Following the short stack of “Yum, Yum, Yum! 3 Movies by Les Blank,” which played at its Cinema Fest this past June, BAMcinématek is now serving up a 17-movie Blank banquet: a posthumous but never-too-late retrospective of the celebrated yet still spottily known documentary filmmaker who died in 2013 from bladder cancer. (Multiple Museum of Modern Art retrospectives, two works in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and numerous film awards do not necessarily earn you wide-reaching fame.)
Revered by folkies, cinephiles, and early foodies, Blank’s stubborn oeuvre, spanning more than 40 films and 50 years, is the sort that demands inventive ways of summary — or just long, persistent lists. He made documentaries about Mardi Gras, blues musicians, Cajun musicians, cigarettes, hippies, polka addicts, gap-toothed women, garlic devotees, and Werner Herzog, to name a few.
Being associated with Werner Herzog certainly can help raise your profile. Herzog appears in at least three Blank films, including the wonderfully titled short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1980), in which the iconoclastic German filmmaker does indeed chow down on his shoe, having lost a bet to then-neophyte Errol Morris, while also roaring against the stupefying influence of commercial television and calling for “holy war … real war against commercials, real war against talk shows, real war against ‘Bonanza,’ and ‘Rawhide,’ and all these things.” It also helps with making one of the greatest filmic meditations on creativity and frustration, Burden of Dreams (1982), an arch, behind-the-scenes documentary about Herzog’s infamous Amazonian fiasco, Fitzcarraldo. Among Blank’s films, Burden of Dreams is often pointed to as one of the best, and also a bit of a departure.
But Blank was always drawn in both by his curiosity and by chance; being invited by Herzog to document Fitzcarraldo was just one of the most obvious cases. Raised in Tampa, Florida, in a white, upper-middle class family, Blank increasingly turned his attention to the music around him and the “new worlds” it suggested as he grew. Rumba, country, African-American baptism ceremonies — Blank was spirited by these sounds. From Tampa to New Orleans (where he studied at Tulane University) and on, music was a cornerstone of Blank’s inner and outer life. The filmmaker first met Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, the subject of his breakthrough work, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), at an LA folk music club he used to haunt. And through Hopkins, he became acquainted with musicians Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier, both of them future subjects for his films (A Well Spent Life  and Hot Pepper , respectively).
Blank was also intimately aware of the ecstasy and melancholia of dreams. Crushed by a failed writing career and the end of his first marriage, Blank frequently spoke of seeing Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal as a life-changing moment, directing his passions and creativity into film.
From the beginning, music, food, fun, and community formed the rhythms and signatures of his work. Almost all of them less than an hour, his films are receptive impressions of his subjects’ moods, locales, and ways of life, invariably set to music and against the background of the preparation of food. Blank loved being in groups and around magnetic, happy people. Through a mixture of intimacy and offhandedness, his films strive to sew quilts of food, feelings, and imagery, exploring the customs and practices that envelope the individual within the crowd. (Hence SmellaRound, Blank’s revival of Smell-O-Vision that found him roasting garlic or making red beans and rice in the theater, at least for those who would let him.) Shots of dancing are paired with ones of faces and hands, rivers and roads, a passing bird or tapping toe, a man pulling his tooth out in the middle of a family’s outdoor dinner party. And always, someone making or talking about food.
Blank textured his films with movement and color, a lyrical sense of time and place. God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968) finds the documentarian traipsing around a Los Angeles park during an Easter love-in, warmly recording the smiles, blown bubbles, and dance moves of the assembled hippies. Blank’s camera searches over and back across a farm as Mance Lipscomb reflects on generosity in one lovely scene in A Well Spent Life.
In In Heaven There is No Beer? (1984) Blank follows an apparent craze for polka in the 1980s, registering its whirls and joys, the delight, pleasure, and philosophical wisdom of its adherents. Both the teenage girl and the ex-miner can’t wait to escape to polka, whether on a weekend or at one of the insane 11-day polka retreats documented in the film. Drawn from a polka standard, the title of the film heaves with the peculiar whirligig of tradition and abandon that Blank lovingly captures in his portrait:
In heaven there is no beer.
That’s why we drink it here.
And when we’re gone from here,
All our friends will be drinking all our beer!
As some commentators have noted, among them Robert Sullivan on The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk blog: “Every man is a philosopher in most Les Blank productions.” The unimplied criticism — Blank enjoys broad critical esteem, as in the case of Sullivan, who likely meant nothing negative by the comment — is that Blank is too uncritical, a no warts at all filmmaker. Rock critic Robert Christgau has made this observation, both fascinated and troubled by what he feels is Blank’s sometimes easy penchant to glorify — that is, to distort.
Narrowly deemed an ethnomusicologist or a folklorist early on his career, Blank was not nearly so lofty. He was a curious, warm man, a searcher with a camera whose project was bringing his audiences closer to whatever it was that moved him, creating a great chain of inspiration. Blank’s films may lack rigorous analysis, but that isn’t their goal. They are best seen as giddy archives, augmented oral histories — living, preserved stories of a person, place, or ritual. They’re by no means definitive documents.
At the same time, the films are indispensable and part of a greater whole. I like to think of him as a cinematic Studs Terkel or Alan Lomax, but quiet and shy, with a gift for conjuring a place and its tone — perhaps more of a bizarro Joan Didion, in that sense. Blank spoke of his reticence, the way he yielded the lead and authority to his subjects, as a possible aid. But instead of “always selling somebody out” as Didion said writers would inevitably do, Blank seems to always be selling somebody up, making their life and words important and big, allowing them to cast a shadow of infectious interest on ourselves and our own communities.
BAMcinématek’s Les Blank retrospective continues through September 10 at BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).
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