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Documentary Filmmaker Les Blank Dies at 77

by Gary Meyer
April 7, 2013 4:05 PM
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Les Blank, in the 1980s
Les Blank, in the 1980s

The great documentary filmmaker Les Blank, who no doubt visited many of your theaters to show films and waft garlic through the air, passed away peacefully Sunday morning after a battle with cancer that didn't keep him from holding on. The city of Berkeley recently honored Les and he showed up to meet with his fans. He and Roger Ebert were friends and had a mutual admiration society. (Here's the New York Times obit, see film clips below.)

Here's his bio and some quotes from his website:

Les Blank is a renowned independent filmmaker, whose poetic work offers intimate, idiosyncratic glimpses into the lives, culture, and music of passionate people at the periphery of American society. Topics have included Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian, and Serbian-American music and food traditions, Afro-Cuban drummers, Texas bluesmen, Appalachian fiddlers, flower children, garlic, and gap-toothed women.

Blank is perhaps best known for his feature-length “Burden of Dreams” (1982), documenting the chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo” in the jungles of South America. Honored with a Criterion DVD edition and winner of the British Academy Award, Ebert called the film “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. The film, notorious for its mouthwateringness, is traditionally shown in “Aromaround,” with garlic simultaneously roasted in-theater.
Blank’s most recent film, “All In This Tea” (2007), is a feature documentary following tea specialist David Lee Hoffman to the most remote regions of China in search of the perfect leaf. Hoffman single-handedly opens the government’s eyes to the value of their own tradition, ensuring the survival of small, artisanal growers (“. . .a delicious documentary!” –The New York Times; “. . .an entertaining portrait of an eccentric figure whose singular passion proves infectious.” – Hollywood Reporter).

    “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)

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More: Documentary, Obit, Les Blank


  • Lisa Nesselson | April 8, 2013 8:57 AMReply

    Yes, indeed, a singular talent.
    I clicked on this story while using a borrowed computer away from home.
    I'm a Mac user and this is a PC. While the connection was doing whatever connections "do," this is what it said in the URL area: "about:blank."
    Fitting and funny.

  • Mary Nell | April 7, 2013 11:03 PMReply

    RIP Les Blank - you were a fantastic filmmaker - Loved your Leon Russell one "A Poem Is A Naked Person" - RIP.

  • jason evans | April 7, 2013 9:25 PMReply

    Les Blank was a great filmmaker. His work was always both insightful and lyrical. 'Spend It All' and 'Hot Pepper' are two of the most uniquely American films ever made, but honestly watch anything by Les Blank and you'll be left with visuals and stories you'll never get out of your head.

    There's a small personal reflection Les contributed, a few years ago, to an ongoing project I put together called This Long Century. It's good going back and reading it now...

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