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.