Les Blank dies at 77; prolific documentary filmmaker

Filmmaker Les Blank explored the music and food of niche ethnic communities but is best known for "Burden of Dreams," about director Werner Herzog's struggle to film 1982's "FitzCarraldo" in the Amazon.
(Harrod Blank)

When Les Blank arrived in the lush, untamed Amazon in 1981 to make a documentary about Werner Herzog’s film, “Fitzcarraldo,” he knew the German’s reputation as a daredevil director. Herzog had chosen the remote jungle locale, plagued by tribal skirmishes and the perils of nature, for authenticity.

On the first day of shooting, seeking a dramatic shot, Herzog sent a 300-ton steamboat careening into a rocky riverbank. Caught unaware, Blank went flying across the boat deck, camera in tow. “I realized … if I could get back alive and sane, I would have an interesting film, no matter what happened,” Blank said last year.

Blank, whose documentary, “Burden of Dreams,” became a telling portrait of a filmmaker’s descent into obsession and raised questions about ethics in making movies, died Sunday. He was 77. A filmmaker who was best known for his Herzog film but also celebrated for documenting hidden slices of American folk culture, Blank died at his home in Berkeley after a long battle with cancer, said his son, Harrod Blank.

During a nearly 50-year career, Blank made 42 films, most of which explored niche ethnic communities in the U.S., largely through their food and music.


His relentless curiosity led him to the Norteño music of Texan border towns, polka dance halls of Chicago, and bubbling pots of gumbo in the Cajun hinterlands of the Louisiana bayou.

“He just discovered these secret pockets of culture, and he shined his light and his camera on them,” Taylor Hackford, president of the Directors Guild of America, told The Times.

Blank was known for pairing an artist’s eye with an ethnologist’s discipline, presenting his findings in intimate, loose films that featured scant narration and allowed his subjects to speak for themselves. He often made the films with borrowed equipment, and mostly on shoestring budgets, cobbled together with grants from nonprofits and museums.

Blank’s body of work landed him major retrospectives globally, and in 2011 his films were showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two of them, “Chulas Fronteras” and “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,” were chosen for the National Film Registry.

In 1982, Blank won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for “Burden of Dreams,” which sent shock waves through the cinematic community for its unflinching portrayal of Herzog’s blind pursuit of art while filming “Fitzcarraldo,” an epic about a man obsessed with hauling a steamship through the jungle to strike it rich in rubber.

Rejecting special effects, Herzog insisted that he, too, would haul the ship, with help from hundreds of hired natives. Many suffered injuries, as did Herzog’s crew members, and at one point angry natives burned the crew’s camp to the ground.

“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that,” Herzog says in the film. “I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

Like so many of the subjects Blank was drawn to, Herzog had a larger-than-life persona.

“These people tend to boil over in some kind of creative act that serves as a gift to the rest of us who need some color in our lives,” Blank said in 1995.

Leslie Harrod Blank Jr. was born Nov. 27, 1935, in Tampa, Fla., the younger of two sons of Leslie Harrod Blank, a real estate developer, and Daisy Blank.

Blank’s upbringing in upper-middle-class suburbia was punctuated by the rhythms of Cuban rumba blaring from nearby cigar factories and honky-tonk dance halls his neighbors frequented. He developed a lifelong fascination with the food and music of different cultures.

He attended the Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and explored the smoky jazz clubs of Boston then moved to New Orleans to enroll at Tulane University, where he dreamed of becoming a writer.

There, he met and married his first wife, Mary Jane Ferris, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage lasted two years.

In 1958, Blank graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Tulane and went on to graduate school at UC Berkeley, but found his literature studies dull. At 23, Blank, divorced, depressed and a grad school dropout, went to the movies.

He saw Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” in which a man challenges Death to a game of chess.

“He showed me that art and beauty can come from the worst misery of the human experience,” Blank said years later of Bergman.

Blank returned to New Orleans and earned a master of fine arts in theater from Tulane. In 1960, he married Gail Perrin, and moved with her to Los Angeles to begin a doctoral program in filmmaking at USC. He quit in 1962 to work full time, and the couple soon had two sons. Blank made industrial films to pay the bills, borrowing equipment to shoot his independent films on the side.

His first widely recognized film, a profile of famed Texas bluesman Lightning Hopkins, was released in 1968. “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightning Hopkins” was filmed in classic Les Blank style: The blues, laid over scenes of an all-black rodeo and barefoot children in rural Texas, took the place of a traditional narrator, and the juxtaposition of raw music and intimate close-ups of the region’s inhabitants verged on art.

By then, Blank’s second marriage had soured, and he moved to Berkeley in 1975, taking his company, Flower Films, with him. He met Chris Simon, a neighbor who studied folklore. Simon partnered with Blank on a number of his films, and the two later married and then divorced.

Blank firmly believed a person could make a film about anything, and he did: He made films on garlic, zydeco music, and the time Werner Herzog, making good on a bet with Errol Morris, cooked and ate his shoe.

But his films also often drew on Blank’s keen sense of humor and whimsy, and provided an outlet for a man whom many knew as painfully shy. Inspired by a decades-old high school crush, Blank made the film “Gap-Toothed Women,” a collection of vignettes on such women, including then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Too shy to approach the subjects of the film, Blank had a co-producer do most of the interviewing.

“I just drift to what I find interesting,” Blank told the International Documentary Assn. in 2012. “I try to find a fresh way of looking at the world around me and making some sense of it … something lasting that the world would want to see 100 years from now.”

Blank is survived by a daughter, Ferris Robinson; two sons, Harrod Blank and Beau Blank; and three grandchildren.