Les Blank Dies at 77: Created Sensuous, Lyrical Films of America’s Periphery
Les Blank’s sly, sensuous and lyrical documentaries about regional music and many other idiosyncratic subjects, including Mardi Gras in New Orleans, gap-toothed women, blues musicians and the filmmaker Werner Herzog, were widely admired by critics and other filmmakers if not generally known by moviegoers. Blank died on Sunday at his home in Berkeley, California at the age of 77.
His 42 films mostly depicted slices of folk culture, but his best known, Burden of Dreams, documented director Werner Herzog’s fanatical making of Fitzcarraldo. When Les Blank arrived in the lush, untamed Amazon in 1981 to make a documentary about Werner Herzog’s film, he knew the German’s reputation as a daredevil director. Herzog had chosen the remote jungle locale, plagued by tribal skirmishes and the perils of nature, for authenticity.
Burden of Dreams became a telling portrait of a filmmaker’s mad descent into obsession and raised serious questions about ethics in making movies. In 1982, Blank won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Burden of Dreams, which sent shock waves through the cinematic community for its unflinching portrayal of Herzog’s blind pursuit of art while filming Fitzcarraldo.
Read more about the life and works of Les Blank in the New York Times here.
Dry Wood: Creole Life in French Louisiana
Dry Wood (1973) is Les Blank’s fascinating look at black Creole life in French Louisiana, where food and music are the featured elements. The film is awash with deftly framed portraiture, cunningly observed social scenes, beautiful nature photography and the poetic juxtaposition of imagery and sound. Pleasant, slow scenes of rural life are held together by the wild, insistent music of Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.
Dry Wood: Creole Life in French Louisiana
Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Sun’s Gonna Shine
The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969) brilliantly captures the great Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. In this deeply moving film, Blank reveals Lightnin’s inspiration and features a generous helping of classic blues. The Sun’s Gonna Shine is a lyrical recreation of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ decision at age eight to stop chopping cotton and start singing for a living.
Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969)
Gap-Toothed Women: Societal Attitudes toward Standards of Beauty
Gap-Toothed Women (1987) is Blank’s charming valentine to women born with a space between their teeth, which ranges from lighthearted whimsy to a deeper look at issues like self-esteem and societal attitudes toward standards of beauty. Interviews were conducted with over one hundred women, including super-model Lauren Hutton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Gap-Toothed Women: Societal Attitudes toward Standards of Beauty (1987)
Always For Pleasure: An Intense Portrait of New Orleans’ Street Celebrations
Always For Pleasure (1978) is Blank’s intense insider’s portrait of New Orleans’ street celebrations and unique cultural gumbo: New Orleans has a gut-level mythic quality, a resonance unique among American cities. Always For Pleasure amplifies that resonance with second-line parades and Mardi Gras madness, featuring live music from Professor Longhair, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers and more. This glorious, soul-satisfying film is among Blank’s special masterworks.
Always For Pleasure: An Intense Portrait of New Orleans’ Street Celebrations (1978)
Burden of Dreams: A Shocking Portrait of a Filmmaker’s Descent into Obsession
Burden of Dreams (1982) is Les Blank’s extraordinary feature-length documentary about the messianic German director Werner Herzog struggling against desperate odds in the Amazon basin to make his epic feature, Fitzcarraldo. The documentary sent shock waves through the cinematic community for its unflinching portrayal of Herzog’s blind pursuit of art while filming Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man obsessed with hauling a steamship through the jungle to strike it rich in rubber. Burden of Dreams was honored with a British Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1982, and many critics consider it Blank’s most awesome film.
Burden of Dreams: A Shocking Portrait of a Filmmaker’s Descent into Obsession (1982)
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