Afro-Blues Through a Blank Eye

For someone who describes himself as a "social misfit," documentary filmmaker Les Blank has a tremendous knack for crawling inside his subjects and capturing their souls on celluloid. Over the course of a career that stretches back more than 30 years, the Tampa-born Blank has penetrated the insular communities of south Louisiana Cajun country, coaxed revealing insights from cantankerous blues icons, and chronicled the passions and convictions of everyone from garlic addicts and polka fanatics to the denizens of the Sixties hippie community. His 35-film oeuvre includes definitive portraits of Werner Herzog and Ry Cooder, mainstream rockers Huey Lewis and the News, as well as wonderfully eccentric cowboy singers. Regardless of the topic at hand, Blank's work is defined by a subtle, almost silent grace, his camera always shadowing -- but never overpowering -- the subjects, as their stories unfold at the pace of real life. That in itself is a remarkable feat, considering Blank isn't what you'd call a people person.

"I'm personally a social misfit," professes the soft-spoken, 65-year-old documentarian from his home in Berkeley. "I have a hard time talking to strangers, or even people that I know. But I've been lucky enough to team up with people who are gregarious and loquacious. Also, the drive to get the film done has helped to change my personality, to be more outgoing and push myself to be out there. I try to tune into [the subject] and be whoever they want me to be for them. [Making films] was just something I had to do. I marvel now at how driven and dedicated I was. I would sit in my living room until three or four in the morning, completely enthralled and enrapt in my project."

Blank began his creative career as a writer of fiction, hoping to fuse his love of a good story with a spirit kindled in him at age four after seeing Pinocchio at the lush, ornate Tampa Theatre. "As a kid I was fascinated by stories, any kind of story: stories people told to one another, and were told over and over." he explains. "And I liked the movies, any and every type of movie I could get myself into."

In high school Blank became captivated by foreign-film classics such as The Bicycle Thief and the trailblazing films of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. But when he enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans, his aspirations were of a writerly nature.

"I got a degree in literature, but I couldn't get published," he recalls. "Of course I didn't have the sense to realize you had to start at the bottom. I was sending off my stories to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, and couldn't figure out why they didn't snap them up. Then I got very depressed. I went to graduate school for English literature at the University of California at Berkeley, but couldn't really relate to that, so I dropped out and just bummed around a while in San Francisco. Then I saw The Seventh Seal, and I got very turned on by that, and so moved by it that I snapped out of my depression. On my way out of the movie theatre, I thought, My God, this is something I've got to get close to."

After returning to Tulane for a master of fine arts degree in playwriting, Blank was accepted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Two years later he landed a job in Hollywood as a reader for Otto Preminger, the revered director of films such as Laura and Anatomy of a Murder. Blank, however, didn't last an hour: "He signed me up to be a reader, but I was too full of myself and I insisted that he read what I had been writing," Blank says with a laugh. "He didn't like it, and he fired me after having hired me 30 minutes before."

While at USC Blank had taken a course on documentary cinema and had become captivated by the possibilities of nonfiction film. Soon after the debacle with Preminger, he volunteered as an assistant with some Los Angeles documentarians, and studied the work of directors like Robert J. Flaherty and John Marshall. "It seemed like a great way to spend your life, traveling around in these exotic places and seeing how basic people live, getting close to them."

He made his film debut in 1960 with the student project Running Around Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off, followed four years later by Dizzy Gillespie, truly hitting his stride with 1968's God Respects Us When We Work, but He Loves Us When We Dance, a snapshot of hippie love-ins and Blank's first completely independent film. It is the 1969 effort The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, though, that Blank considers his finest work, though hardly his easiest one to complete.

Notorious for his suspicious nature and his irascibility, and equally revered for his idiosyncratic, highly personalized art, the Texas blues great (among the first bluesmen to be embraced by white audiences in the Sixties) was an unlikely documentary study, and Hopkins walked out on the project after only one day of filming. Blank persevered, though, and ingratiated himself with the contentious singer after losing $100 to Hopkins in a card game called Pity Pair. It was money well spent, for The Blues is a deceptively simple little masterpiece, offering a laconic portrait of Hopkins shot in the singer's hometown of Centerville. There is no off-camera narration, no archival photographs, and none of the sentimentality characteristic of the big-budget presentations of say, Ken Burns. Rather Blank and his collaborator Sam Gerson let the camera do the work, through panoramas of the poverty-stricken landscape and Hopkins's charismatic screen presence.

"He was an amazing guy," Blank says with a hint of enthusiasm. "He was sort of like an oracle: infinitely deep and wise. He would come out with these insights into people, their behavior, and human tribulations and strivings that were something you'd think the Buddha would've come up with. He was also sort of a trickster character. We had reached a kind of understanding and got to enjoy each other, but we also learned when he needed to be left alone."

Cuban percussion master Francisco Aguabella proved a similarly difficult subject for Blank, and it took almost a decade for him to complete the lovingly impassioned Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella. "It wasn't easy," Blank says in retrospect of the 1995 film. "He couldn't speak English well, and I couldn't speak Spanish so well. We never got along all that easily. I was always having a hard time penetrating whatever it was he was up to. It was only during the ninth year of filming that he loosened up and started telling stories that made it all hang together."

It's Blank's ceaseless search for a good story that's led him to his current project: following tea importer David Lee Hoffmann in search of the ideal leaf through the remote villages and valleys of the Chinese mountains. ("It's not just a film on China and tea," Blank says of the still-unfinished work. "It's about this character. He's kind of hard to pin down.") He's also working for the first time with digital video, which is far less expensive than film and thus more liberating for the award-winning documentarian. "I got tired of chasing after grants and competing with the ever-increasing hordes of young film students who are out there trying to get grants," he explains. "I got tired of trying to convince a television station that I can make a film that will appeal to a broad audience. Which I don't always do."

The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins and Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella screen at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 6, at the Alliance Cinema, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Les Blank will personally introduce each film and participate in a question-and-answer session afterward. Tickets cost $4. For more information call 305-531-8504. Blank will also participate in the University of Miami's Documentary 2000 program. At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 4, he will speak as part of a panel discussion alongside filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Terry Sanders, and Barbara Trent. On Saturday, February 5, his documentary portrait of Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams, screens at 9:00 p.m. Both events are free and take place at the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema, off Campo Sano Ave, Coral Gables. For more information call 305-284-5350.

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John Floyd