Documentary filmmaker Les Blank, known for highly personal docus such as “Burden of Dreams” and “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,” died Sunday at his home in Berkeley, Calif., according to the New York Times. He was 77 and had been suffering from bladder cancer.
The prolific helmer profiled music personalities and delved into dozens of American and immigrant traditions, including Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian and Serbian-American music and food. But his best-known film was 1982′ “Burden of Dreams,” which chronicled the making of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” candidly showing the German helmer’s obsessive quest to shoot the film the South American jungle. A few years earlier, Blank had taken on another curious Herzog project: Herzog wanted to encourage his student Errol Morris to finish his film about pet cemeteries, and said he would eat his shoe if Morris finished it. Herzog kept his promise when “Gates of Heaven” wrapped in 1978, boiling his leather desert boot in duck fat and stuffing them with garlic at Chez Panisse, then eating some of it onstage at a local theater. Blank filmed the stunt for a 20-minute short called “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.”
Blank was an early proponent of turning screenings into an event. Foodie docu “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,” made in 1980 and featuring Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, is traditionally shown in “Aromaround,” with garlic simultaneously roasted in-theater and pieces of bread handed out to audience members. At screenings of New Orleans culture doc “Always for Pleasure,” audience members starving for Cajun food could buy cups of gumbo for a nominal sum in the lobby.
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Born in Tampa, Fla., he attended USC film school, then began making industrial films. Blank’s first film was 1960’s “Running Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,” while his last, 2007’s “All in This Tea,” followed a tea specialist into China in search of the perfect leaf. He often lived among the people he was filming for several weeks at a time.
His biographical docs included “Dizzy Gillespie”; “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins”; “Hot Pepper,” featuring zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier; and “Sprout Wings and Fly,” about Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell.
Though he was not as widely known as his contemporaries Herzog and Morris, Blank had retrospectives at many museums and film societies, and in 2007 became the first documentary filmmaker to receive the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal, presented by the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H.
“He has filmed lots of things, including me cooking my shoe and eating it,” Werner Herzog when Blank received the IDA’s career achievement award in 2011. “I think he should be a national treasure.”
He is survived by two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.