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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Les Blank (1935-2013)

Sunday, April 7, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Sharon R. Sherman — 

Les Blank, born in Tampa, Florida, in 1935, passed away in April at his home in Berkeley, California, at the age of 77.  Almost all folklorists know about his beautiful, often lyrical films that document traditional artists, regional celebrations, and such forms of folklore as polka, foodways, and music.  He made more than twenty-five films, most of them on folklore topics.  Les was, I believe, the most widely known and acclaimed of all makers of American folkloric films and he had a great influence on the development of film as a significant part of our discipline.

Les went to school at Tulane where he received a B.A in English literature and an M.F.A. in Theater Arts.  He later attended USC where he studied filmmaking, after which he worked for a company making industrial films. In 1967, he created his own company, Flower Films.  In an interview, I asked him how his first film came about. Using a borrowed camera, Blank shot a piece on the first love-ins in Los Angeles.  The local PBS station liked it and agreed to finance a longer film on the huge 1967 Easter Love-in, G-d Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968).  The station allowed Blank to keep the negative.  Soon, one project led to another, and Les made two films about Lightnin’ Hopkins:

 “I got the negative and recut it and scored it with a psychedelic rock band in L.A., and it was fine and fulfilling and gratifying and it was placed in a lot of festivals.  Almost at the same time, Lightnin' Hopkins came through Los Angeles.” 

The films of Les Blank often have a kaleidoscopic feel.  In his community-oriented films, Les sometimes bombards the viewer with an abundance of scenes in which he often explores the lives of regional musicians, using sync sound in addition to the voices of those filmed, giving his films a verite quality. For example, Spend It All (1970), Blank's first film on Cajun musicians of the Louisiana Bayou, features the Balfa Brothers, Nathan Abshire, and Marc Savoy.  In Chulas Fronteras [Beautiful Borders] (1976), Blank once again investigates regional music.  As with the Cajun film series, he uses subtitles to translate any non-English conversations and song titles.  Blank used the same approach for his companion films, Dry Wood (1973) and Hot Pepper (1973).  The first features accordion music by "Bois Sec" Ardoin, his sons, and fiddler Canray Fontenot; the second is about Zydeco accordion king Clifton Chenier. Dry Wood and Hot Pepper were partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Chulas Fronteras was produced by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, well known for his recordings of folk music.  He became fascinated with the Norteña musical traditions of Tejano (Texas-Mexican) performers and issued recordings of some of the more established musicians in the border region.  Strachwitz then teamed with Blank to make the film.  Blank ‘s editing room and production areas were in a small space above Arhoolie Records and the music was available and inspirational for both men.

Mexican music, as well as Cajun, French, Flamenco, Italian, and Moroccan fill the soundtrack of Les Blank's tribute to garlic, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980).  Blank takes the viewer on a gastronomic tour of people bound together by their love of garlic--from growing it, to harvesting and processing it, to preparing, serving, eating, and ultimately celebrating it.           

Each of Blank’s films tells a story.  In Heaven There Is No Beer, Blank provides a functional analysis of polka as celebration and its role in building a sense of community.  Many of the artists Blank documented, such as Clifton Chenier, Mance Lipscomb, and American fiddler Tommy Jarrell, are now gone but their music, both heard and seen, endure in Blank’s work.

Folklorists often refer to star informants. And Marc Savoy emerges as one for Blank. Yum, Yum, Yum (1990), makes us feel like insiders to Cajun culture, and Marc and Ann (1991) places us in their family. Savoy, who talks about cooking and playing the accordion, reinforces the idea of tradition.  Savoy states that he is not opposed to changing recipes or songs but "if you really love it, you're going to try to do it just like the person you heard it or tasted it.  You'll do it, just like it.  To me, when you really love something for what it is, you leave it alone."  Savoy is more than aware of his role as a "tradition bearer," having appeared in so many of Blank's films, played at folk festivals, and become known outside his small town of Eunice, Louisiana, as a result of such filmic exposure.  Blank’s voice is heard on the sound track that pulls us inside and breaks down the “fourth wall.”  In some of his films, we catch a quick glance at Blank:


For Always for Pleasure [1978] I was in New Orleans at an AFS meeting, and they announced that there would be a jazz parade that people could follow if they wanted.  And no one came, except me, and two or three others.  And I found it curious that right here . . . they could see one of the most genuine, rich, cultural traditions in New Orleans and no one bothered.  But while watching this jazz parade as a second-liner and dancing along behind the band, I felt this would be a fun film to make.

When I asked Les, "Are a lot of the films, in a sense, about you?" he replied,

"I shoot generally what I'm interested in.  And if I like someone I'll put them in a film; if I like what they're doing, I'll shoot them doing it.  And sometimes people say things that I agree with, and I'm more inclined to put that in the film than people saying something that I don't agree with."

Burden of Dreams (1982), perhaps Blank's most well known film, finds him documenting the making of Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo (1982).  Herzog becomes an obsessed filmmaker shooting the tale of an obsessed man attempting to have a 30-ton steamship dragged up and over a mountain.  Despite tropical weather changes, fights with the film crew and with film star Klaus Kinski, Herzog is as determined as the hero of his film.  Blank’s film allows us to see "behind" what we normally do not.  It is essentially a film about a filmmaker. The film won the 1983 British Academy Award for Best Documentary as well as the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Among his many awards, Les Blank has been honored with the Maya Deren Lifetime Achievement Award for independent filmmaking from the American Film Institute, a Guggenheim, and the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal in the Arts. He had just won the 2013 Outstanding Achievement Award at the Toronto “Hot Docs” International Documentary festival.  Les is survived by his sons, Harrod Blank (a documentary filmmaker) and Beau Blank, daughter Ferris Robinson, three grandchildren, and by his former wife and co-producer Chris Simon, an independent filmmaker and folklorist. 

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