Remembering Les Blank

12 Apr

American filmmaker and documentarian Les Blank died last week at the age of 77. Blank began making experimental short films in the 1960s and then moved onto documentaries. Never a conventional filmmaker, either in execution or subject matter, he brought his unique sensibility to his work. He made many films about artists and musicians, including Lighnin’ Hopkins, Dizzy Gillespie. He also documented jazz music and the culture in New Orleans, as seen in the clip above.

He was friends with the German filmmaker Werner Herzog and eventually made films about him including Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a film about a bet between Blank and Herzog that if their friend Errol Morris made a film, Herzog would eat his own shoe. It’s not a spoiler to say that Morris did make a film, and Herzog came through on the bet resulting in one of Blank’s best films. Blank also documented the making of the notoriously chaotic production of Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, made with actor Klaus Kinski in the rainforests of South America. The obsessive ambitions of the film’s main character to build an opera house in the Amazonian jungle mirrored the obsessive ambitions of the filmmaker Herzog to replicate these physical feats in film and tell his story. Herzog did engineer moving a 340-ton ship up the Amazon and carried it across an isthmus to another river while also getting caught up in a military conflict between Peru and Ecuador.

Herzog speaks about Blank and that documentary, Burden of Dreams in the clip below.

The Film & Media Archive has several films by Les Blank in the Henry Hampton Collection including, Dizzy Gillespie, an early film focusing on the jazz  trumpeter, composer and arranger where he discusses his life and musical theories, Sun’s gonna shine, a lyrical recreation of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ decision at age eight to stop chopping cotton and start singing for his living, Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a film about the famed blues musician, and Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,  Les Blank’s first student film, a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, the film that inspired Blank to become a filmmaker.

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