“Les Blank, whose sly, sensuous and lyrical documentaries about regional music and a host of other idiosyncratic subjects, including Mardi Gras, gaptoothed women, garlic and the filmmaker Werner Herzog, were widely admired by critics and other filmmakers if not widely known by moviegoers, died on Sunday at his home in Berkeley, Calif.,” reports Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Blank, who was 77, made films that are “hardly standard documentary fare, dominated by archival footage and interviews with talking heads; nor are they of the Frederick Wiseman-D. A. Pennebaker fly-on-the-wall exposé school. Rather, the films, most of them under an hour in length, are ‘brilliantly sympathetic, well-crafted essays,’ as John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times in 1979, rife with deftly framed portraiture, cunningly observed social scenes, beautiful nature photography and the poetic juxtaposition of imagery and sound.”
“Over a span of 40 years, Mr. Blank averaged a film a year,” notes Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle. “He covered topics ranging from Afro-Cuban drummers to Appalachian fiddlers to flower children to a search for the perfect tea leaf in China. One work, 1980’s Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, was screened accompanied by an in-theater roaster, introducing the phenomenon of ‘Aromaround’ to theater audiences. ‘Les Blank represents the choicest inspiration that a documentarian can have. He followed his interest and his heart and his passion,’ said Taylor Hackford, president of the Directors Guild of America, who met Blank back when he was living in a garden shed behind a Hollywood bungalow…. Mr. Blank was the first documentary filmmaker to earn the Edward MacDowell Medal, a national honor given to just one artist a year. He was also awarded the American Film Institute Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker. He was recently celebrated at the ‘Les Fest,’ and on Jan. 22 he was honored at Les Blank Day in Berkeley, where he lived for more than 30 years.”
“The prolific helmer profiled music personalities and delved into dozens of American and immigrant traditions, including Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian and Serbian-American music and food,” writes Variety‘s Pat Saperstein. “But his best known film was 1982’s Burden of Dreams, which chronicled the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, candidly showing the German helmer’s obsessive quest to shoot the film the South American jungle. A few years earlier, Blank had taken on another curious Herzog project: Herzog wanted to encourage his student Errol Morris to finish his film about pet cemeteries, and said he would eat his shoe if Morris finished it. Herzog kept his promise when Gates of Heaven wrapped in 1978, boiling his leather desert boot in duck fat and stuffing them with garlic at Chez Panisse, then eating some of it onstage at a local theater. Blank filmed the stunt for a 20-minute short called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.”
In 2005, Paul Arthur wrote of Burden of Dreams for Criterion: “Unlike either Herzog or Flaherty, Blank clearly prefers the rhythms of collective effort, of sensuous community, over Eurocentric ideals of heroic individualism. In essence, he has crafted a film about the interaction of premodern tribal existence with European modernity, epitomized by a movie narrative about the invidious clash of brute nature and a singular ego bent on his own, ultimately delusional, mission of cultural enlightenment.”
“A great American has died,” tweets Miriam Bale. “It feels like ten or twenty men have died, he had so much vitality, such a daily love of life.”
Updates: At the Alt Film Guide, Andre Soares lists a few more awards: a BAFTA for Burden of Dreams, the Chicago Film Festival Award for The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for In Heaven There Is No Beer?, and and the International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award in 2011.
“Blank’s most recent film, All in This Tea (2007), is a feature documentary following tea specialist David Lee Hoffman to the most remote regions of China in search of the perfect leaf,” notes Gary Meyer at Thompson on Hollywood. “Hoffman single-handedly opens the government’s eyes to the value of their own tradition, ensuring the survival of small, artisanal growers.”
Rodrigo Perez collects clips for the Playlist.
Updates, 4/8: In 1982, Joe Leydon went to the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time. There, he met—and interviewed—Les Blank.
“Blank was known for pairing an artist’s eye with an ethnologist’s discipline, presenting his findings in intimate, loose films that featured scant narration and allowed his subjects to speak for themselves.” Christine Mai-Duc in the Los Angeles Times: “Blank’s body of work landed him major retrospectives globally, and in 2011 his films were showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two of them, Chulas Fronteras and Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, were chosen for the National Film Registry…. His first widely recognized film, a profile of famed Texas bluesman Lightning Hopkins, was released in 1968. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightning Hopkins was filmed in classic Les Blank style: The blues, laid over scenes of an all-black rodeo and barefoot children in rural Texas, took the place of a traditional narrator, and the juxtaposition of raw music and intimate close-ups of the region’s inhabitants verged on art.”
Updates, 4/9: Blank was “King of the Folkie Filmmakers, a professional Stranger in Paradise, the ramshackle poet laureate of a lost American gemeinschaft,” writes J. Hoberman for Artinfo. “His oeuvre embodies the American pastoral with more consistency and a deeper nostalgia than that of any filmmaker since John Ford.”
Here’s another, from Criterion: Herzog on Blank in 2005:
Update, 4/11: Betsy McLane‘s profile of Blank, obviously written before he passed away, has appeared in the new issue of DGA Quarterly. She notes that his body of work “is considered one of the finest celebrations of American life and culture ever captured on film…. When asked where his interest in what some would consider odd subcultures comes from, Blank answers with his typical unassuming humor. ‘Probably laziness,’ he says. ‘Curiosity.'”
Update, 4/12: Let me recommend Robert Sullivan‘s remembrance, written for the New Yorker: “Blank, who will be honored at an upcoming festival in Toronto, was known to take forever to edit a film, and nearly all three dozen of them are like collages, or quilts, with patiently gathered scenes that are stitched together with humor that ultimately has quite serious ends—stitched together by someone who was maybe never satisfied and a little cranky (good things for us). When an interviewer asked Blank if he was happy not too long ago, he demurred. ‘I wouldn’t define myself as that,’ he said. ‘I’m happier than I would be if I’d done many other things that were offered to me to do.'”
Updates, 4/13: Ronald Bergan suggests that “one could argue that Burden of Dreams is more interesting and perceptive than the long haul of Fitzcarraldo.”
Also in the Guardian, Tony Russell: “His longtime sound recordist and editor Maureen Gosling describes his films as
‘celebrations—looking at the way people survive in their lives above and beyond the struggles. [Many] of his films are about people that are poor, marginal or struggling, but there’s something else going on there … the other human qualities that make life worth living, the music and the food that help these groups and cultures survive.'”
Update, 4/16: “Blank matched the multiculturalism of great public television with the art of verité documentary, producing films that spread an infectious and unbounded joyfulness,” writes Daniel Walber at Film.com. “His is a joviality of wholesomeness…. Blank’s communities always seem full of vitality, feeding off of the collaborative activities of food and music to build something truly positive. His is a joy that excludes no one, and makes our society better for it.”
Update, 4/29: The two tributes to Blank at Hot Docs and the San Francisco International Film Festival make “a strong case for considering him alongside the heavyweights of American documentary,” argues Max Goldberg in Cinema Scope. “Frederick Wiseman makes for an especially intriguing point of comparison to Blank: both filmmakers developed a consistent enough approach in style and subject as to make their numerous works seem kaleidoscopic pieces of a single chronicle of American life (Blank’s would be a roiling picaresque); both formed their own distribution companies; both emerged from the verité generation with a seemingly inexhaustible interest in observing the individual in his or her social context. Their films present contrasting pictures of what constitutes that common society, however, with Wiseman preoccupied with the institutional structures that are anathema to Blank’s freewheeling portraits. Tempting as it is to read their respective works as polarized expressions of 1960s consciousness—structuralist critique on the one hand, a kind of utopic pastoral strain on the other—both filmmakers transcended these familiar frameworks by dint of genuine curiosity and an unstinting work ethic.”
Update, 5/3: Tomorrow, Saturday, May 4, the Pacific Film Archive will present three of Blank’s newly restored 16mm films: the West Coast premiere of the restoration of Spend It All, a 1971 documentary celebrating Cajun food, music, and culture, and world premieres of the rarely seen Chicken Real (1970) and Christopher Tree (a.k.a. Spontaneous Sound ). Among the documents and recollections posted to the PFA’s blook: Blank’s instructions for setting up SmellaRound.