At the 38th SFIFF, San Francisco Mayor Frank M. Jordan proclaims April 24 Les Blank Day.
Photo: Les Blank (center) chats with Werner Herzog and Bay Area artist Gerald Gaxiola, the subject of Blank's film The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, at the 1995 San Francisco International. Photo by Pamela Gentile.
By Maria Komodore
When the Oakland Tribune’s Barry Caine asked Bay Area documentary filmmaker Les Blank how he felt about receiving a tribute at the 38th San Francisco International Film Festival, he replied, “I’m very honored to be selected. If people hear about it, it adds some respect to what I do. People might take me a little more seriously. Maybe people who don’t know my work, when they see my tribute, they might make an effort to rent a tape at a video store or go to a library.”
The atmosphere was charged at the packed AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres as one by one, the people who had worked with Blank commented on his career. “I am overwhelmed with all this attention and appreciation,” he announced. Among those paying tribute were Bay-Area based film aficionado Tom Luddy and the German director Werner Herzog.
“The films aren’t just celebrations of artists, but tonics for one’s soul. Les Blank helps teach us how we should live our lives,” Luddy commented. “Les should be a national hero. If you are journalists out there, you should urge people in the Library of Congress to have Les’s works digitized so that they will never disappear; because in a couple hundred years, people who will want to know about this country when it did have regional cultures . . . will only have Les.”
Herzog compared Blank's films to music in their ability to console. Expressing his admiration for Blank’s films, he added, “Les is the one who has found that [truth], and in every single film he has made, he has shown us and given us, this feeling of what truth on a screen can be. . . . What would America be without Les’s warm, dignified and wonderful look into the very soul of all of us?”
Blank had a long way to go before becoming the acclaimed regionalist documentarian that he is today. In his interview with Caine he admitted that, although he became fascinated by movies after watching Pinocchio at the age of four, he did not always want to be a filmmaker. “Being a commercial fisherman was my first choice,” he said. “I would have chosen filmmaking had I known it was something I could have done.” Born in Tampa, Florida in 1935, Blank attended Tulane University in New Orleans where he received a bachelor’s degree in English and a MFA in theater. “I went to UC Berkeley for a master’s degree in English literature, but I dropped out in the first semester. . . . Then I saw Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and got very inspired because it was about a person more depressed than I was. It cheered me up. I came out of that experience feeling more elated than I’d felt in months. I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker.” After realizing he wanted to make films, Blank founded his own production company, Flower Films in El Cerrito, California, and produced most of his films independently.
Burden of Dreams, for which Blank received a Golden Gate Award at the 1983 SFIFF, is arguably his most well-known film. A documentary on the making of Herzog’s feature Fitzcarraldo, the film offers a portrait of the German director as a driven madman with all odds against him: His stars pull out, expenditures balloon, warring village factions want him dead and he insists on moving a large ship over a small mountain. In the Festival’s catalogue Kurt Wolff wrote, “In fact, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams . . . is in the long run a much more enlightening piece about an obsessed man battling the forces of nature.” Blank had made a more comical film about Herzog two years earlier. In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the titular director, after losing a bet with Errol Morris that he could not get a film made (Morris managed to scrounge up enough money to shoot Gates of Heaven), cooks his shoe and eats it in a public ceremony.
Blank’s career stretches back 18 years before Burden of Dreams with a varied repertoire of films on topics ranging from musical biographies to case studies of unique communities. Producing an average of a film a year, Blank documents different aspects of American folk culture, concentrating on peculiar characters and regional cultures. With his discreet yet observant camera, Blank explores his subjects by filming them while they make music, cook, dance and go about their everyday lives. Michael Fox describes the director’s catalogue in Release Print as a “vast oeuvre of musical and culinary ethnography.” Commenting on his own films, Blank revealed, “They deal with passionate people able to express passion through their lifestyle or their expressive arts. . . . There’s a passion for life, I guess.”
His first feature, Dizzy Gillespie, in which the filmmaker interviewed the jazz legend, announced Blank’s interest in filming musicians. His interest in music persisted in films like The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin' Hopkins, a portrait of the famous blues singer; In Heaven There Is No Beer?, a film about lovers of polka music; and Ry Cooder and The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let's Have a Ball, a concert film of Cooder's live performance in Santa Cruz in 1988.
Blank also focused his lens on the idiosyncrasies of life in the bayou. Spend It All portrays the life of French-speaking Cajuns in New Orleans. Always for Pleasure, also set in New Orleans, explores different traditions such as a Big Easy funeral procession, Mardi Gras, neighborhood celebrations and cooking red beans and rice.
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers and Gap-Toothed Women both comment on finding beauty and happiness in unexpected places. The first film, which Blank was inspired to make after attending an annual garlic festival in Berkeley, focuses on garlic fanatics. The latter features “gap-toothed women” revealing their thoughts on living with what some might perceive as either a cosmetic imperfection or a sign of beauty.
The Festival screened two of Blank’s more recent projects at his tribute. The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists profiles Bay Area artist Gerald Gaxiola (also know as the Maestro). In the film, Blank expresses his admiration for Gaxiola as an artist who refuses to sell his art, cherishing the act of creation as a religion.
The Maestro attended the screening and participated in the subsequent Q&A session with Blank. “People have asked me what it’s like to be filmed by Les Blank,” he noted. “I said, ‘I’ve never had an art background, and certainly not a film background. I’m kind of like my mother. I had this Hollywood view of what art was like or what movies were like. . . . I assumed that it would be like the way people had done videos about me. When they come in the house they bring all these lights and their clipboards and things and set me aside there and they tell me what to do and just kind of take over. I expected it even to be three times that great with films, and I thought that when Les was going to film me he would bring this big crew, and he would have a script and he would talk to me and tell me what he wanted to do. It was nothing like that at all. He just came over—didn’t even have his camera—sat down, had a beer and didn’t say much. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. And for a while I thought that maybe he was at the wrong house. Maybe he didn’t really want to do it anymore’.”
Another Blank documentary, Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, had its world premiere at the Festival. The film centers on the Afro-Cuban drummer Francisco Aguabella, who migrated to the U.S. in 1957. Blank films Aguabella playing his ceremonial drum, the batá, and composes a portrait of the artist as a man wedded to his religion (santería). After the screening, Aguabella thrilled the audience with a live performance at Slim’s.
The biggest surprise of the tribute came when Brian Gordon, the Festival’s Golden Gate Awards coordinator, read the mayor’s humorous and witty greeting to Blank. “Whereas the city and county of San Francisco welcomes Les Blank . . . and always ready for pleasure, recognizes how Mr. Blank’s films show again and again how one can easily pursue one’s dreams and need not be burdened by them; Whereas the city and county of San Francisco delightfully acknowledges Mr. Blank’s well spent film life by adding some healthy hot pepper and garlic to ours, and illuminating the many gaps in our understanding of the diverse American culture; and whereas, if in fact there’s no beer in heaven we can’t go to his film dances and make sure we get there. Now therefore be it resolved that I, Frank M. Jordan, mayor of the city and county of San Francisco in recognition and honor of Les Blank . . . do hereby proclaim this 24th of April of 1995 as Les Blank Day.”
“Thank you Frank,” Blank replied laconically and stepped away while the audience cheered.