Les Blank (1935-2013) was an internationally renowned, independent filmmaker, whose poetic work offers intimate, idiosyncratic glimpses into the lives, culture, and music of the passionate people at the periphery of American society. His film topics have included Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian, and Serbian-American music and food traditions, Afro-Cuban drummers, Texas blues men, Appalachian fiddlers, “flower children”, gap-toothed women, and the garlic plant.
Blank is perhaps best known for his feature-length Burden of Dreams (1982), documenting the chaotic production of fellow director, and friend, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo” in the jungles of South America. Honored with a Criterion DVD edition, and a British Academy Award, Roger Ebert called Burden of Dreams, “…one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie.”
Another of Blank’s best-loved works is Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980), a seminal food film featuring culinary pioneer Alice Waters, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival. This film, notorious for its mouthwateringness, was initially shown in “Aromaround” with garlic simultaneously roasted in-theater.
Les Blank enlisted a handful of talented people to help with his films, beginning with Skip Gerson, then followed by, Maureen Gosling, Chris Simon, Susan Kell, Marianne Yusavage, David Silberberg, son Harrod Blank, and Gina Leibrecht. Many of these collaborators have gone on to make their own films.
Two of Blank’s final films, All In This Tea (2007), and How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy (2014), were both made in partnership with Gina Leibrecht. All In This Tea, is a feature documentary following tea specialist David Lee Hoffman to the most remote regions of China in search of the perfect leaf. How to Smell a Rose documents Les Blank’s year 2000 visit with the legendary co-founder of Direct Cinema, Richard Leacock. A conversation between these two seminal filmmakers explores Leacock’s historical adventures in film making and his other passion — cooking!
Prior to Les Blank’s death, in April of 2013, the non profit “Les Blank Films Inc.” was created and son Harrod Blank, a filmmaker in his own right, became the organization’s president. In addition to overseeing distribution efforts and re-mastering Les’ films, Harrod spent two years navigating the rights to release perhaps Les Blank’s most significant work, a 1974 film entitled A Poem Is A Naked Person about musician Leon Russell (currently in theatrical release by Janus Films, and coming soon on DVD/Blu Ray from Criterion.) Also in the works is a feature-length documentary about Les Blank by Gina Leibrecht and Harrod Blank tentatively titled, “Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation.”
Here is an in depth interview with Les Blank by BYOD via YouTube video.
“I can’t believe that anyone interested in movies or America…could watch Blank’s work without feeling they’d been granted a casual, soft-spoken revelation.” – Time Magazine
“Blank is a documentarian of folk cultures who transforms anthropology into art.” – New York Times (John Rockwell)
“A master of movies about the American idiom… one of our most original filmmakers.” – New York Times (Vincent Canby)
“A brilliant filmmaker”
– Rober Ebert
Hot Docs 2013: Les Blank Retrospective
Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley CA, 2012
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2011
Film Forum, New York, NY, 2008 (Complete retrospective in 16mm)
FILMEX, Los Angeles CA
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
National Film Theatre, London, United Kingdom
Independent Film Week, Augsburg, Germany, 1990
Cinematheque Francais, Paris, France, 1986
Cineteca Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico, 1984
Leipzig Film Festival, Germany
Sofia Music Film Festival, Bulgaria
Selected Feature Articles
American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker, 1990.
Edward MacDowell Medal (list of previous winners)
British Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary (Burden of Dreams)
“Best of Festival”, San Francisco Film Festival (Burden of Dreams)
Special Jury Award, Sundance Film Festival (In Heaven There Is No Beer?)
Blue Ribbon, American Film and Video Festival (Dry Wood, Hot Pepper, Always For Pleasure, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Burden of Dreams, Gap-Toothed Women, The Best of Blank, J’ai Ete Au Bal, Yum,Yum,Yum! and Marc and Ann.)
Selection of two films (“Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” and “Chulas Fronteras”) by the U.S. Library Of Congress for inclusion in The National Film Registry (joining Fred Wiseman and the Maysles brothers as the only documentarians so honored)
The National Endowment For the Arts (With Chris Strachwitz)
The American Film Institute
The National Endowment For the Humanities
The Ford Foundation
The Guggenheim Foundation
United States Information Agency
Distinguished filmmaker-in-residence at San Diego State University
Adjunct assistant professor in film at the University of California, Berkeley.
Louis B. Mayer filmmaker-in-residence at Dartmouth College
Directing fellow at the Sundance Institute