment that crosses many boundaries: “In heaven there is no beer / That’s why we drink it here / And when we’re gone from here / All our friends will be drinking all that beer.”
Availability: In Heaven There Is No Beer? is not part of the Criterion Collection on Hulu, but it is available on Criterion’s Les Blank: Always For Pleasure DVD/Blu-ray release.