February 13, 2014

Les Blank Honored at SCA

The sons of the legendary Trojan Documentarian discuss his life and work

Dr. Michael Renov, Harrod Blank and Beau Blank

Trojan Les Blank changed the face of documentary filmmaking with his films about music, food and all the other ways that human beings, especially marginalized Americans, express themselves. On February 11th the School of Cinematic Arts hosted a screening of three of Blank’s early films, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), Spend It All (1971) and his student film, Running Around Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off (1960). The screening was followed by a discussion, led by SCA Vice Dean Michael Renov, with Blank’s sons Harrod, who is also a documentary filmmaker, and Beau. Blank, who attended the School of Cinematic Arts in the 1960s, passed away on April 7, 2013.

“I can remember many times having Les down to campus when he was alive,” Renov told the audience. “He wasn’t a man of many words but he was a man of many sounds and images. When you start showing Les’ films, you don’t want to stop. Les has an incredible place in the history of documentary.”

Blanks’ films included Garlic Is Good As Ten Mothers (1980), Innocents Abroad (1991), All in this Tea (2007) and thirty four other films where he is credited as director. He profiled Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian and Serbian-American music and food traditions, Afro-Cuban drummers, Texas bluesmen, Appalachian fiddlers, flower children, garlic and gap-toothed women. Many of his films were profiles of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ry Cooder and, most famously the acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog. Blank’s best-known feature, Burden of Dreams, is about the making of Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo and its chaotic production, set in a South-American jungle. With Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), Black chronicled Herzog following through on a promise to eat his shoe if filmmaker Errol Morris ever completed his documentary Gates of Heaven (1978).

“When I watch [Les Blank’s] films, I can’t help but feel like they are his language,” said Harrod Blank. “He wasn’t the type to talk but when you see these images and hear this music. It’s hard not to feel like these are his voice.”

SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley said Les Blank was “An American original” who was able to accurately capture his subjects’ passion because, with his filmmaking, he himself was engaged in pursuing a passion. “He added his voice to theirs and the result was extraordinary.”

Blank began his career making industrial films and never considered himself a documentarian. In 1967, Blank formed his own production company Flower Films. Criterion will be releasing fourteen of his films later this year. Harrod and Beau Blank say they plan to release more of his films and many of some 5,000 photographs he took during his travels.

Blank’s legacy is in capturing the lives of many ordinary people and extraordinary artists whose cultures and lifestyles were largely undocumented before he turned his camera on them.

Renov said Blank’s choice of subjects reveal his own love of life, art and culture, especially food. “These people are living their lives,” said Renov. “The films are about what sustains them. They dance. They move. They sing. They do all of these wonderful things and, of course they ate. His attention to detail is so loving. His amount of care that he gives to food is incredible. He was years ahead of the Food Network.”