Les Blank – A Well Spent Life

We’ve lost a huge voice in the world of documentary filmmaking. His voice did not reverberate loudly enough to become a house hold name in America, but Les Blank did more to document America at its roots than perhaps any other documentary filmmaker. A lyrical ethnographer of sorts, Blank’s films were steeped in the blues, the backwoods, the bayou, music, food, and a cast of eccentric characters one might classify as outsiders if it weren’t for the fact that their lives seemed richer and more rooted to the independent spirit of America than anything you’d find in Los Angeles or New York. Blank captured corners of America that felt lost or uncovered and he did so with such compassion and kinship that each film felt like an artistic visual essay of extended family. Blank often existed along side his subject, helping him get a feel for the location, its people, and its culture. Each of his documentaries were filled with joy and curiosity and humor. They were also deeply immersive experience and I deeply regret never getting to see one of his smellovision screenings where he’d cook garlic rich meals while projecting his delightful film Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers

Here is a nice introduction to the man and his work courtesy of B.Y.O.D.

Regretfully, much of Les Blank’s work is hard to come by outside of institutional screenings. His most famous mainstream work Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog’s struggle to make Fitzcarraldo, was released by Criterion. I have long hoped that Criterion or Eclipse would release a set of Blank’s work. Now seems as good a time as any.



Lost This Week – Chris Marker and Gore Vidal

This week we lost two cultural heavy-weights. The passing of Chris Marker is a huge loss for cinema, but it also creates a moment for the living to look back upon all that Marker created. The folks at Criterion used this event as an opportunity to reflect on a work of Marker’s I had not seen before. Junkopia, which was co-directed by Frank Simeone and John Chapman, is a wonderful little piece filmed near San Francisco where Marker was shooting footage for Sans Soleil. The poetic portrait of junk sculptures resting in a mudflat is quite haunting and beautiful.

Gore Vidal was not known for making documentaries, but he does give this wonderful interview on The South Bank Show where he talks about his memoirs and how we Americans all talk too much about ourselves. For fear of proving him right, I’ll just leave you to enjoy the video.


In his review in The National Stanley Kauffman makes an interesting comparison between Titicut Follies – that other great institution documentary – and Warrendale.

Last year we saw a documentary called Titicut Follies, made in a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane, a picture that no doubt originated in a genuine impulse to expose oppressive conditions but that, I thought, began to get some gawking kicks out of showing them. I mention that picture only to assure those who saw it – or who wouldn’t see it – that Warrendale has not the slightest resemblance to it. It is not an expose, it is not a chamber of horrors. It is a union with some children who become very precious to us before the 100 minutes are up.

Stanley Kauffman’s review of Warrendale  www.allankingfilms.com

Warrendale on Hulu. This film is also part of the outstanding Eclipse boxset: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

Through some form of kismet this post and my last post (Child of Rage)  share the subject matter of child therapy. The back-to-back choices were by accident, but they allow for an interesting comparison. Whereas Child of Rage leans heavily on interviews, Warrendale eschews them completely. Instead the film crew encamps itself right beside the staff and patients of a Canadian therapy center. What plays out is a drama that vacillates between loud and quiet moments. Manic outbursts can erupt at any moment. Long “holding” sessions help return the calm, but for how long? The experience is immersive and exhausting. We don’t learn much about child psychology or methods for dealing with violent, emotional, adolescent tantrums, but we do feel the toll they take on the children and those trying to help the children.