Movie Talk

Award Winning Documentary Filmmaker Les Blank Dies At 77

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Les Blank (Charley Gallay/Getty Images)

Les Blank, a documentary filmmaker whose movies beautifully captured the joys of living, has lost his life. Blank died Sunday at his home in Berkley, California after a battle with bladder cancer. He was 77 years old.

Most of Blank's forty-two films focused on music and regional culture, such as "The Blues Accordin' To Lightnin' Hopkins" (a profile of the legendary Texas blues musician) "Hot Pepper" (about zydeco accordion legend Clifton Chenier), "Always For Pleasure" (which focused on the traditions of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Tribes), "In Heaven There Is No Beer?" (concerning a convention for polka music fans), and "J'ai Ete Au Bal" (aka "I Went To The Dance," a history of Cajun music).

"You could call him an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist," said Taylor Hackford, a fan and fellow filmmaker whose credits include "Ray" and "An Officer and a Gentleman." "He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it."

But Blank covered other topics as well. A good friend of filmmaker Werner Herzog, Blank made two films about the idiosyncratic German director. "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" was a witty short subject in which Herzog made good on a bet with filmmaker Erroll Morris by literally eating his shoe before an audience. And "Burden of Dreams" was a fascinating feature length study of the arduous production of Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo," in which Herzog (like the protagonist in his film) struggled to find a way to drag a ship over a mountain. "If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams," Herzog says in the film. "I don’t want to live like that."

Blank also had a taste for good food, as documented in "Yum Yum Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking," and "Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers." For screenings of the later film, Blank would bring along a hot plate or toaster oven and roast some garlic while the movie played, filling the theater will with its heady aroma. And Blank's long time infatuation with gap-toothed women led him to make a film called, naturally, "Gap-Toothed Women."

"If he was interested in gap-toothed women, he’s going to make a film about it," said Harrod Blank, the director's son and a filmmaker himself. "If he wants to make a film about garlic because he loves to eat garlic, he’s going to do it."

Born in Tampa, Florida in 1935, Blank studied English Literature and Fine Arts at Tulane University in New Orleans. After seeing Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" sparked an interest in movies, Blank attended the University of Southern California, where he studied film and theater. Blank founded his own production company, Flower Films, and made his directorial debut with a 1960 short, "Running Around Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off." Blank made occasional documentaries and industrial films to pay the rent before receiving positive reviews for a 1965 film about jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. In 1969, he directed "The Blues Accordin' To Lightnin' Hopkins," which won Best Documentary at the Chicago Film Festival and solidified his reputation as a filmmaker who understood music. Blank would later receive lifetime achievement awards from American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association.

Blank's last release in his lifetime was "All In This Tea," about an American importer searching for the finest tea in China. According to Harrod Blank, Les had two more projects in the works at the time of his death. "Those films just need to be edited," Harrod said. "If he kept living, that would have happened in the next year or two." Blank is survived by his sons Harrod and Beau; his daughter Ferris Robinson; and three grandchildren.

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