R.I.P. Les Blank: Five Highlights From the Career of a Great Documentarian

Categories: Film

Les-Blank_Photo_Brown_300.jpg
Harrod Blank
Les Blank, R.I.P.
The rich lore of Les Blank includes a story he told about dropping out of grad school at UC Berkeley, feeling aimless for a while, then seeing Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and being steered away, last-minute, from a military life. He wound up making films instead, mostly nonfiction. That seemed like a better fit -- more suited to Blank's mildness of manner, and his penchant for the gentle ecstasies of observation.

Blank, 77, expired from cancer on Sunday in his home in Berkeley, where he lived for many years and there's a day named after him. But his dozens of movies seem unlikely ever to die. These are films from a time before subcultures succumbed to monoculture; before everybody's teeth got fixed and pictures got digitized and color-corrected to death; before narration came at you in twenty different know-it-all ways, leeching the wonder out of everything.

Blank ranged eagerly across a vast swath of Americana, more interested in affirmations than agitations. He put out movies like hand-made nourishments, many of them seemingly done as larks, and somehow all the more lasting for it. He was more inclined to call them movies about real people than documentaries. Here are a few worth tracking down.

God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968)
By turns raucous and ruminative, Blank's look at the L.A. Easter-Sunday Love-In of 1967 seems in retrospect like a formative moment for flower children everywhere -- complete with hand-in-hand hippies unwittingly approximating the Danse Macabre at the end of The Seventh Seal!


The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1969)
Hopkins defines the blues thusly: "Something that's hard to get acquainted with, just like death." Blank's half-hour hangout with the Texas bluesman, one of the filmmaker's many works of music appreciation, reveals how merciless life can be -- and how beautiful in spite of itself. Hence the grand simplicity of the film's final shot, a gliding pan across a barbed-wire fence, gradually permeated with blossoms.


Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)
As a way of prodding Errol Morris to finish Gates of Heaven, Herzog finds himself honor-bound to chow down on his own footwear. With Blank slyly looking on, here Herzog is at Chez Panisse, stuffing whole heads of garlic into ratty leather boots, boiling them in duckfat with a few sprigs of rosemary, and readying himself for a public feast. "You can have the same experience every single day," he then tells the gathered crowd. "You just drop in at a Kentucky Fried Chicken."


Burden of Dreams (1982)
Now cut to Herzog losing his mind in the Amazon jungle: "The trees here are in misery. The birds are in misery. I don't think they sing; they just screech in pain...." The best-known of Blank's films, and one of the best-ever movies about moviemaking, this full-length feature finds Herzog at work on his own film Fitzcarraldo, both a tale and a product of probably-insane human ambition. Blank has some heavy stuff on his hands, but never a heavy hand. (Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.)


Gap-Toothed Women (1987)
As advertised, a group portrait of women with parted incisors. These include Lauren Hutton, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Chaucer's Wife of Bath, among many others. With unabashed affection, and without patronizing, Blank carries on a lively conversation about beauty standards and female self-esteem -- whimsically subverting the talking-heads style of documentary to boot.


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