Les Blank, highly regarded documentarian, dies at 77

Les Blank
Les Blank, much admired documentary filmmaker, died Sunday April 7 at his Berkeley home

Les Blank, regarded by many as one of the best documentary makers in the country, died on Sunday at his Berkeley home. He was 77. The cause was bladder cancer, according to his son, Harrod Blank.

Blank lived in Berkeley for 35 years and his company, Flower Films, is based in El Cerrito.

His friend, Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, described Blank’s films as “very, very full of life” and said he had a knack for getting people to reveal themselves. According to his former wife, Chris Simon, Blank did not think of himself as a documentarian, but rather as “a filmmaker whose work happened to be about real people.”

Many of Blank’s films, such as The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970) and Chulas Fronteras (1976), focused on American traditional music and its cultural context. He covered the blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka, tamburitza, and Hawaiian musics.

He also made films about food. He chronicled the wild days of the Berkeley food revolution centered in the Gourmet Ghetto in Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980), a film that featured ocasional Berkeleyside contributor John Harris who wrote about the film and Blank for Berkeleyside in September.

And, with films like Burden of Dreams (1982) he documented the German film director Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979) saw Herzog cooking and “eating” garlic-stuffed leather desert boots, boiled in duck fat at Chez Panisse.

An obituary published yesterday in the New York Times talks of his documentaries being “sly, sensuous and lyrical.” The director Taylor Hackford told the Times that he thought Blank was a “national treasure.”

“You could call him an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist,” Hackford said. “He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it.”

Harrod Blank talked about his father on a video published on KTVU.com. NPR’s All Things Considered show did a segment on Blank which is available to listen to online at 7:0 p.m. ET today.

Blank received a lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association.

On January 22, despite being seriously ill, Blank was able to attend a Berkeley City Council meeting  at which a proclamation was presented on his behalf. The proclamation, stated: “With a soft spoken demeanor, an eye for beauty, an insightful mind and great enthusiasm, Les Blank has captured the essence of aspects of American culture,” and “through his respectful, quiet presence, and non-didactic style created films that allow his subjects to reveal their true selves in a unique way.” On that day, many of his friends and supporters turned out to honor him.

Related:
Berkeley documentary filmmaker Les Blank honored [01.22.13]
Berkeley’s garlicky food revolution: Stories within stories [09.04.12]

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no cost, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com