Les Blank

Les Is More

Man with a Movie Camera: Les Blank has spent the past three decades making acclaimed documentaries.

Samantha Dunscombe

Director Les Blank films artists, musicians, and shoe eaters

By Zack Stentz

LES BLANK HAS captured some pretty peculiar things on film. After all, this is the guy who, in his 35 years of film work, has taken the art of the documentary to new heights by bringing his camera to bear on everything from East Coast polka fanatics (In Heaven There Is No Beer?) to Cajun musicians and cooks (Always for Pleasure) to lovers of the stinky rose (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers), deftly mixing music, food, and ethnography together in a style so natural that the viewer feels more like a participant than an observer.

Speaking on the phone from his El Cerrito home, Blank is polite, friendly, soft-spoken–just the sort of person one would imagine slipping easily into the cultural inner sanctums of various ethnic and social subcultures with his trusty 16mm camera in hand. His serious, non-judgmental voice never slips, even when describing the time he filmed eccentric German director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Every Man for Himself and God Against All) eating his shoe in front of an audience at the University of California theater. “Werner Herzog had been talking to a UC Berkeley student named Errol Morris,” Blank explains, “who had up until then been a failure at everything he had tried–being a mathematician, a writer, a cello player–and Werner said, ‘Since you’ve failed at everything in life, you have the perfect makings to be a filmmaker.’

“But Errol protested that he had no experience, or friends in film, or money, and Werner told him that you don’t need money, you need guts to be a filmmaker. He said that if Errol succeeded in making a film that was shown at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, he would come back and eat his shoe.”

Thus motivated, Morris scraped together the resources to make Gates of Heaven, a quirky documentary about the moving of a Bay Area pet cemetery. And true to his word, Herzog came back and ate his own boot, cooked in duck fat by none other than Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters while Blank filmed the proceedings. “I tried a little piece myself, washed down with bread, garlic, and beer,” says Blank. “It was awful.”

Morris went on to become the acclaimed maker of The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and other non-fiction features, and Blank’s own association with Herzog would yield yet more bounty. In 1982, Blank followed Herzog to the Amazon jungle to document the making of Fitzcarraldo. The end product, Burden of Dreams–a film about an obsessive director making a film about an obsessive man–became Blank’s best-known film, garnering more praise in some quarters than Herzog’s own movie. “I’ve heard that,” says Blank. “And if I did make a better film, it’s only because I had better subject matter. Werner Herzog was a far more fascinating character than any fictional person he could shoot.”

Given Blank’s interest in the extremes of the creative urge, it’s only appropriate that the Sonoma Film Institute will be showing two films on the subject: Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella and The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists. “They’re both about non-compromising artists,” he says of the two works. “The Maestro is a man who makes art for the love of creating it and isn’t bound by the rules of the marketplace. And Francisco Aguabella gave up the financial security of being a regular band member for the likes of Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Simon to stay true to his drumming ancestors and respect the sacredness of the [Afro-Cuban] Santeria tradition that he works within.”

But Blank needn’t have traveled far to find artists who forsook fame, fortune, and financial security to instead honor their consciences and idiosyncratic artistic visions. Looking in the mirror would have done the trick just as easily. A failed fiction writer himself, Blank was inspired to make films after being bowled over by a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Scandinavian bleak-fest, The Seventh Seal. “Finally, I thought as I walked out of the theater,” recalls Blank, “I’ve found someone more depressed than I am.”

As Blank explains it, his own distinctive filmmaking style evolved out of a stint he spent making the sort of cheesy instructional films familiar to anyone who’s been forced to sit behind a balky 16mm projector in a fifth-grade classroom. “When I got out of school and didn’t have the money to do narrative films, I ended up working for a company making industrial films for the army and instructional films for companies,” Blank says. “It was a small company, so they let me shoot, edit, record, and mix sound– everything.”

Despite the valuable experience Blank received on the job, he chafed in the shackles of the format’s ham-fisted linear editing and voice-over narration. “I grew to hate that kind of filmmaking,” he recalls. “I thought there must be a more direct way to provide for the audience the kind of experience I had while making the film.”

THUS WAS BORN Blank’s characteristically naturalistic, unobtrusive, loosely structured style of documentary. “Some people seem to like it, and others don’t,” he says with characteristic modesty. “One critic said about Always for Pleasure that it looked like it was shot by a guy wandering through New Orleans with a bottle of beer in one hand and a camera in the other.”

While that viewer may not have understood what Blank was up to, many others did, and continue to eagerly anticipate the completion of each new Blank project. In the planning stages for Blank are projects on radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, a Romany (Gypsy) musician/dancer living in the Rajasthan region of India, and a Marin man who journeys annually to the mountains of western China to buy tea. “I’m applying to the Rockefeller Foundation for a grant right now,” he says, “and they’re really interested in films about other cultures, so they’ll probably like the Gypsy project the best.”

But the drying up of available grant money and spiraling costs of 16mm film stock and developing have combined to put the financial squeeze on Blank’s style of filmmaking. To economize, he’s preparing to buy a state-of-the-art digital video camera, which, while not providing the warmth and resolution of film images, will reduce costs considerably and allow him to keep bringing his quirky, intensely creative work to audiences. “I prefer working with 16mm film,” Blank says with a verbal shrug. “I like seeing images projected up on the big screen. But if it’s between shooting in video and not making any films at all, then I’ll shoot in video.”

Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella and The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists will play at the Sonoma Film Institute Sept. 27-28 at 7:30 p.m. SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $2.50-$4. Les Blank will appear in person at the Sept. 28 screening. 664-2606.

From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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