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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A Heart-Melting Baby Elephant Rescue in Kenyan National Park

A Heart-Melting Baby Elephant Rescue in Kenyan National Park

When an eight-month-old baby elephant fell into a muddy watering hole at the Aboseli National Park in Kenya, a team of conservationists from Amboseli Trust for Elephants rushed to figure out a way to rescue the calf. Although she was just a baby and too small to climb out of the hole herself, the calf was too large for rescuers to lift out of the hole. Amboseli Trust for Elephants’ Vicki Fishlock used her Land Rover to force the calf’s mother away from the hole so that rescuers could reach the stranded elephant. After more than a half-hour, rescuers were able to finally get a rope around the calf and slowly pull her out of the hole.

They captured the rescue operation on video, which has a beautifully happy ending and rather hilarious off-camera commentary: “So this is Zombe’s calf, who we’re all delighted is so big and fat and healthy, until we have to pull her out of a hole!” After the rescue, Fishlock stated: “Relief! Rescues where family members are around are stressful, and I’m always happy when everyone is safely back in the cars. And I have to admit that the reunions always bring a tear to my eye. The intensity of their affection for each other is one of the things that makes elephants so special.”

Amboseli Trust for Elephants works to protect and study elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. They have a fantastic YouTube channel documenting their work, and you can watch more animal videos from their Fauna series here.

A Heart-Melting Baby Elephant Rescue in Kenyan National Park

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Paul Simon Takes Us Back: Under African Skies

Paul Simon Takes Us Back: Under African Skies

Under African Skies is a brilliant, must-see documentary by the renowned filmmaker Joe Berlinger, which was created on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Paul Simon’s seminal album Graceland. The documentary won the 2012 SXSW Audience Award in the 24 Beats per Second Category and is the only music film to win an Audience Award. Berlinger intertwines both sides of a complex story as Simon returns to South Africa for a reunion concert with the original Graceland musicians, which unearths the turbulent birth of the album.

Paul Simon’s historic Graceland album sold millions of copies and united cultures, yet it also ended up dividing world opinion on the boundaries of art, politics and business. Despite its huge success as a popular fusion of American and African musical styles, Graceland spawned intense political debate. Simon was accused of breaking the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa, which was designed to end apartheid.

While the album went on to be widely celebrated for its revolutionary mix of musical styles and for bringing the extraordinary gifts of under-exposed South African musicians to the forefront, many of the questions Graceland raised in 1986 remain. What is the role of the artist when society is in upheaval? Who does music belong to? Whose rules, if any, should artists play by? Do cultural collaborations matter? And what will be the legacy of Graceland’s indelible songs in a world that has since been politically, and musically, transformed?

Read more about Under African Skies in The New York Times here.

Paul Simon Takes Us Back: Under African Skies

Paul Simon: The Story of Graceland

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Iké Udé: Photographic Portraits and Sartorial Anarchy

Iké Udé, Sartorial Anarchy #2, 2010

Iké Udé, Reggie Van Lee #1, 2010

Iké Udé, Sartorial Anarchy #4, 2010

Iké Udé, Leelee Sobieski, 2010

Iké Udé: Photographic Portraits and Sartorial Anarchy

Photography by: Iké Udé, NYC

Self: Photographic Portraits and Sartorial Anarchy is a collection of photographs by Iké Udé, which is on view at New York’s Stux Gallery through June 25, 2011. The exhibition presents a number of portraits with a simmering intensity that feature subjects ranging from himself, to fashion designer Manolo Blahnik, to financial executive Reggie Van Lee. The photographs show a highly stylized world of color, attitude, and object, making their domain as much anarchic as desirable. According to Iké, sartorial anarchy is an expression of dandyism that is enhanced by the indeterminate delicacy of pose, gestures, tilt, determinate lines, or a thrust here-and-there, all harmonized by an agreeable countenance.

Artist Iké Udé was born in Lagos, Nigeria, moved to the States in the 1980s and presently works in New York City. His artwork is in the permanent collections of New York’s Guggenheim Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum, Washington DC. Udé is the founder and publisher of aRUDE Magazine, a quarterly devoted to art, culture, style and fashion. He is the author of Style File: The World’s Most Elegantly Dressed and was selected as one of Vanity Fair’s 2009 International Best Dressed Originals.

Photo-Gallery: Photographic Portraits and Sartorial Anarchy

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JR: The Compellingly Powerful Street Art of a Guerrilla-Photograffeur

Women Are Heroes: Paris

Women Are Heroes: Paris

Women Are Heroes: London

Women Are Heroes: Kenya

Women Are Heroes: Kenya

The Wrinkles of the City: Shanghai

The Wrinkles of the City: Shanghai

JR: The Compellingly Powerful Street Art of a Guerrilla-Photograffeur

The illusive JR has pasted gigantic portraits all over the world, and the public still doesn’t know the artist’s full name. He insists on JR, which are his real initials. He refers to his performance-exhibitions as the mix of photography with graffiti art. His work involves showing up in a shantytown in Kenya or a favela in Brazil, a place where some event has been noted in the media and has captured his attention.  His work turns it inside out, photographing the residents, then wrapping their buildings with the results, on a scale so vast that you can see their eyes from the sky.

Often he works through the night, and as soon as he’s done, he disappears; so when the installation becomes front-page news, there is no one left to explain it but the people whose voices had not been previously heard. As a woman from Kibera, a neighborhood in Nairobi, put it in Women Are Heroes, a documentary recently released in France that JR made about his work: “Photos can’t change the environment. But if people see me there, they’ll ask me: ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ And then I’m proud.”

JR’s collection of works entitled Women Are Heroes, features a compelling and empowering style focused on the struggles of women in society today. JR was recently awarded the 2011 TED Prize for Women Are Heroes.  At the age of 28, JR is the youngest recipient of the $100,000 prize.

JR’s latest project is The Wrinkles of the City, an installation of street pieces in Shanghai (and later, in other large cities). The project features images of the elderly, who represent the memory of the city. The photographs have been pasted up at locations that he feels speak to the heritage of a city that has definitely had its share of ups and downs, “from the Japanese occupation, the establishment of the Communist Party, The Liberation, World War II, the end of the foreign concessions, the victory of Mao Zedong over the General Tchang Kaï-Chek’s troops, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward to the actual development of the city.

R expo Paris de Women Are Heroes

Women Are Heroes (Trailer)

Meet the 2011 TED Prize Winner: JR

JR’s TED Prize Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out

Slide Show: JR/The Compellingly Powerful Street Art of a Guerrilla-Photograffeur

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A Refreshing, Soul-Stirring Emotional Remembrance: Stand By Me

A Refreshing, Soul-Stirring Emotional Remembrance: Stand By Me

Stand By Me is a musical short film that is the first part of the award-winning, immensely popular documentary Playing For Change: Peace Through Music by Mark Johnson. Playing for Change: Peace Through Music debuted at the 2008 Tribecca Film Festival in New York and won the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival. The documentary is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The project arose from a belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people, and was produced to benefit worthy causes, including AIDS charities in Africa.

Stand By Me is an emotionally powerful rendition of the Ben E. King classic, performed by musicians from around the world adding their parts to the song as it traveled the globe. It features the fine baritone of New Orleans street musician Grandpa Elliott Small, as well as Washboard Chaz and Roberto Luti also from New Orleans. The dizzying array of performers also includes street musicians making contributions to this amazing, soul-stirring performance from as far away as the Netherlands, France, Spain, Brazil, Moscow, South Africa and the Congo.

A Refreshing, Soul-Stirring Emotional Remembrance: Stand By Me

Slide Show: A Refreshing, Soul-Stirring Emotional Remembrance/Stand By Me

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The New Boy: One Day When I Was Lost

The New Boy: One Day When I Was Lost

New Boy has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Live Action Short Film category. The film has already won numerous awards, including Best Irish Short at the Foyle Film Festival 2007, Best Short Film at the prestigious Irish Film and Television Academy Awards 2008, Best Narrative Short at the Tribeca Film Festival 2008 (USA), Best Short Film at the 2008 Rhode Island Film Festival (USA), the Melbourne International Film Festival 2008 (Outstanding Short Film Promoting Human Values) and a Special Mention at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival.

New Boy takes us inside the mind of a young boy named Joseph during his first day in a new classroom. But Joseph’s not just any new boy, he’s an immigrant African child in an Irish classroom, seated right in front of the local bully. He’s also a boy who recently had lost his father (who was also his teacher) to war. Joseph witnessed first-hand the brutality of soldiers against his father in Africa, saw his father’s crumpled body and learned something about dealing with a potential enemy.

Joseph has to negotiate between a violent past and a future that looks as though it’s headed the same way. Straddling two worlds, the new boy must struggle to fit in without giving in. And living with the ever-present memory of his father, Joseph must find a way to stand up for himself while acting responsibly, just as his father would have wanted. The day that Joseph initially felt he was lost eventually came to be a day that he ultimately found a renewed sense of self, as well as the fulfillment of deep yearnings for reconciliation with his lost father.

While this deeply touching short film illuminates the more particular feelings of being the “new kid” at school, it also stands as a broader metaphor for our struggles with feelings of being an outsider in more general settings (at work, in a group, in a different city or country), as well as for the painful feelings of alienation suffered by persons and groups experiencing rejection by society. The film is an excursion into complicated contemporary multicultural realities. However, rather than attempting to teach or preach about simplistic lessons in social tolerance, New Boy shows how very tricky such lessons can be, either to teach or to learn.

New Boy: One Day When I Was Lost

A wonderful slideshow of images from the ten contending Academy Award short films can be viewed here.

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