Les Blank Dies at 77: Created Sensuous, Lyrical Films of America’s Periphery

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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“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Receives Four 2013 Oscar Nominations

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Receives Four 2013 Oscar Nominations

The nominations for the 2013 Academy Awards have been announced, and it was a huge day for the independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which received four Oscar Nominations: Best Director (for Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis, at just nine years old), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the award-winning first feature film directed by Benh Zeitlin and co-written co-written with playwright Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious provides its foundation. Zeitlin created the movie in collaboration with Court 13, the filmmakers’ collective that moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Previously, the film won the Caméra d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Deauville American Film Festival, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival’s Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director.

Part dystopia and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visionary film that celebrates resistance, featuring people living in poverty who come together in interracial, inter-generational harmony. After a flood washes away most of “The Bathtub,” a poor and precarious patch of land south of New Orleans, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, five years-old at the time of filming) and her father account for their remaining animals and neighbors, and attempt to survive, rebuild, and repair their world. They band together to create a post-Katrina communal life and they fight the system in a variety of ways to avoid getting thrown into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter.

Zeitlin’s earlier acclaimed short film about an imaginary post-Katrina world in New Orleans, Glory at Sea, won the 2008 CineVegas International Film Festival Special Jury Prize, the 2008 New Orleans Film Festival Narrative Short Award, the 2008 Woodstock Film Festival Jury Prize and the 2008 SXSW Film Festival Wolphin Award. Coming off the award-winning “Glory at Sea,” Zeitlin wanted to continue working on an expanded feature film set in the Louisiana bayou and to tell a story about a community making a final stand. The same theme and mythic, poetic feeling of Glory at Sea, which was also created in collaboration with the Court 13 filmmakers’ collective, clearly carries through in Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, Glory at Sea, concerned a southern Delta community endangered by a flood and focused on a young girl, who also served as the film’s narrator. Glory at Sea tells a story about the aftermath of the Katrina flood, and a community’s Orpheus-like efforts to keep alive its old traditions and loved ones.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

Every once in a rare, long while, a film appears with such a sweeping gust of rejuvenation that it has the power to restore not only one’s faith in cinema, but in humanity as a whole. Glory at Sea is one of those rare films, an acclaimed narrative short film that has garnered twelve film festival awards, a film that endearingly produces the forlorn feelings that are amassed within the sea of a forever-sunset palette, sanctioning our mourning within its beautiful sorrow. The 26-minute short film follows an unkempt and unruly fleet of heartbroken refugees through the midst of the human devastation in post-Katrina New Orleans. This one and a half year-long collaborative project by director Benh Zeitlin and members of the Court 13 film collective brought forth a narrative film that reveals a rare mutually interactive blend of contemporary dance/movement, cinematography that is richly packed with a grandly sweeping panorama of visual detail and brilliantly subtle interpersonal gestures by the Court 13 ensemble group of performers.

Glory at Sea boldly confronts a monumental tragedy that vividly displays the fact of our human mortality, as well as the inevitable loss of our dreams for the future (the ghosts of loved ones, banished to live underwater for eternity). The raggedy, raucous New Orleans characters in Glory at Sea boldly turn away from their overwhelming of feelings of mortal vulnerability, courageously responding instead with a communal bond to a renewed and feverish commitment to love and hope.

The passionate call for hope and a common cause is expressed by the film’s ensemble through an emotionally inspiring synthesis of a socially important narrative, the performers’ sense of movement that conveys through even the most subtle interpersonal gestures their deep commitment to mutually shared social needs and responsibilities, and fascinating cinematography with an acute attention to visual detail. When a pinch of insanity and an ongoing tone of understated comical irony are added to all of this, one ends up with an experience that is a musically visual delight. An old phrase describes beautiful and appealing speech as “Music to My Ears.” Glory at Sea ends up “Dancing Behind Your Eyelids.” The twenty-five minutes spent deeply engrossed in this narrative is timeless.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

(Best Viewed HD/Full Screen)

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the year’s best films. Winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in Sundance, this striking and unforgettable feature-film debut is set in “The Bathtub,” a defiant Louisiana bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. Young Hushpuppy (played by a five year-old force of nature named Quvenzhané Wallis) is devoted to her father, Wink, who frequently goes off on sprees, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself in an isolated compound filled with semi-wild animals.

The community is a resilient and joyous one, but there is a growing sense of inevitable destruction. At school, Hushpuppy is taught about natural selection, global warming and the ecological shifts that have placed them in a perilous position. Things come to a head when Wink comes down with a debilitating illness, a massive storm hits, the ice caps melt and destructive prehistoric beasts are released who descend on “The Bathtub.” Little Hushpuppy has to find in herself the courage and heroism to survive the catastrophe and re-instill a sense of community. Fusing recent history and environmental concerns with a mythical quality, Beasts of the Southern Wild defies easy classification or description, instead forging a new path that firmly establishes director Benh Zeitlin as a bright new cinematic talent. Reviewers are speculating that both Zeitlin and young Quvenzhané Wallis could be nominated for Academy Awards.

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Official Trailer)

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Official Featurette

Beasts of the Southern Wild: “Once There Was A Hush Puppy”

Director Benh Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer perform the theme to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at LACMA

Beasts of the Southern Wild: “Once There Was A Hush Puppy”

Super Soul Sunday: Why Oprah Loves Beasts of the Southern Wild

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