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Les Blank Friends Bid Documentarian a Festive Farewell (November 27, 1935 -- April 7, 2013)

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood June 27, 2013 at 6:34PM

Of course it's a cliche to say that the honoree at a memorial service would have enjoyed it -- but in Les Blank's case, it's impossible to avoid. The party was designed by Les' two sons, Harrod and Beau, and Team Blank, a host of friends and supporters, to encompass many of the pursuits that Les delighted in and made the subject of his films, such as irresistibly catchy music and delicious strong-flavored food, as well as rituals designed to honor Les and allow his friends and colleagues to say goodbye.
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Les Blank Memorial
Claudine Gossett

Of course it's a cliche to say that the honoree at a memorial service would have enjoyed it -- but in Les Blank's case, it's impossible to avoid.  The party was designed by Les' two sons, Harrod and Beau, and Team Blank, a host of friends and supporters, to encompass many of the pursuits that Les delighted in and made the subject of his films, such as irresistibly catchy music and delicious strong-flavored food, as well as rituals designed to honor Les and allow his friends and colleagues to say goodbye.

The afternoon began on a beautiful sunny day at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, where a procession of art cars -- one of the preoccupations of Harrod Blank, who has made two films about them -- assembled, including Les' own, a modest burgundy Toyota covered with beautiful photo-realist paintings of birds.  Most of the others were much more sculptural in nature, including a pink one with black bras on the front and hair rollers on top -- as its owner said, you can't miss it.  The cars paraded to Les' gravesite in the Sunset View Cemetery in El Cerrito, where people gathered to place items honoring Les -- fruit, flowers, herbs, small totems, Mardi Gras beads, and all kinds of garlic, from modest white heads to long flowering bulbs recently torn from the earth -- on and around his granite marker.  

Blank Memorial
Claudine Gossett

The marker was already permanently decorated on one side with an inlaid color photograph of Les hoisting a camera on his shoulder, the legend LES BLANK  FILMMAKER, and the quote "LIFE IS SHORT * ART IS LONG * EXPERIENCE, DIFFICULT" from Aesculapius, and on the other a black-and-white sketch of Les over LES BLANK 1935 -- 2013, and "FROM TOO MUCH LOVE OF LIVING, FROM HOPE AND FEAR SET FREE, WE THANK WITH BRIEF THANKSGIVING * WHATEVER GODS MAY BE * THAT NO LIFE LIVES FOREVER, THAT DEAD MEN RISE UP NEVER, THAT EVEN THE WEARIEST RIVER WINDS SOMEWHERE SAFE TO SEA", from Algernon Charles Swinburne.  A traditional New Orleans brass band second line led by Johnny Harper wound around the graves set on a gently sloping hill -- Les' surrounded by many elaborately carved Asian monuments -- with a far view of the Golden Gate. 

On our return to the Unitarian church, we were greeted by tables laden with finger food -- cheeses, fruits, chips and dips -- and bars set up on the church's patio, which had much the same brilliantly sunny long view of the bay as we'd seen from the gravesite.  About four hundred people had assembled, some flying in from New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other points, to join the many local friends and colleagues of the Bay Area that Les Blank had called home since the 70s.  We spotted early Blank supporter and 70s housemate Tom Luddy and fellow Telluride Film Festival director Gary Meyer, Pacific Film Archive director emeritus Edith Kramer, Kim Hendrickson of the Criterion Collection, film critic Sheila Benson, the SF Silent Film Festival's Anita Monga and Peter Moore, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, and many employees of the DownHome Music Store -- the last two entities share space in the El Cerrito building on San Pablo Avenue that also held Blank's offices for Flower Films. Also there were friends and subjects of Blank's films including Werner Herzog ("Burden of Dreams," "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe") and from New Orleans, Marc and Ann Savoy ("J'ai Ete au Bal," "Marc and Ann").

This article is related to: Les Blank, Werner Herzog


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.