Filmmaker Les Blank Made Cinematic Art Out Of Interests

Les Blank is probably best known for his 20-minute film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The filmmaker made dozens of documentaries, however, about people, places, food and especially music. He made films about Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, Tommy Jarrell and even garlic. Blank died on Sunday at his home in Berkeley, Calif., of cancer. He was 77 years old.

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The documentary film world has lost one of its most distinctive directors. Les Blank made dozens of films about people, places, food and music. They often clocked in at an hour or less, but they were celebrated by fans and critics alike for their generous wit and personality. NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Les Blank followed his idiosyncratic interests wherever they led. His subjects included garlic, gap-toothed women, and many of the musicians he admired: Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier. He also made a portrait of New Orleans called "Always for Pleasure."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And I'm not going to wait till I'm in the ground and be laid out, you know, to have some fun in the street.

ROSE: Blank went to Tulane University in New Orleans, where he developed an appreciation for the city's music and parade culture, as he told an interviewer from the website thelip.tv last year.

LES BLANK: At the drop of a hat or any excuse at all, they would organize a street parade. And people hear the music, they stop what they're doing. They put down their iron or their shovel and they'd come out and have fun in the street.

ROSE: Blank's films often feature ordinary people doing the same kinds of things they might be doing if his camera wasn't there, though his best-known subject might be his fellow filmmaker and friend, Werner Herzog. Blank's 20-minute film "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" follows the culmination of a bet between Herzog and a young Errol Morris that if Morris would ever finish his first movie, Herzog would eat his shoe, which he did on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, 'WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE')

WERNER HERZOG: I didn't mean to eat this shoe in public. I intended to eat it in a restaurant. But it makes sense to some extent because it should be an encouragement for all of you who want to make films and who are just scared to start and who haven't got the guts.

ROSE: Later, Blank followed Herzog into the jungles of Peru to document the making of Herzog's film, "Fitzcarraldo." Blank's documentary "Burden of Dreams" almost fell apart like its subject, but it didn't and it remains one of his best-known works. And Blank urged younger filmmakers not to give up either.

BLANK: If something turns you on, go chase it down. Just do what Werner said: use your guts and do it.

ROSE: Les Blank died Sunday of bladder cancer in Berkeley, California. He was 77 year old. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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