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

Photo of Meredith Brody 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.
Les Blank Memorial
Claudine Gossett

After some time spent drinking, grazing, and talking, the group congregated in the church's soaring-ceilinged great hall, where for over two hours numerous friends and colleagues of Les spoke from the heart, interspersed with films and music, affectionately introduced by Harrod and Beau, whose obvious love for their father had its bittersweet side, since as children of divorce their time with him was intermittent.  

Werner Herzog
Claudine Gossett Werner Herzog

The program began with a slide show in which I glimpsed myself in the crowd attending the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse re-run of the famed event filmed for "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe," in which Alice Waters cooked the main course when Herzog had to eat his words (i.e. "If Errol Morris finishes his film, I'll eat my shoe"). For the anniversary event, held on the grounds of the Berkeley Art Museum on August 27, 2011, Waters wittily and wisely had a shoemaker construct the main ingredient out of entirely edible pigskin. Yum. And Les was there to film it. Perhaps a second "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" will eventually surface, in addition to the films his website lists as being "in progress," including "Butch Anthony Film" and "How to Smell a Rose: Ricky Leacock."

The speakers included Telluride's Luddy, editor Maureen Gosling, a film co-worker since 1972, film reviewer Michael Goodwin, sound recordist David Silberberg, neighbor and fellow garlic farmer Claire Greensfelder, film colleague and ex-wife Chris Simon (who came back after many years apart to care for Les, along with sons Harrod and Beau, during the last seven months of his life), and director Werner Herzog, who movingly praised Les' instinctive sense of timing -- knowing what and when to film -- and his art of documenting vanishing corners of American life.  

A short film, "Raw," by Shelly Roby, showed Les enjoying raw oysters, and Beau spoke of a final family excursion to Hog Island in Tomales Bay, when an ailing Les miraculously ate thirty of the fifty oysters Beau shucked.  Marc Savoy gave credit to Les for changing his life -- including Savoy's marriage to Ann --  and the Savoys played, as did Johnny Harper, whose set included Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart." 

Another New Orleanian second line, this one wildly costumed, ended the memorial and started the party, leading the crowd across the atrium to the meeting hall, lined with long tables. There were two gorgeous, groaning, bacchanalian buffet tables laden with an amazing and overwhelming potluck featuring barbecued ribs and chicken, cracked crab, gumbo, paella, cornbread, and a panoply of very Berkeley sides, including salads based on kale and quinoa (all delicious). There seemingly were more dishes than celebrants. Although there was no risk of the food running out, white wine did, and we were forced to fall back upon red wine, sangria, and hard liquor.

After eating my fill of crab and ribs, I couldn't even look at the dessert table, to which I had contributed a chocolate cake, the same one I had brought to the potluck that was part of another evening celebrating Les held at Pixar this past February 20th.  Many references had been made during today's memorial service to Les' famed taciturnity -- "He had absolutely no small talk" was one comment -- but at this event, which included a screening of the rarely-seen feature about Leon Russell,  "A Poem is a Naked Person," many noticed that Les was particularly voluble and thoughtful during the lengthy Q-and-A that followed the film.  I saw as I left that night that Les, whose lusty appetite had already been somewhat curtailed by his illness, was happily eating a slice of that cake. 

As I left the memorial, I thought of two things quoted from Les during the service: he'd said about his filmmaking method "I meet the people and I get drunk with them," and, after reassuring his ex-wife that he wasn't afraid to die, he said "Love all."  

This article is related to: Les Blank, Werner Herzog

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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.