R.I.P. Les Blank

Filmmaker Les Blank has died of bladder cancer, at the age of 77. Blank graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans before moving west and devoting his life to documenting the pleasures of life. He spent most of his long career making movies about music or food, though his best-known work may have been Burden Of Dreams (1982), a making-of documentary that helped shaped the public image of another maverick filmmaker, Werner Herzog.

Blank was adrift in his early twenties when he saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and decided to dedicate himself to the art of film. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California. Instead of getting his degree, he wound up taking jobs working on industrial films, which gave him the practical education (and access to equipment) he needed to start making his own movies. After setting up his own production company, Flower Films, Blank turned out documentaries on such artists as Lightnin’ Hopkins (The Blues According To Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1970), Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life, 1971), Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper, 1973), and Leon Russell (subject of Blank’s first feature-length film, 1974’s A Poem Is A Naked Person.)

In 1976, Blank joined forces with Chris Strachwitz, founder of the regional music label Arhoolie Records, to form Brazos Films. Under that banner, he made the Tex-Mex film Chulas Fronteras, (1976), Del Mero Corazon (1979), and J’ai ‘Ete’ Au Bal (1989), a tribute to Cajun culture and zydeco music that he co-directed with Strachwitz. He also directed the Mardi Gras film Always For Pleasure (1978) and the self-explanatory Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980).

Blank first trained his camera on his friend and colleague Werner Herzog in the 20-minute Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which Herzog did just that: ate his shoe to settle a bet with Errol Morris, who won by completing his first film, Gates Of Heaven. (In keeping with the culinary bent of much of Blank’s work, Alice Waters pitched in to help prepare Herzog’s shoe with garlic and oregano.)

Two years later, Burden Of Dreams, Blank’s record of the grueling production on Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, opened almost simultaneously with Herzog’s movie. Blank’s film (which some reviewers preferred to Herzog’s) created a lasting portrait of Herzog as a sardonic, obsessive auteur, holding forth on nature and its discontents in the thick of the Peruvian jungle.

The success of Dreams elevated Blank’s profile enough to help his other films gain exposure through festivals, public and cable television, and home video. His later work included In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984), about polka culture; Gap-Toothed Women (1987), an ode to an erotic obsession featuring interviews with subjects like Lauren Hutton, underground cartoonist Dori Seda, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; the 1988 concert documentary Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces (1988); Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste Of Cajun And Creole Cooking (1990); Innocents Abroad (1991); and his final completed film, All In This Tea (2007).

His son, Harrol Blank—a documentary filmmaker best known for his movies about art-car culture, Wild Wheels (1992) and Automorphosis (2009)—tells the San Francisco Chronicle that his father was working on two projects at the time of his death, and that “those films just need to be edited.” Blank’s legacy and approach to life can be summed up in the title of one of his earliest films: God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance.