At some point while talking on the phone with Les Blank, I realized he was eating. Lunch was leftovers from yesterday’s Monterey Bay squid catch, and his smile was audible as he lingered over the prep: “I took the guts out and stuffed the bodies with garlic and the squid tentacles, and then sautéed them briefly in a hot pan, and turned the heat down and poured in some wine and let them steam for about five minutes.” My mouth watered; it sounded delicious. “It was delicious.”
Blank does more or less the same thing in many of his equally appealing documentaries, closing the camera in on gumbo, stove-top collard greens, BBQ chicken, or a crawfish mid-slurp. For about half a century, the Tampa-raised, Berkeley-settled filmmaker has been making disarmingly beautiful movies about American music and food, homespun wisdom, and the way dancing moves the spirit. In conjunction with Blank’s (fifth) appearance at the old-school Flaherty Seminar nonfiction fest, MOMA is presenting “Les Blank: Ultimate Insider,” a retrospective of his toe-tapping, lip-smacking, and quintessential documents of the country’s unhomogenized cultures.
By and large unabashedly positive, even utopian in outlook, and closely edited to the riffs of musicians captured live, Blank’s films began with portraits of bluesmen: first shades-wearing Lightnin’ Joe Hopkins (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968) and gentleman-farming Mance Lipscomb (A Well-Spent Life, 1971). But even before then, Blank, who narrowly avoided entering the Air Force and found his mojo in playwriting at Tulane University, found serendipity with a 1964 short on Dizzy Gillespie.
“Someone came to me and had this footage and said, ‘We started this film and it’s not working out so well—can you save it? We’ll pay you $200 if you can,’ ” Blank recalls. “I found that working with music and images was a lot of fun, to see how the two became a separate medium under certain conditions, certain combinations.”
The Lipscomb film (“Mance was like some kind of an oracle”) anchored his first major grant proposal to an NEA jury that included the late documentarian Ricky Leacock (the lamb-roasting subject of a work-in-progress to be previewed at MOMA, along with an unfinished film on Alabama junk artist Butch Anthony). Blank followed his melodic and rhythmic interests through Cajun whirlwinds (Spend It All, 1971; Dry Wood, 1973; and summa J’ai été au bal, 1989), unionist-flavored Norteño (Chulas fronteras, 1976), unstoppable polka (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984), and “old-time” Appalachian song (Sprout Wings and Fly, 1983). Blank’s oeuvre rivals the audio preservation project of the itinerant Alan Lomax, whose brother John crops up as a collaborator in some of these films. The results are a far cry from high school social-studies reels.
“I think if you call them ethnographic films, a lot of scholars would get upset because I’m too subjective to be a decent ethnographer. I shoot only stuff I like, and I don’t shoot stuff I don’t like,” Blank says. But though he follows his passions, and his sweet temperament is apparent in the people at ease in front of his camera, the filmmaker generally tends to hang back, withholding voiceover or stepping in front.
It’s ironic, or perhaps typical, then, that Blank’s most widely known work remains his (narrated) 1982 chronicle of a filmmaking friend who makes the ardors and travails of his work part of the show. Burden of Dreams—a Criterion Collection property, in a catalog of currently self-distributed titles that deserve exposure—tracks the now brand-named Werner Herzog through the perilous Ecuador shoot of reflexive Klaus Kinski jungle epic Fitzcarraldo (at one point nearly half-completed—starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger).
“Yeah, I try to stay out of it,” Blank says of his contrasting approach. “But I let my feelings get in the film.” The living detail of his coverage, his distinct but not intrusive stance, and the virtuosity of his film’s editing (with collaborator Maureen Gosling) place the director closer to the Frederick Wiseman side of the spectrum rather than with Herzog the Great Explorer. The two influences Blank cites, in fact, both relate to craft, in the form of music synch: Pinocchio, and Serbian expat/Hollywood montage maven/former dean of USC film school Slavko Vorkapic.
Blank’s concerns are not always rooted in music (he shows a non-creepy eye for female beauty in Gap-Toothed Women and throughout his films, and recently went to China with a leaf-obsessive for All in This Tea), and his achievements extend to manning the camera for others (Dennis Hopper on Easy Rider’s Mardi Gras freakout, Jean-Pierre Gorin on Poto and Cabengo) and distributing films by cult figure Kidlat Tahimik.
Still, taking music and food as your subject has its own secret incentive: “Sometimes people will cook a special meal just
because I’m filming,” Blank confesses. “You get better food than if you weren’t shooting food.”