Les Blank, who died Sunday at age 77, was King of the Folkie Filmmakers, a professional Stranger in Paradise, the ramshackle poet laureate of a lost American gemeinschaft.
A soft-spoken bearish guy with a knack for sniffing out regional cultures and their cuisines, Blank looked like he might occupy a lot of space but actually he was a master of fitting in. A cameraman before all else, he made a dozen or more episodic, serendipitous travelogues tied together with music rather than voice-over narrations.
Part ethnographer, part mythologist, Blank spent decades combing the Gulf Coast celebrating American folk communities — enclaves of Creoles, Cajuns, Mardi Gras Indians, polka enthusiasts, and garlic lovers who have seemingly resisted the homogenization of McDonalds and mass culture. Blank himself was born into a well-off Florida family; he was a preppie whose classmates at Andover included Frank Stella, Carl Andre, and Hollis Frampton. All three became ascetic modernists but not him. Asked why he filmed what he filmed, he explained, “I find my own cultural heritage to be… uh… a bit thin.”
Blank’s films were the essence of old timey, celebrating traditional cultures where family ties remained strong, work was not wholly divorced from pleasure, and people take time to swap heartfelt bromides. After documenting the hippie love-fests of 1967, he went native — leaving the world of industrial training films to follow the ultimate cowboy-hipster-bluesman through the back streets and black rodeos of Houston: “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.” Subsequent music films portrayed the Texas songster Mance Lipscomb, zydeco superstar Clifton Chenier, norteño diva Lydia Mendoza, and country fiddler Tommy Jarrell. Blank also formed a strategic partnership with the great record producer Chris Strachwitz – they shared office space upstairs at Down Home Records in El Cerrito, California, and Blank’s movies were often paralleled by releases on Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, not to mention the T-shirts that each movie inspired.
Blank was also close with another German-born American, Werner Herzog. Indeed, Blank’s masterpiece is “Burden of Dreams,” his 1982 documentary on the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” Herzog’s jungle epic about the real life madman set out to drag a steamboat over a mountain and bring grand opera to the Amazon. Blank’s tendency to romanticize his subject matter made him that much more suspicious of the impulse in others. “Burden of Dreams” is a stronger than “Fitzcarraldo” because it places the title character’s megalomania in context (Indians schlepping fuel for the bulldozer barefoot through the rain forest, Herzog sinking knee-deep in mud, a cameraman gashing his head open, and the star Klaus Kinski complaining, “You can’t go anywhere — you can’t escape off this fucking, stinking camp”). Slyly appropriating most of its strongest set pieces, it’s a gently mocking account of one (or any) white man’s hubris in the wilderness.
Les Blank was hardly a conquistador. His oeuvre embodies the American pastoral with more consistency and a deeper nostalgia than that of any filmmaker since John Ford. The cooking and eating scene has the same cosmic significance in Blank’s films as the singing of “Shall We Gather at the River” does in a Ford’s westerns. (As I wrote here last year, the party scenes in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” have a sense memory of Blank’s backwoods jamborees.) His movies are predicated on the notion of folk consciousness as innately utopian and literally harmonious; his recurring image is the tribal wholeness of a dance where everyone, young and old, is able to boogie to same primal beat. It’s the scene I’m sure he would have wanted for his funeral: “Always For Pleasure.”