A Well Spent Life : Les Blank, In Memoriam

Few documentary filmmakers have worked with the tenacity and ingenuity of Les Blank to explore and document America’s diverse, often little-known cultures. “He has an ear for regional music, from the blues to Tex-Mex and polka; an eye for dancing and food; and a feel for the people who enjoy it all,” BAM/PFA Film Curator Kathy Geritz noted last year. More impressive, even, than his fifty-year career as an independent filmmaker was his unique ability to deftly balance his curiosity about the subjects of his films with a genuine respect and admiration for their lives and work. Audiences in the Bay Area were especially fortunate to have Les Blank in attendance throughout the retrospective of his films that took place last summer at the PFA Theater. The richness of these gatherings, and the discussions that they engendered, is an especially poignant marker of “a well-spent life,” to quote Blank’s 1971 film by the same name. Les Blank passed away on April 7, 2013 at his home in Berkeley at the age of 77.

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Les Blank and Maureen Gosling filming In Heaven There Is No Beer, c. 1984

Winner of numerous national and international awards, including the 1990 American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement as an Independent Filmmaker, Blank made more than forty films over the course of his career ranging from the remarkable The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968) to the well-known Burden of Dreams (1982). Two of his films were selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry—Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Chulas Fronteras (1976)—an honor bestowed on only three other documentary filmmakers to date, Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles.

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Les Blank and extras from the Campa and Machaguenga tribes with the Molly Aida, the steamship that is pulled over a mountain for Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. (Photo: Maureen Gosling)

A local treasure, Blank was the subject of major retrospectives in cities throughout the world, including London (National Film Theater, 1982), Mexico City (Cineteca Nacional, 1984), Paris (Cinematheque Français, 1986), and New York (Museum of Modern Art, 2011). Blank was adjunct assistant professor of film at the University of California, Berkeley (also his undergraduate alma mater) in 1991, where he taught a course in documentary filmmaking, and he was filmmaker-in-residence at both Dartmouth College and San Diego State University.

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Blank studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California during the early 1960s, and quickly developed a singular style of cinematic portraiture. He often focused his camera on musicians, including such well-known figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jiménez, Ry Cooder, and Tommy Jarrell; he also documented the communities from which their music arose, from the Creole of Louisiana to the Norteño along the U.S./Mexican border to the people of Appalachia. Cowboy artists, gap-toothed women, and polka enthusiasts also caught his eye. Blank’s films overflowed with life—and on special occasions, into the theater itself, with such innovations as “aromaround,” where food was cooked in the exhibition space during screenings to further activate the film viewer’s senses. The recent BAM/PFA film series celebrated this multisensory experience with garlic roasting during the screening of Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, a Creole dinner at Babette Cafe before the screening of Always for Pleasure (1978), and a special tea tasting with tea importer David Lee Hoffman following the screening of All in This Tea (2007).

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Les Blank’s instructions for SmellaRound

Each of the screenings in the ten-program tribute featured discussions with Blank, often with his longstanding collaborator, filmmaker Maureen Gosling, as well as with numerous special guests, including Chris Simon, Chris Strachwitz, and Gerald Gaxiola. These were recorded along with Blank’s Behind-the-Scenes lecture on cinematography, and are stored in the PFA Library & Film Study Center’s audio archive alongside interviews with visiting filmmakers, critics, and scholars from the past forty years. Excerpts from Blank’s visits to the PFA Theater last summer have been assembled into a twenty-minute audio compilation. Here, he discusses his interest in filmmaking and the development of his aesthetic sensibility. Using anecdotes both poignant and humorous, Blank describes the way he learned to respond with sensitivity towards his subjects while filming The Blues According to Lightin’ Hopkins. He describes some of the challenges of being an independent filmmaker, as well as the chance encounter that led to A Well Spent Life (1971). Finally, Blank tells the story of meeting tea importer David Lee Hoffman, and how this led to his first digital film project, All In This Tea. You can listen to the audio compilation here: http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/media/LesBlank_withIntro.mp3

As part of the 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival, the PFA Theater will present three of Blank’s newly restored 16mm films on Saturday, May 4. The program features the West Coast premiere of the restoration of Spend It All, a 1971 documentary celebrating Cajun food, music, and culture, and world premieres of the rarely seen Chicken Real (1970) and Christopher Tree (a.k.a. Spontaneous Sound (1972).

The PFA series, Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank, was organized by Film Curator Kathy Geritz and Curatorial Interns Hila Abraham and Madeline Horn, and was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. It took place between July 8 and August 30, 2012. The film notes can be found at http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/filmseries/blank

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Les Blank with BAM/PFA Curatorial Interns Madeline Horne and Hila Abraham, summer 2012