The prolific independent filmmaker Les Blank died on April 7, 2013 but somehow that sad news slipped past me. I’m just now reading a host of glowing eulogies and tributes to the man, mostly from fellow filmmakers and critics. He wasn’t ever a household name because his movies rarely received theatrical distribution outside of a few major cities. Unless you happened to catch one on your local PBS station or attended a film festival, which is where most of his work first premiered, there’s a good chance you never even heard of Les Blank. Even though he made more than 40 non-fiction features and shorts, the only Les Blank film you can view on Netflix is Burden of Dreams (1982), his justly famous chronicle of the trouble plagued production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, filmed on location in the Amazon.
But any cinephile knows who he is and I remember my first exposure to him was a review of Chulas Fronteras (1976) in the long-out-of-print Canadian film magazine Take One. Like most of his movies, Chulas Fronteras was an exploration and celebration of a niche culture. In this case, the subject was “The Valley,” that stretch of the Rio Grande that runs along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and the main focus was the music of that region which was a true reflection of the Spanish-speaking inhabitants (many of them migrant workers) who lived there. Whether you call it conjunto or Tex-Mex or musica nortena, the songs and musicians on display in Chulas Fronteras were a revelation to many of us – Flaco Jimenez, Lydia Mendoza, Los Alegres de Teran, Narcisco Martinez, Rumei Fuentes. In fact, music was usually an integral part of Blank’s films and this one, produced by his friend and founder of Arhoolie Records, Chris Strachwitz, was no exception. I caught up with it many years later at a screening at Image Film and Video, a center for independent filmmakers in Atlanta that no longer exists. Blank would be a regular visitor to Image over the years and some of the most popular events were his “smellorama” screenings. Once he cooked up beans and rice in the back of the room while showing Always for Pleasure (1978), his joyous insider look at New Orleans’ rich musical heritage with appearances by such legends as Allen Toussaint and The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Another time he sautéed garlic and olive oil to enhance screenings of his Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980). In addition to his own projects, he also worked as a cinematographer on such captivating and quirky indies as Jean-Pierre Goran’s Poto and Cabengo (1980), Stoney Knows How (1981), Pacho Lane’s look at a master tattoo artist, Leonard ‘Stoney’ St. Clair, and Wild Wheels (1992), a survey of car art directed by Blank’s son, Harrod Blank.
My favorite Blank experience was his appearance at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival where he presented rough cuts of two films he was in the process of completing – Sprout Wings and Fly (1983), his portrait of 82 year old Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, and In Heaven There is No Beer? (1984), an exploration of America’s polka culture. The latter screening occurred on the last night of the festival in the community center (razed long ago) and was followed by a wrap party complete with live polka band and lots of beer. http://moviemorlocks.com/2009/09/05/tiff-1981-flashback/ Another memorable Les Blank encounter was at the 3rd Orphan Film Symposium in 2002, where the filmmaker presented a 16mm print of A Poem is a Naked Person (1974), his suppressed profile of musician Leon Russell which remains unseen to this day due to legal entanglements.
Although he didn’t think of his films as documentaries, that is often how Blank got pigeonholed by reviewers. Some people, though, prefer to think of Blank as an ethnographer and his eye to detail and what to document gives all of his movies a you-are-there intimacy. His longtime editor Maureen Gosling summed it up best in an obit (by Tony Russell) for The Guardian when she called Blank’s movies,”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”.
Certainly Blank was a national treasure even though that honor doesn’t officially exist in the U.S. (It does in Japan). He also never received an Oscar nomination during his lifetime which is another example of the Academy’s on-going tunnel vision. He did, however, receive the prestigious Edward MacDowell medal in 2007 for his achievements in the arts. It was one of the few times the award went to a filmmaker and he joined a not too shabby list of previous winners like Leonard Bernstein, Willa Cather, Aaron Copland, James Baldwin, Studs Terkel and Meredith Monk.
If I had to pick a favorite Les Blank movie, I don’t think I could decide. But for those who have never seen one, I can recommend some places to start. Dry Wood (1973) and Hot Pepper (1973) are wonderful tributes to Zydeco music, with the former a look at black Creole culture in the Louisiana delta and the latter a showcase for Clifton Chenier, the Grammy award winning accordionist. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightning Hopkins (1970) is essential viewing but you could say the same thing about Gap-Toothed Women (1987) or A Well Spent Life (1972), his tribute to Texas guitarist/songwriter/blues musician Mance Lipscomb. The aforementioned Burden of Dreams would make a good double feature with Blank’s short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which the eccentric German director loses a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris and performs the title act. And then there are all of the Les Blank films I haven’t seen and look forward to catching some day. You can see bits and pieces of a lot of Blank’s work on YouTube now; Dizzy Gillespie (1965) in its entirety and bits and pieces of J’ai eye au val (1989), The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969) and others. A much more satisfying option is to visit the official web site – http://www.lesblank.com/ – where all of his films are available for purchase (except that elusive Leon Russell portrait). But Blank’s films were always best experienced with a live audience of fellow aficionados. That was pure lightning in a bottle. Everyone in the room would be groovin’ to Blank’s alchemy. So what we really need is a Les Blank film festival, one where his entire filmography is programmed. Now that would be a fitting tribute to the man.
FYI although Les never received an Oscar nomination, he was a member of the Academy, which tells you what the organization that gives out the Oscars really thought of him — they honored him. The same is true for Steve James, who also never received a nomination but nonetheless is a member of the Academy. It is very rare that anyone who did not get a nomination (in fact one usually needs two nominations, or one win, to be asked to be a member) is invited. So these two filmmakers are especially honored.
Connie, I never knew Blank was an Academy member. I always saw him as a freewheeling independent and never as someone who was considered a player in the Hollywood film industry. At any rate, he didn’t need an Oscar. His films won numerous awards at various film festivals around the world and he will always be revered among filmmakers and cineasts.