Les Blank, on the eve of his 75th birthday, is still creating vital documentary work.

Essential SF: Les Blank

Michael Fox November 6, 2010

It’s impossible to name another documentary filmmaker who has consistently provided audiences with as much pleasure, poignancy and pure joie de vivre as Les Blank. In an iconoclastic career that’s spanned half a century and nearly 35 films, the soft-spoken East Bay dynamo has established himself as the preeminent chronicler of indigenous American music and culture. His work has received numerous national PBS broadcasts and garnered a shelf of awards, all the more remarkable given that sober social-issue documentaries get most of the respect and attention in our culture.

[Editor’s note: Blank will join fellow Essential SF honoree Rick Prelinger in a program of clips and conversation Sunday, November 7 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie as part of the annual Cinema by the Bay festival. Blank is honored along with other vital Bay Area film luminaries and institutions in SF360 Presents Essential SF November 8 at the Lab. More at vital Bay Area film luminaries and institutions in SF360 Presents Essential SF November 8 at the Lab. More at]

Such fascinating and valuable works as The Blues Accordin’ to Lighnin’ Hopkins, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and Burden of Dreams illustrate Blank’s rare knack for capturing and revealing the heart, and the soul, of his subjects. He knows how to be invisible and when to draw close, when to downplay his personality and when to assert it. All in the service of taking audiences to places they couldn’t go on their own. Fittingly, the Tampa native’s own route was anything but mapped out.

“During a particularly turbulent period in my early ’20s when I was a grad school drop-out, unrecognized writer, divorced father and unable to find a job, I discovered Ingmar Bergman,” he writes on his Web site. “The Seventh Seal suddenly showed me that as morbid and depressed as I had become, I could be a whole lot worse off. It was as though open soul surgery had been performed and the operation was a success. I left the theater absolutely elated and decided to somehow get myself into film.”

He enrolled in USC’s graduate film program, staying on in Los Angeles for several years afterward to work on his own films as well as those of other folks. One of those latter projects entailed going to Louisiana with a couple of actors and would-be filmmakers named Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

“I got fired after the first week,” Blank recalled. “The whole crew got fired. The producers saw where the film was going, and didn’t like that direction. The whole thing was a gamble. They gave them $50,000 to shoot for a week and see how it looked—it became the New Orleans sequence. [The producers said,] ‘It might work, but we can’t use these hippie, non-union filmmakers.’ And we didn’t get screen credit. But if you listen to the commentary track on the DVD, you’ll hear Dennis Hopper mention that I was there. That’s the only proof I have.”

The film, of course, is Easy Rider. But that was hardly Blank’s first and best chance at a film career. He’d already made a couple of short documentaries, including the wonderfully titled God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance. But he was at low ebb personally, and to salve his spirits he spent hours listening to the blues. One night, Blank approached visiting bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins backstage and pitched the idea of going to Texas with him and shooting a documentary. That six-week, roller-coaster shoot resulted in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, although not without further queasy moments back on Blank’s home turf.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins came out to Los Angeles when I was editing away,” Blank remembers with perfect clarity. “There’s an incredible sequence that occurs at the end of the film where’s he’s playing blues and he’s improvising on the spot. His wife just left him, and it’s 3 or 4 in the morning and he’s singing an incredible blues song that he was making up on the spot.”

Hopkins was watching a rough cut, and wasted no time speaking up.  “You gotta cut that out. My hair’s all messed up.” Blank recalled, “He didn’t like that image of himself. I had to struggle with my filmmaking conscience. Do I be true to him or true to me? I chose the latter.”

Well, eventually Blank had to show Hopkins the finished film. “I held my breath and turned the projector on,” he said. Unexpectedly, Hopkins was overtaken with emotion by a scene of his cousin, who had recently died. Gratified that his kinsman was immortalized on film, the bluesman said nary a word about the sequence that had previously bothered him.

One more detail about that rough cut, bringing it all back home: Hopper and Fonda invited Blank to show it at Columbia Pictures.

The secret of Blank’s success, or one of them, is his ability to get people to not perform for the camera. That’s no mean trick, especially when you’re shooting musicians, whose stock in trade is performing.

“Someone always asks, ‘How do you get people to act so relaxed and be themselves around you?’ And I have no good answers. I make things up as I go along. This is what I’m looking for and I try not to shoot until it comes along.  If people act nervous or self-conscious, I just cut it out of the film. What you have left, I like to think, is the real thing—or real enough to serve the purpose of the film I’m making.

“In a few of the cases,” Blank continued, “where the subject liked their liquor, I found it easy to find a pretty quick camaraderie with them, because I like to take a drink now and then myself. I can’t say that’s a rule. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Tommy Jarrell (Sprout Wings and Fly, 1983 and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge, 1994), a former moonshiner, he likes his liquor. We stayed in his house. We would have a drink before we went to bed. And a lot of the Cajuns like their beer.”

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than breaking down people’s natural inhibitions with a bottle of 80 proof. Blank is happy to elaborate.

“I don’t come in with a wall of separation that a lot of filmmakers bring to a shoot. They’re looking with icy, stony eyes at the lighting, and the cameraman is looking at focus and movement. ‘How do I shoot this scene to make it conform to my preconceived idea of what the I think the film is about?’ I’m my own cameraman, at least I have been until very recently. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m making the film because something about the subject interests me. I’m floating around trying to alight somewhere. Sometimes it’s not what the person who brought me there had in mind.”

So does Blank know what’s he looking for, as he said 30 seconds earlier, or not? I think the answer can be deduced from his films, which combine an endearing spontaneity with astute compositions. Loose without being sloppy, in control but on the verge of combustion, Blank’s films have energy, color, individualism and—you can’t help but notice—a resolute aura of professionalism.

Blank’s work has been narrowly defined as ethnography in some circles, which he finds alternately annoying and amusing. The antithesis of a curmudgeon, the filmmaker, as vital as ever on the eve of his 75th birthday, holds strong opinions about his films, yet keeps an open mind about how to improve them. Consider this anecdote.

“Anthropologists don’t like my arty aspect,” he begins. “They say, ‘There’s no place for art in a good ethnographic film.’ Alan Lomax [the musicologist and son of the groundbreaking folklorist John Lomax, Sr.] said I should just fix the camera in the wide-angle position, put it down and walk away. After the party when I showed Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers as a work in progress at a New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1979, we rode the elevator down. I was all self-satisfied thinking I had a smash hit. What I almost had was a smash hit from Mr. Folklore. He wanted to punch me in the nose. I showed people dancing at Chez Panisse and having fun with garlic. The salt of the earth, the poor and the desperate, garlic was a main ingredient in their diets, and he said I was completely ignorant of all this in how I put my film together.”

The punch line? “After I got over my rage, I went out and started shooting the kind of people he was describing.”

Coincidentally, NYMOMA is hosting another Blank retrospective in June, 2011. Blank’s other honors includes the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for independent filmmaking in 1990, and the selection of Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers and Chulas Fronteras by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry (in 1993 and 2004, respectively). Burden of Dreams, his jaw-dropping portrait of Werner Herzog making Fitzcarraldo, won the British Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and the SFIFF’s Golden Gate Award for best of festival in 1982.

Blank has several projects in various stages, notably his many-years-in-production portrait of direct-cinema pioneer Richard Leacock (Primary, Crisis), who turns 90 in 2011. Another work in progress, with 13 years of shooting invested to date, centers on Alabama outsider artist Butch Anthony and his girlfriend, who’s not only the mother of his child but a respected fashion designer committed to working with local traditions of design and craftsmanship. Blank is also collaborating with his longtime former editor, Maureen Gosling, on a series of music videos for Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo.

If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite, Blank holds out hope that two of his vintage, little-seen music–themed docs will yet get wide exposure.  Leon Russell, the subject of A Poem Is a Naked Person (1974), approved the final cut but took ownership after the doc played a single festival. It’s never been released, although Blank has a 16mm print he can screen at nonprofit venues if he’s in attendance. Ry Cooder and the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces (1988) screened at a German festival before Cooder and Warner Bros. shelved it.

You get the idea that Les Blank could write a helluva book, packed with bizarre anecdotes, colorful acquaintances and unpredictable twists. As it happens, Gina Leibrecht, who collaborated with him on All in This Tea (2007) and other projects, is working on a documentary about the man. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 13 years.

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