Playing Sat June 25 at 3:30* and Wed July 6 at 7:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
*Discussion with Blank and frequent collaborator Maureen Gosling
** Both screenings preceded by the short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”
“I can’t believe that anyone interested in movies or America could watch his work without feeling they’d been granted a casual, soft-spoken revelation,” said Jay Cocks of documentarian Les Blank. Blank gets a hearty tribute at MoMA beginning this weekend, through July 11. Full series lineup here.
Says Time Out (London) of Blank’s ode to garlic:
Better than any dry martini as an aperitif, even in the non-Smellaround version, this documentary eulogy to garlic sure gets the juices going. Featuring such eccentrics as the Chief Garlic Head, and tabling the many and varied delights of the ‘stinking rose’, this is a real breath of fresh air. Will repeat and repeat.
Steve Dollar on the MoMA series, for The Wall Street Journal:
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.”
Nicholas Rapold has lunch with Blank, for The Village Voice:
Blank closes the camera in on gumbo, stove-top collard greens, BBQ chicken, or a crawfish mid-slurp. For about half a century, the Tampa-raised, Berkeley-settled filmmaker has been making disarmingly beautiful movies about American music and food, homespun wisdom, and the way dancing moves the spirit. In conjunction with Blank’s (fifth) appearance at the old-school Flaherty Seminar nonfiction fest, MOMA is presenting “Les Blank: Ultimate Insider,” a retrospective of his toe-tapping, lip-smacking, and quintessential documents of the country’s unhomogenized cultures.
By and large unabashedly positive, even utopian in outlook, and closely edited to the riffs of musicians captured live, Blank’s films began with portraits of bluesmen: first shades-wearing Lightnin’ Joe Hopkins (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968) and gentleman-farming Mance Lipscomb (A Well-Spent Life, 1971). But even before then, Blank, who narrowly avoided entering the Air Force and found his mojo in playwriting at Tulane University, found serendipity with a 1964 short on Dizzy Gillespie.
“Someone came to me and had this footage and said, ‘We started this film and it’s not working out so well—can you save it? We’ll pay you $200 if you can,’ ” Blank recalls. “I found that working with music and images was a lot of fun, to see how the two became a separate medium under certain conditions, certain combinations.”
Blank’s music video “Decisions: How to Dress Well”; A Well Spent Life
Annette Insdorf in her presentation of the AFI’s “Maya Deren Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement as an Independent Filmmaker” (there’s a mouthful!) to Blank:
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, ‘The invariable mark of wisdom is to find the miraculous in the common.’ By this definition, Les Blank is one wise filmmaker. His rich body of cinematic work is filled with miracles and not just of sound and image. One can almost smell and taste aspects of his films, from Garlic is As Good as 10 Mothers to Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe; and there is a palpability to his work – a sense of detail and of place – in such movies as Burden of Dreams.
Some people (unfortunate viewers!) assume that documentaries are didactic chronicles, usually narrated by an all-knowing and often paternal male voice. Les Blank’s documentaries, from Hot Pepper to In Heaven There Is No Beer?, resist such categorization. They’re more often joyful glimpses of an America far from the corporate mainstream. He has been called something of an anthropologist, as he has recorded such a variety of ethnic cultures – from the music of Chicanos in Chulas Fronteras, to the Serbian-American communities of Chicago and California in Ziveli, to the Cajun and Zydeco musicians of Southwest Louisiana in I Went to the Dance. But it takes more than an anthropologist to capture Mardi Gras in New Orleans (especially the black community), as Blank does in Always for Pleasure. It takes a filmmaker.
Although I consider Les Blank to be a quintessentially American filmmaker, something about his work reminds me of Jean Renoir. Both are drawn to the rituals of daily life – the meals, music and festivals that bind individuals together into communities. The films of both exhibit a sharp or curious eye balanced by an expansive heart. If there’s one Les Blank film title that sums this up for me, it’s from a 20-minute movies of the late ’60s, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance.”
Cigarette Blues; God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance
Michael Fox for the San Francisco Film Festival:
It’s impossible to name another documentary filmmaker who has consistently provided audiences with as much pleasure, poignancy and pure joie de vivre as Les Blank. In an iconoclastic career that’s spanned half a century and nearly 35 films, the soft-spoken East Bay dynamo has established himself as the preeminent chronicler of indigenous American music and culture. His work has received numerous national PBS broadcasts and garnered a shelf of awards, all the more remarkable given that sober social-issue documentaries get most of the respect and attention in our culture.
Such fascinating and valuable works as The Blues Accordin’ to Lighnin’ Hopkins, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and Burden of Dreams illustrate Blank’s rare knack for capturing and revealing the heart, and the soul, of his subjects. He knows how to be invisible and when to draw close, when to downplay his personality and when to assert it. All in the service of taking audiences to places they couldn’t go on their own.
“Anthropologists don’t like my arty aspect,” he begins. “They say, ‘There’s no place for art in a good ethnographic film.’ Alan Lomax [the musicologist and son of the groundbreaking folklorist John Lomax, Sr.] said I should just fix the camera in the wide-angle position, put it down and walk away. After the party when I showed Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers as a work in progress at a New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1979, we rode the elevator down. I was all self-satisfied thinking I had a smash hit. What I almost had was a smash hit from Mr. Folklore. He wanted to punch me in the nose. I showed people dancing at Chez Panisse and having fun with garlic. The salt of the earth, the poor and the desperate, garlic was a main ingredient in their diets, and he said I was completely ignorant of all this in how I put my film together.”
Vincent Canby on Garlic for the New York Times:
Garlic is so good – and funny – that it doesn’t even offend someone who takes a dim view of baked whole garlic and who doesn’t exactly long to munch chocolate-covered garlic cloves. This is a collage of interviews with people who preach garlic-evangelism. They include flamenco singers, beauty-contest queens, mothers, cooks, farmers, restaurateurs and just plain aficionados, who are promoting garlic not only as a seasoning but also as a food, a medicine and a way of life.
It tells you a lot more about garlic than you may ever have wanted to know and, in the manner of someone who knows The Truth, it has little patience with people who don’t hold the same opinions. One fellow, who is introduced as ”the head garlic head,” tells of one lost (nongarlic-loving) soul, ”a real vampire,” who specialized in 13th-century Chinese cooking and could eat nothing but boiled rice flavored with the dew collected from wild – not domestic – roses.
Bilge Ebiri on “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” for NY Mag:
Blank is perhaps best known for the notorious Burden of Dreams, his 1982 portrait of Werner Herzog directing Fitzcarraldo in the Amazonian jungle. A couple of years prior to that, however, Blank also made another unbelievable, award-winning film featuring the German auteur. Herzog had once promised to “eat his shoe”if his friend Errol Morris ever finished a film; upon the occasion of the release of Morris’s Gates of Heaven, Herzog did just that. Blank’s camera captures Herzog simmering his shoe in duck stock with garlic for five hours, then sitting down at a table before a Berkeley audience with a bottle of beer and poultry scissors, fielding questions from the crowd about his friend’s achievement. What emerges is a film about following your vision, and finding new and extreme ways to show how much you care. Also, did we mention Werner Herzog eats his fucking shoe?
And Werner himself celebrates Blank:
Les is the one who has found truth, and in every single film he has made, he has shown us and given us this feeling of what truth on a screen can be… What would America be without Les’s warm, dignified and wonderful look into the very soul of all of us?