by Kelly Vance
(East Bay documentary filmmaker Les Blank died at his home in Berkeley yesterday at age 77.)
Les is more. Useless to try to compile a “greatest hits” for a man who virtually invented the up-close, impressionistic, roots-music biopic. But here are a few unforgettable favorite riffs from the career of a filmmaking, music-loving, life-embracing son of a gun:
Burden of Dreams is the all-time finest “making-of,” even better than its subject, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Drop by Mance Lipscomb’s place in A Well Spent Life and learn the real meaning of Texas blues. Blank’s Always for Pleasure plus the notorious “acid-trip cemetery” footage he shot for Easy Rider put New Orleans in a new light for hippies and film freaks — and, of course, there’s plenty of lip-smacking kitchen advice. Which of the Gap-Toothed Women has the best smile? Drop whatever you’re doing right now and see Chulas Fronteras — it’ll change your opinion of the US-Mexican border, whatever it is. All in This Tea (2007) explores the hillsides of China and West Marin, then settles in for a cup of organic tea and a handful of earthworms. Les and Chris Strachwitz dug up the Louisiana roots of Cajun and zydeco in J’ai été au bal and put them on a plate with some crawfish. The irresistible Afro-Cuban rhythms in Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella. For a preview of his Polish-American polka tribute In Heaven There Is No Beer at the Variety Club screening room in SF, Blank rigged up an electric grill and cooked kielbasa, which he served with beer from a tapper keg — the ultimate Smell-Around press screening.
The best thing about Blank and his incurable lust for experience was his joy of discovery. He made you just as enthusiastic as he was and sent you out the door searching for more, whether it was corridos or hillbilly high-lonesome or an “erster” po' boy. Take a random look through his eyes and you’ll be hooked forever.
Farewell and thanks, Les.