Aliens, Operas and a Blank Slate of Documentaries
So much of what you need to know about Les Blank can be found in the titles of his documentaries: “God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance,” “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,” “Sprout Wings and Fly,” “Spend It All,” “In Heaven There Is No Beer?”
Mr. Blank’s festive chronicles of indigenous American subjects, whether the Cajun musicians he often celebrates or the sensual grins that light up the funkily feminist “Gap-Toothed Women,” echo with a promiscuous, polyglot joy. This retrospective begins with Mr. Blank’s first film, 1964’s “Dizzy Gillespie,” and continues into the digital era with the feature-length “All in This Tea” (2007), a trek to the far corners of China with American tea importer David Lee Hoffman—with an appearance by Werner Herzog, another favorite focal point.
Happy to say, Mr. Blank doesn’t sacrifice any soulfulness in the transition from hand-held 16mm to hi-def. But the core of his ouevre is the remarkable assortment of films documenting the lives of Southern blues, fiddle, Cajun and zydeco masters: Lightin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Dennis McGee, Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, Dewey Balfa, Canray Fontenot and Clifton Chenier. The free-flowing “Always for Pleasure” (1978) is a cayenne-spiced mosaic of New Orleans in the 1970s, where Mardi Gras seems like a never-ending state of mind. “You be here today and you be gone tomorrow,” says one reveler, part of a brass band-accompanied funeral march locals know as the second line. “You can’t see what’s after death—but you always can see what’s right there in front of you.”
Mr. Blank, whose gift for intimate face time marks him as an exalted master in the fine art of hanging out, may be one of America’s greatest journalists working without a laptop. “Burden of Dreams,” his 1982 portrait of Mr. Herzog, likening the Amazonian jungle to a creeping death during the catastrophic making of Mr. Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” could never be topped by anyone limited to mere words. The film did more than anything to establish the German filmmaker as a character larger than any of the crazed personas in his often outsized films. Indeed, Mr. Blank was fostering his friend’s myth-making early on with 1979’s “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” a 20-minute goof, shot at a hometown restaurant, that finds the director chewing up his shoe to pay off a bet with Errol Morris, who had just finished his first documentary, “Gates of Heaven.”