Les Blank was the American filmmaker of joy. For many of you this may come as a bit of a surprise, if only because his most famous film isn’t necessarily joyful. "Burden of Dreams" is a masterpiece of the documentary form, one of the best movies about movie-making. Yet its subject, the troubled production of Werner Herzog’s "Fitzcarraldo," is a mess of frustration and failure. The film concludes with a justifiably famous monologue from the German auteur about the destruction and violence of the jungle, a harrowing perspective to say the least.
Hopefully, however, many who have seen Burden of Dreams have also taken the time to watch "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" (If you haven’t, it was featured recently as Film.com’s Your Daily Short.) While the Amazon is more Herzog’s thematic territory, this ridiculous piece of documentary history takes place in one of Blank’s cinematic backyards: the culinary scene of Berkeley, California. In fact, Blank was making "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers" at the same time – both films feature the same backseat conversation with Herzog en route to the now-infamous screening of Errol Morris’s "Gates of Heaven."
It’s impossible not to smile throughout "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." The main event itself is comedy enough. Yet there’s something more to it, which comes not from Herzog’s grandiose screen presence but rather from Blank’s signature warm-hearted style. Post-shoe, Herzog speaks of the problems of film publicity and the failures of 20th century media. “We lack adequate images,” he says, and so the civilization is “doomed, or going to die out like dinosaurs.” Blank’s insertion of an ad for a breakfast sandwich doesn’t necessarily undercut or contradict his German friend, but it does add a bit of much-needed levity. And of course the film ends with the same silly polka that kicked it off, “Old Whiskey Shoes.”
That’s Blank’s spirit in a nutshell. Yet the scope of this joy goes well beyond the boundaries of Herzog’s diet. His love of food extended into "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers," "Chicken Real," and "All in This Tea." Almost all of his films have moments of cooking and feasting, especially those that he shot in his native Louisiana. Blank barely misses a single step in his thorough documenting of a pig roast in Dry Wood, a loving portrayal of Mardi Gras in a black Creole community. Spend It All also revels in the visual pleasures (and excesses) of Cajun cuisine, while In Heaven There Is No Beer? has a particular fondness for Polish butchering.
In Blank’s work, cooking and eating are collective acts, built around a love of food and a warm-hearted tradition of storytelling and gossip. Almost no one is seen in the kitchen alone, but rather these little communities come together to chop up a pig, wrap sausage and blend pesto. Blank seems to have traveled all over the country in pursuit of garlic for Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, capturing the love of the “stinking rose” in as many different cuisines and cultures as possible. Everything from a simple soup to the most decadent of Alice Waters’s delicacies is presented as an affirmation of comfort and joy.
Music, too, is a constant positive presence in Blank’s work. He made a number of documentaries about musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. Yet even when focusing on icons like these, Blank never divorces the creators of the music from their audience. Jazz and the Blues are presented almost as a collective art in the way that cooking is, a conversation between a performer and the audience. It’s a shared enthusiasm, whether it starts with Dizzy Gillespie himself or the more locally beloved zydeco and polka bands of Spend It All and In Heaven There Is No Beer?. Music always leads to dancing, and dancing is the physical incarnation of joy. It’s perhaps said best by another of Blank’s charismatic titles, his film of the 1967 Love-In in Los Angeles: God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance.
Blank’s camera doesn’t just observe, but becomes part of the communities it documents. Rather than simply preserving the regional cultures of America for posterity, Blank’s filmography fashions them into a national quilt of sorts. The Polka scenes of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the garlic festivals of California and the Mardi Gras celebrations of Creole Louisiana seem not only timeless on their own, but bound together by a single feeling of joy. This transcendent pleasure is even more obvious in films like Gap-Toothed Women, which achieve a wider geographic and cultural scope by zooming in on a single, borderless detail.
Blank matched the multiculturalism of great public television with the art of verité documentary, producing films that spread an infectious and unbounded joyfulness. His is a joviality of wholesomeness. I don’t mean that in the loaded sense, a wholesomeness of apple pie made by a 1950s housewife to feed a “traditional family.” I mean it in the largest sense, a wholesomeness of well-being. Blank’s communities always seem full of vitality, feeding off of the collaborative activities of food and music to build something truly positive. His is a joy that excludes no one, and makes our society better for it.
Now, knee-deep in the 21st century, it sometimes feels like we don’t really “do” joy anymore. After two long wars, a recession and a handful of natural disasters, including one that forever altered life in Blank’s Bayou Country, it’s understandable that we might not necessarily be in the mood for unadulterated joy. Many of the communities captured in these films have shrunk, leaving old ways of celebrating aside. Yet now, with Blank himself gone, I think it’s more important than ever before to revisit his work. These films celebrate an America united by dancing, cooking and gap-teeth. They emphasize our commonalities because the differences don’t matter, they don’t really define who we are. Individual Blank documentaries show the unique pleasure of small, tightly-knit groups. Taken as a whole, his filmography emphasizes the joys that unite the lot of us, as humans. Today, this week, this year and this century, we should try to focus on that.