Blank at 43rd KVIFF in 2008
Leslie Harrod Blank Jr.
November 27, 1935
|Died||April 7, 2013 (aged 77)|
Berkeley Hills, California
|Alma mater||Tulane University|
University of Southern California
Leslie Harrod Blank Jr. was born November 27, 1935 in Tampa, Florida. He attended Phillips Academy, and Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received a B.A. degree in English. He also briefly attended University of California, Berkeley. In the early 1960s, Blank studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and received his master's degree.
Following his university education, he worked for a production company called Operation Success, making films that he would later describe as "insipid films that promote business and industry." In 1967 he founded his own production company, Flower Films, with the release of God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, a short colorful document of Los Angeles' Elysian Park Love-in. This was followed by The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1968) and The Sun's Gonna Shine (1968) about Houston blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins. He never went back to work making industrial films and all of his films were independently produced, often with the assistance of grants from cultural agencies, both governmental and non-governmental.
Most of his films focused on American traditional music forms, including (among others) blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka, tamburitza, and Hawaiian music. Many of these films represent the only filmed documents of musicians who are now deceased.
Blank's films focusing on musical subjects often spent much of their running time focusing not on the music itself but on the music's cultural context, portraying the surroundings from which these American roots musics come.
Other notable films on non-musical subjects include a film about garlic and another about gap-toothed women, as well as two films about German film director Werner Herzog: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) and Burden of Dreams (1982), the latter about the filming of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994) and Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995) were Blank's last two films using 16mm film. He later worked in digital video. One of his last films, All in This Tea, which was co-directed with his creative partner Gina Leibrecht, was a profile of the western Marin County-based tea importer and adventurer David Lee Hoffman. In 2014, his last film How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy was completed shortly after his death by Gina Leibrecht, and was a portrait of the co-founder of Direct Cinema, Richard Leacock. In 2007 Blank was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal in the Arts.
Les's son, Harrod Blank, has also become a documentary filmmaker.
Blank lived in the Berkeley Hills and for more than 30 years he was a resident of Berkeley, which celebrated Les Blank Day on Jan 22, 2013. His company, Flower Films, was based in El Cerrito, Contra Costa County, California. Blank died of bladder cancer at his Berkeley Hills home on April 7, 2013.
Blank was the first documentary filmmaker to earn the Edward MacDowell Medal in 2007, a national honor given to one artist a year. He was awarded in 1990 the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker. In 2011, the International Documentary Association honored Blank with a career achievement award.
Two months prior to Blank's death, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival announced that Blank had been accepted to receive its 2013 Outstanding Achievement Award along with a retrospective of his work at the festival, which took place from April 25 to May 5, 2013.
The moving image collection of Les Blank is held at the Academy Film Archive. The Academy Film Archive has preserved numerous Les Blank films including A Well Spent Life, Always for Pleasure, and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
?National Film Registry inductee (former 1993; latter 2004)