Close Up

26 May 2013: A Tribute to Les Blank


In tribute to the renowned director Les Blank, who died recently aged 77, we present a programme celebrating his life and work. Many of Blank’s films document people at the margins of American society and their music – blues, Cajun, Creole music, TexMex, polka. Blank avoided commentary and testimonies from experts, instead his films immerse the audience in these cultures, capturing the essence and spirit of his subjects in unique, intimate and often impromptu situations. Blank brought similar technique to his films about established artists Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin’ Hopkins and, in what remains his most famous work Burden of Dreams, Werner Herzog during the chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo.

Running Around Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off
Les Blank
1960 | 4 min | B/W | Digital

Blank's first student film, stars himself with Gail Blank and Pieter Van Deusen. The film includes homage to Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, the film that inspired Blank to become a filmmaker.

Dizzie Gillespie
Les Blank
1964 | 20 min | B/W | Digital

Dizzy, Blank's earliest music film, focuses on the trumpet player himself, who, along with Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and others, sparked the change from Jazz into Bop in the 40s.

The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins
Les Blank
1968 | 31 min | Colour | Digital

"In his own words and his 'own own' music, Lightnin' Hopkins reveals the inspiration for his blues. He sings, jives, ponders. He boogies at an outdoor barbecue and a black rodeo, and takes you with him on a homecoming visit to his boyhood home of Centerville, Texas. The film reaches past the impish bluesman himself into the Blues itself, into the red-clay Texas, into hard times, into blackness, into the senses." – Les Blank

Chulas Fronteras
Les Blank
1976 | 58 min | Colour | Digital

"...the best visual record of Tex-Mex & Norteño music that I know." – Ry Cooder

"Chulas Fronteras is absolutely the best Chicano documentary film that I have seen to date. It is our history, rescued without excuses and without romanticism but wit vitality." – Prof. Juan Rodriguez

Burden of Dreams
Les Blank
1982 | 95 min | Colour | Digital

For nearly five years, acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog desperately tried to complete one of the most ambitious and difficult films of his career, Fitzcarraldo, the story of one man’s attempt to build an opera house deep in the Amazon jungle. Les Blank captured the unfolding of this production, made more perilous by Herzog’s determination to shoot the most daunting scenes without models or special effects, including a sequence requiring hundreds of natives to pull a full-size, 320-ton steamship over a small mountain. The result is an extraordinary document of the filmmaking process and a unique look into the single-minded mission of one of cinema's most fearless directors.

We would like to thank Harrod Blank for his invaluable support.