Documentary filmmaker Les Blank, whose work covered a range of cultural interests from blues music to food, died Sunday of bladder cancer at his home in Berkeley, Calif., according to his son Harrod Blank. He was 77.
Blank first gained critics' admiration for his early profiles of musicians, including “Dizzy Gillespie” and “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” in 1965. His 42 films focused on matters of curiosity about various topics throughout his career, earning him an American Film Institute lifetime achievement award.
Filmmaker Taylor Hackford, president of the Directors Guild of America, called Blank a “national treasure” and predicted posthumous attention. “Although his films are not well known at the moment, they’ll take their place,” Hackford told the New York Times
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Among his celluloid curiosities was a 1979 account of filmmaker Werner Herzog, who had told a friend working on a film he would eat his shoes after the project was completed. Blank’s 20-minute film was called “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.”
He also documented the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” another Herzog failure, in 1982’s “Burden of Dreams.” New York Times critic Vincent Canby described the film as “one of the most candid, most fascinating portraits ever made of a motion picture director at work.”
John Rockwell of the New York Times described Blank's films as “brilliantly sympathetic, well-crafted essays.”
Other unusual subjects included the food documentary “Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers” in 1980 and “Gap-Toothed Women,” a series of interviews in 1987.
Blank would decide to make a film whenever something he thought interesting crossed his mind, according to his son, also a filmmaker.
“If he was interested in gap-toothed women, he’s going to make a film about it. If he wants to make a film about garlic because he loves to eat garlic, he’s going to do it,” Harrod Blank said.
Former wife Chris Simon said Blank did not think of himself as a documentarian, but someone who made films about real people.
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Born in Tampa, Fla., Blank became interested in filmmaking after watching an Ingmar Bergman film, “The Seventh Seal.” He attended film school at the University of Southern California before making educational and industrial films.
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