Les Blank, whose sly, sensuous and lyrical documentaries about regional music and a host of other idiosyncratic subjects, including Mardi Gras, gaptoothed women, garlic and the filmmaker Werner Herzog, were widely admired by critics and other filmmakers if not widely known by moviegoers, died Sunday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 77.
The cause was bladder cancer, said his son Harrod.
Blank, who received lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association, did not think of himself as a documentarian, his former wife Chris Simon said, but rather as a filmmaker whose work happened to be about real people.
And his films are hardly standard documentary fare, dominated by archival footage and interviews with talking heads; nor are they of the Frederick Wiseman-D.A. Pennebaker fly-on-the-wall expose school. Rather, the films, most of them under an hour in length, are “brilliantly sympathetic, well-crafted essays,” as John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times in 1979, rife with deftly framed portraiture, cunningly observed social scenes, beautiful nature photography and the poetic juxtaposition of imagery and sound.
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“I think he’s a national treasure,” the director Taylor Hackford said in a telephone interview. “Although his films are not well known at the moment, they’ll take their place. Films are great when they live a long time, and I think Les’ will live.”
Blank trolled for subject matter on the American periphery, in cultural pockets where the tradition is long but the exposure limited. His films often have a geographic as well as cultural specificity, and food and music are often the featured elements. His musical subjects included Norteno bands of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Cajun fiddlers of Louisiana and polka enthusiasts from across the country.
His films that are explicitly about food and drink include an almost evangelistic paean to garlic and garlic lovers, “Garlic Is as Good as 10 Mothers” (1980), which Blank sometimes screened in what he called smellovision, cooking up garlic-spiced dishes in the auditorium while the movie played; and “All in This Tea” (2007), which follows David Lee Hoffman, an eccentric American tea importer, as he travels to China in search of the world’s most delicate, flavorful tea leaves.
“You could call him an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist,” Hackford said. “He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it.”
A shy man with a quiet demeanor, Blank achieved a kind of intimacy in his work — his subjects often seem almost impossibly at ease — that suggested the camera had been an unobtrusive fly on the wall, or perhaps a welcome guest. Blank sometimes lived among the people he was filming for weeks at a time.
“I try not to make a big deal about the camera, to let it get between me and them,” Blank said in 1979. “I’ve seen a lot of cameramen go in and treat the subjects like so many guinea pigs. I think the people pick up on my very protective feelings toward them, and they aren’t self-conscious about what they do or say, and they try to show the inner light about themselves that I find so attractive.”
In “Dizzy Gillespie” (1965), about the great jazz trumpeter; “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” (1968), about the Texas blues guitarist; “Hot Pepper” (1973), which features the zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier; and “Sprout Wings and Fly” (1983), about the Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, Blank created revealing close-up portraits.
“He doesn’t command attention or say very much to them,” Harrod Blank, a filmmaker himself, said in an interview. “Now, he will eat their food and buy the drink, and I think that helps. He’ll get involved in celebrating what they want to celebrate.”
Perhaps his best-known films concern Herzog, the German director of films like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Stroszek.” To encourage his student and friend Errol Morris to finish his long-talked-about film about pet cemeteries, Herzog had said that when it was done he would eat his shoes. The impetus worked: Morris finished the film in 1978, and Herzog kept his promise, boiling his leather desert boots in duck fat (and stuffing them with garlic) at Chez Panisse, the celebrated restaurant in Berkeley and consuming them — partly, anyway — onstage at a local theater. Blank turned it into a comic, and rather touching, 20-minute film about what artists do for the sake of art, appropriately titled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1979).
Two years later, Blank was invited to the Peruvian wild, where Herzog was filming “Fitzcarraldo,” his epic and star-crossed film about a man’s outlandish, obsessive effort to build an opera house in the jungle, an effort requiring a ship to be hauled over a mountain.
Blank’s feature-length documentary about the project, “Burden of Dreams” (1982), depicted Herzog as outlandish and obsessive as he persevered through the project’s endless calamities. It is, The Times’ Vincent Canby declared, “one of the most candid, most fascinating portraits ever made of a motion picture director at work.”
Leslie Harrod Blank Jr. was born on Nov. 27, 1935, in Tampa, Fla., where his father was a real estate developer. He went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Tulane University in New Orleans, where he majored in English and aspired to be a writer. He briefly attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and flirted with the idea of becoming a Navy pilot before he saw the Ingmar Bergman film “The Seventh Seal,” which piqued his interest in making movies.
He returned to Tulane to study acting and playwriting and then went to film school at the University of Southern California. Needing money after two years of school, he took jobs making industrial and educational films, which essentially became his apprenticeship, teaching him the technical rudiments of nonfiction filmmaking under real conditions. He formed a production company, Flower Films, in 1967.
Blank was married and divorced three times. In addition to his son Harrod, whose full name is Leslie Harrod Blank III, he is survived by a daughter, Ferris Robinson; another son, Beau Blank; and three grandchildren.
In 2007, Blank received the Edward MacDowell Medal, presented annually since 1960 by the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the arts. Its previous winners included Thornton Wilder, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and only two film directors, the avant-gardist Stan Brakhage and the animator Chuck Jones. Hackford was the chairman of the jury, which included the directors Ken Burns, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair and Spike Jonze, as well as Thomas Luddy, a founder of the Telluride Film Festival.
“We all met in New York City, and I was expecting that we’d be discussing names like Francis, Marty, David Lynch and so on,” Luddy wrote in an email. “Taylor Hackford spoke first and said we’d be talking about many of the obvious great names, but his candidate was Les Blank. He said that in 100 years his own films and many of the films by the big names may well be forgotten, but Les Blank’s films will be revered as time capsule classics. I said ‘Amen,’ as did all the other members of the committee. We never even discussed another name, and our meeting was over in less than an hour.”