Mar 28, 2017
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Less is More Blank
by Doniphan Blair
Blank Focuses His Gaze on everything, including this interviewer. Lurking behind him is a box of memorabilia from his infamous "Burden of Dreams." photo: CineSource
Above an old-timey music store, on a fast food stretch of East Bay boulevard, sit two rooms stuffed with stickers, posters, sculptures, T-Shirts, DVDs, computers, the odd feature script and VHS tape, and stacks and shelves of 16mm film. It is the lair of Les Blank, the soft-spoken, tall-standing, internationally-acclaimed, and southern-fried granddad of the alternative documentary: the guy who made "Burden of Dreams" about Herzog in Peru making "Fitzcarraldo," the guy who shot some of the "Easy Rider" dream sequence, the guy who studied the films of Vorkapic, who literally invented the dream sequence.
Les Blank, in short, because less is more with Blank, is the man, the 74-year old, fit-as-a-fiddle, mack daddy of the hand-made doc - 41 films and counting, including "The Blues Accordin' to Lightning Hopkins," "Gap-Toothed Women," and "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers," as well as "Burden."
A voracious film viewer and student of the craft, Blank came up through USC, a little before Lucas and around when Coppola was at UCLA. He also came north but veered onto a shaded side track which led to various jungles, kitchens and shotgun shacks, where he documented - i.e. made lovely, languorous and revealing films about - nothing more or less than life itself, albeit the good life - beautiful music, high art and fantastic food. In short, as I said, Blank is a mild-mannered Prometheus pulling pristine embers from a cultural house-a-fire.
I saw a video of you on YouTube [with long hair] from the early 70s -
Being interviewed in Boston by Robert Gardner [the ethnographic filmmaker]? That was pretty lame, I wish they would get rid of it. I had come from Oklahoma, where I was living on a commune-like recording studio, doing a film about [pianist-rocker] Leon Russell. That's why I look that way [although he retains a healthy goatee].
In it, you mentioned that, instead of going to college, you wished you went bumming around South America. Did you finally get to do that while filming 'Burden of Dreams' [his film about Werner Herzog making 'Fitzcaraldo' in Peru]?
I wasn't bumming around. I was on a mission, doing a job.
Do you still wish you had been bumming?
Yes, but I would probably would have gotten in trouble.
How did you get on that mission [to film Herzog]?
I had known Werner for years. He liked my films and decided he wanted someone to document [the shooting of 'Fitzcarraldo'] but there was no money. I finally had to go to PBS but that was a total freak accident.
They had an independent documentary fund, to which I had applied for another project. After they turned me down, I didn't want to have anything to do with them. I know it's childish, but that was how I felt. That was back in the day when there wasn't 10,000 filmmakers breaking down doors - if you had a good project, you would eventually get funded.
I was walking around New York with Howard Dratch. He wanted do a film about Cuban music and asked me to be the director/cameraman but he had no money. He had already gotten WNET [New York's PBS affiliate] to do 'On Company Business,' with the CIA man Philip Agee, a childhood friend of mine, as it turns out - but that has nothing to do with this story.
After the [WNET] guy, David Loxton, had finished talking to Dratch, he turned to me and asked what I was doing. I said, 'I was down in Peru with Werner and the Indians burned our camp.' He said, 'Well, that sounds interesting. Fill out this application.' They gave us $80,000.
Werner never gave us any money. He had been promised $40,000 by a German TV station, but they never freed it up for fear of what he would do with it, saying he'd only get the money after he delivered the finished film. He paid for our transport, our housing, and a limited amount of beer. They built a hut for me - actually, it was where [Mick] Jagger's valet had been living. Once [Jason] Robards and Jagger dropped out [of 'Fitzcarraldo'], PBS had some doubts. [Robards, in the title role, got such bad dysentery, his doctor forbade return to the jungle, while Jagger, who was playing his dimwitted actor-buddy, had to go back to his day job as a Stone].
Was making a film about Herzog like looking in the mirror: making a film about a filmmaker making a film about a guy on a ridiculous quest that is itself a metaphor for filmmaking?
Blank photographed by his son Harrod and wearing one of his classic, self-promoting T-shirts.
It was not obvious at the time. We were just trying to get what was going on to tell an interesting story. It wasn't until the editing with Maureen [Gosling] we realized there was a good way to construct the film.
Whenever you see [the shooting of] 'Fitzcarraldo,' it followed the storyline of the film, the beginning of that film at the beginning [of my film], the end at the end [so the two films would build together]. But with Werner it was chronological. The first time we interviewed him is the first interview and the last is the last.
Were people nervous about having [Klaus] Kinski on set so soon after the 'Aguirre' gun incident [when Kinsky insisted a soundman be fired in the middle of the Amazon and Herzog convinced him otherwise by showing him a gun with two bullets and saying, 'One for you and one for me'].
Yeah, sure, but it was Werner who had the gun not Kinsky, although Kinsky also claimed he had one. The first night we were there, a neighboring tribe attacked our camp. Armed guards were put up immediately but we never knew if we would be attacked again. It was pretty edgy, what with the river going up and down [due to a drought, preventing Herzog from using his three refurbished riverboats], the Indians - a lot kept quitting and going home and he had to get more - and Werner having to deal with the investors.
What, from reports coming over the radio?
Yeah, and you could barely hear what they said on the radio. But Werner keeps a pretty even keel. He just plows ahead and does what has to be done.
After all these years, you must be pretty comfortable with weird shooting situations?
And no funding?
Yeah, none of these films were funded at the start. I quit freelancing in '72 when I was making that film in Oklahoma [about Russell, 'A Poem is a Naked Person']. Somehow, I had enough coming in. I was able to get films out to people who would rent or buy them. I would do my own shipping. When VHS came out, I was one of the first indies to do VHS and one of the last to go to DVD, which is nothing to brag about. I lost $10,000 on that. I had to eat a bunch of VHS [tapes, bought in bulk] and they don't taste very good.
How was switching to video?
I stuck with film all the way to '97. The film about tea is in video ['All In This Tea,' completed 2007].
What do you think about switch from the 3:4 [aspect ratio] to letterbox?
I don't mind. When I shot the film in Cuba ['Roots of Rhythm,' 1990], we did Super 16. We went three times. I shot 90% but got squeezed out of the director's credit. If you don't blink, you will see it says 'director and cinematographer of the Cuba and New York sequences.'
What attracted you so much to music?
I always felt very strongly about music. I was always interested of people of different cultures. Where I grew up in Florida [Tampa], there were African Americans, the Cubans and the rural folk - down there they'd call them 'crackers.' I didn't really know much about them but I did go to their dances. I would see them at these knock-down dance halls out in the orange groves - places my mother wouldn't want me to go.
Was your mom a 'Southern belle'?
Not really. She grew up in a little town outside of Tampa. Her father, who came down from Missouri, cleared swamps and built roads. Most people think of Florida as Miami Beach, but it is not. I documented some of that, but in Louisiana and Texas.
My first film on music was about Dizzy Gillespie . I enjoyed using music to work with the film editing. My next [music] film was on Lightnin' Hopkins, and I was able to get into a bit of the ethnic background. He was an interesting guy when he wasn't in one of his moods.
A rock star type?
When you bring in a camera, is it like modernity or the city intruding?
I just try to not build up a wall between me and [the people being filmed]. If I see the camera is making them nervous, I will do what I can to be less intrusive. I work with a small crew, people who are interested in [the people being filmed] and want to know more about them. Some tech people will go in there and just look at them as objects, objects who are creating a lighting problem, a sound recording problem.
My crew was originally just myself on camera and a sound recordist. When I could afford it, I brought in a third to load the [film] magazines, to talk to people, to get releases. A couple of times we had four people.
Broad Cinema Studies: Blank relaxing with one foot on a screenplay he's reading, "Up in the Air," the current hit by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner. photo CineSource
Any thoughts on getting good B roll?
I never call it B roll. I do my own editing, so I knew how important that stuff is. I am always looking to gather as much as I can.
Since you are from the Bay Area, have you ever tackled the hippies, and do you think there is any inherent difficulty in that subject?
I would be up to do it. My first independent film was about the 'love-ins' in LA in 1967 ['God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance,' 1968]. I was very inspired when I shot it and I think it shows. Scenes from that film are used in just about every film about the beginning of rock, or the hippies. There were a bunch of hippies in the Leon Russell film. Some people wanted me to join their commune.
But there is yet to be a great film about hippies, except for 'Easy Rider.'
I worked on that. I just looked at it - it seems a little dated - but the DVD commentary from Dennis Hopper was fascinating. The original DP, Baird Bryant, asked me to come along [on 'Easy Rider'] because of my footage from the love-in. He also shot the love-in but he thought my footage was much better than his. Later, he shot at Altamont for the Maysles [Brothers, 'Gimme Shelter,' 1971]. He got the guy being killed.
Anyway, Hopper got $50,000 and we went to New Orleans to shoot the end, the graveyard dream sequence, first. A lot of that was my shooting. Once the studio decided Hopper could do it, they fired all of us. They figured they needed a union crew to make sure everything would go correctly - otherwise the center would not hold - instead of just letting him do it with a bunch of his friends.
Any other films that come to mind that capture that time?
Any filmmakers you look back to?
Ingmar Bergman. 'Seventh Seal' is what spun me around and got me interested in making movies. I didn't get interested in documentaries until film school [USC]. I saw some ethnographic films. 'Dead Birds' by Robert Gardner [1965, a ground-breaker about New Guinean tribes]. I liked [Robert] Flaherty and how he got inside [Inuit] culture [in "Nanook of the North," 1922]. There was this guy, John Marshall, who grew up in Africa and made a film about hunters who would track an animal for three days. Whether they got it or not meant the survival of their community. That made a big impression on me.
At USC, a guy teaching editing before I got there, Slavko Vorkapic [head of the film school, actually], made these short films, very poetic. One was to Fingal's Cave Overture by Mendelssohn ['Moods of the Sea,' 1941], everything at the beach, the shore, the birds, the waves, and another, to a Wagnerian piece, called 'Forest Murmurs' . I found them very moving.
He created the concept of 'montage editing,' the whole idea of editing as an art form, expressionism through cuts. [His work included the hallucinatory opener to the 1934 'Crime Without Passion,' the montage sequence in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and so many others, they became known as 'Vorkapics.' The recently deceased Art Clokey, see Feb10 CS, was a Vorcapic protege].
So you try to have montage sections in all your films?
Whenever I have a chance, whenever I can get away with it.
Any other filmmakers [you like]?
I like Fellini, De Sica and Bunuel a lot.
Bunuel the surrealist or the more gritty 'Los Olvidados?'
Have you ever gotten in any conflicts while making your films?
When I was doing 'Chulas Fronteras,' , we were going to a dance hall [in Houston] to film and the people didn't know if we were the DEA or Immigration and they got a bit threatening. Likewise in Cajun country. I was shooting a horse race - and they all dope their horses. They thought I was reporting on them and threatened my life.
Generally, if I'm doing a film on someone who is revered, it is OK. In Africa, I got threatened by a village chief who was upset I didn't come and ask permission - in Rhodesia during the civil war. He was kind enough to give us 10 minutes before he started shooting. We packed up and got the hell out.
Rather then just document hippies, Blank pointed his camera at the object of the liberated life - good food, interesting art, beautiful women, stimulating adventures. Shown here Alice Waters of Berkeley foodie, Chez Panisse fame, from "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers." photo Flower Films
Growing up in the South, you had some familiarity with armed hot heads?
I didn't have much contact but a friend of my father packed a gun. My dad had guns and I was always stealing them and shooting them. I was lucky I never shot anyone or myself. At one point, someone mistook my father for the target they were after and realized he was the wrong guy at the last minute. There was a big Cuban Mafia in Tampa.
What do you think of combining documentary and feature elements?
It is fine, if it works and keeps me interested, engaged and involved. Ideally, a story gets told in an interesting way. It's an entertaining, educational, and artistic experience, like an opera, a piece of music, or a play - all of a piece. It takes you someplace.
In 'Burden' you had quite variety of music, including opera.
There is [also] native music and the huaynos, which is a fusion of the altiplano and the African music from the coast. They [also] have huge dance halls.
Ever thought about a film with no music?
It would be hard – just sound effects? Those Danish guys from [the] Dogma [Group] don't believe in background music. When it works, it is good. [Lars von Trier] just did 'Anti-Christ.' I wouldn't say I liked it but it kept you awake and watching. I liked 'Dogville' a lot; 'Breaking the Waves' I liked.
Back when you were shooting film, how did you endeavor to capture the intense moments?
Just start shooting and hope to catch something before I ran out film. The trouble with film, it is so expensive. You can't go fishing that much. When I was doing the drag racing film ['Seven Second Love Affair,' 1965, his first doc] the guy I was filming had a crack up which brought some drama into the process.
With digital cameras, you can keep the camera running until you get that magic moment when everything sparkles and crackles and something is happening. Reality is also dull. In between [those moments], it is like watching paint dry.
With 'Burden' you had plenty of drama.
Yes but we had problems keeping up with the drama. We had to get the tripod and camera into the little boats when they went off shooting. Sometimes they wanted to leave without me - the [German] crew was not that easy on me. When they ran out of beer, the Germans would get it but the Americans were cut off.
There was quite a hierarchy [at 'Fitzcarraldo'] - the Indians had their own camp - did that cause tension?
I don't know. I could go hang out at [the Indian's] place but they couldn't be at ours. Actually, one of them did, because he was being filmed. He sang the song about the women and the 'masato,' [the homebrew activated by saliva, the making of which Blank documents in 'Burden' along with an argument about stealing husbands between two Indian women]. It was a little touchy when he wanted some beer. The Germans didn't always want to give it to him.
Let's say you were to start a film about a musician living up in Humboldt, what would you do?
I would learn all I could here, listen to all their music, talk to people who knew [that person]. Then move in and see what happens, hang around and shoot.
Would you take out the camera on the first day?
Yup. The sooner people get used to the camera the better. I might take it out and not shoot so they can get used to the object.
In 'Burden,' I hear you asking questions. Is that tough: shooting and asking questions?
Yup, especially in 16 mm, with the Aaton or ƒclair: if you take away your eye away from the eyepiece you get 'light struck' [flairs on the film]. I would try to get someone [to ask the questions]. With 'Burden,' I had Michael Goodwin [who wrote the film and did some narration] to feed [Werner] questions, like the thing about nature being obscene.
What do you think of that part? [At the end of 'Burden,' Herzog says: "Kinsky always says (nature) is full of erotic elements. I don't see so much erotical (sic). I see it as full of obscenity... I see fornication and asphyxiation and fighting for survival... There is a lot of misery. The trees here are in misery, the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they screech in pain!']
I was quite shocked because it was so vehement. Then the audience would laugh and there was something strange about the humor it evoked. When we had our first showing, as a work-in-progress at [the] Telluride [Film Festival], Volker Schlondorff [the German director of 'The Tin Drum] was so upset he wanted to buy the negative and have it destroyed right there. A Brazilian director, Carlos Diegues ['Bye Bye Brazil'], was so upset about having his continent run down he went outside and vomited.
Blank includes a subplot about another one of his favorite topics, women, in "Burden of Dreams." photo: Flower Films
They find it funny here but no one laughs in South America, maybe they feel insulted. I travelled to ten capitals in South and Central America to show my films, all with Spanish subtitles, paid for by the state department. They liked them - they just didn't laugh at Werner's speech.
They sent Volker up here to check on me, to see the film, after I had a chance to absorb what I had seen in Telluride. By then, we had a chance to balance the film out, to show what Werner was experiencing, what drove him so crazy.
You did that with the montage of the ants?
The ants and everything you see in the film.
Did you take out the most virulent parts?
Not necessarily. It took some manipulating. In some places I exaggerated [Werner] and in others I toned him down.
And you feel that is fine?
Sure, all editing is manipulation. At one point, the narrator says [Werner] took the cast and crew 1000 miles into the elements, where there was no civilization, to make the cast and crew suffer. He denies that. He said, 'If New York's Central Park had two rivers with a mountain in between, we would stay at the Ritz and walk to work.' But when he does retrospectives of his films, he likes to have 'Burden' included.
Are you on speaking terms with all your subjects?
Most. Leon Russell and I never talk, except through our lawyers. He approved of the film after I made the last cut he wanted. But he had a falling out with his producer, Denny Cordell, whose idea it was to make the film. [Russell] first appeared in the film, 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen,' with Joe Cocker [in 1971], which made him famous and [Cordell] thought Russell should get in another.
On two occasions, he threatened to sue me. We stopped the showing at the Portland Museum of Art. Again in Nashville - I wasn't even showing that film - he threatened again, because he lived near there. But my lawyer pointed out to his lawyer that I had this clause in my contract that said I could show it if it was at a non-profit institution if I was present.
What was Russell so bothered about?
He would never tell me. I guess he is self-conscious about the way he looks and acts on camera.
The camera is a sort of god that reflects the truth, no?
It reflects what is there. Whether that is the truth or not, I don't know. It once showed a few times at a music-in-film festival in Washington. The Washington Post called it 'the best film made on rock and roll.' Of course, that was in '74.
Does it have very raw elements?
What would you say to a young docmaker?
Just follow your passion. If you are not passionate about it, do something else.
George Chichery [the Oakland docmaker, see Feb10 CS] says he learned from you to always self-produce.
Self-producing has its advantages. You don't work for other people.
You were able to make it work?
More or less. Fortunately, people wanted to buy my films, wanted to see them.
If you had to pick one of your films?
If I had to pick one, I'd pick the Lightnin' Hopkins film. But there about five or six others I don't mind watching over and over: 'Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers,' , 'Sprout Wings and Fly,' , 'Burden,' of course... let's see, 'Always for Pleasure,' , 'Chulas Fronteras,' , 'A Well Spent Life,' , and 'Werner Eats His Shoe,' .
Recently, you had a co-director 'All In This Tea,' with Gina Leibrecht, 2007]. Is that the first time you did that?
Yup. Originally the Hopkins film was supposed to be co-directed but we couldn't live with it. Ego and pride got in the way. So we didn't put either of our names on it, one of the stupidest things you could do. It played LA for eight weeks with Godard's 'Weekend' and no one knew who did it. I later put my name on it.
I liked the titles for it.
I pestered the title people to get that font, something you might see on an old sign in Texas. They finally said, 'Why don't you just do it yourself.' Although I am not an artist, I just did it with white ink on black paper.
Sounds like the story of your filmmaking, just do it yourself?
Anything new on the work desk?
I have a film about an artist in Alabama, Butch Anthony, a self-taught artist. I have been filming him for 12 years. See that aquarium with a desiccated cat or that hanging sculpture of me filming 'Gap-Tooth Women?' It is all made from found objects. I haven't had a big enough grant to force me to complete the film. It is probably time to complete it.
He is coming back here in April with his girlfriend, Natalie Chanin, who I hope will be an interesting part of the film. She is a textile artist and clothing designer. She will be at Redbird [a women's clothing store in Berkeley] - a benefit for Alice Waters [the culinary maestra, who starred in 'Garlic'] and her Edible Schoolyard [teaching healthy eating through gardening]. She takes over the whole place and tells stories as people sew.
There is a film on Ricky Leacock [the docmaker who worked on 'The Louisiana Story' with Flaherty and started the film department at MIT]. He didn't believe in using the tripod or artificial lights. I got some interesting footage of him in Normandy, a lot of cooking involved. Whenever I was with him, he would cook and tell fantastic stories.
Then there is a film about a South-East Asian fruit, the durian, supposedly very high in nutrients. It has a very strong odor: 'Smells like hell, tastes like heaven,' as they say. It has something magical about it, an aphrodisiac. It makes you feel different in your mind.
So you are still exploring your favorite themes: food, filmmakers and artists?
Yup, people who are passionate about what they do are always interesting.
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Posted on Mar 02, 2010 - 02:14 PM