Sally Berger interviews documentary filmmaker Les Blank on the occasion of his MoMA film retrospective Les Blank: Ultimate Insider
Sally Berger: It is very thrilling to present this retrospective of your work, and to have you personally present your films during the opening four days of your retrospective at MoMA following your guest appearance at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in upstate New York. The opening program at MoMA—a sampling of your earliest works through your most recent works in progress—spans 50 years.
One of the earliest titles being shown is Pleasure Faire, directed by Terry Nowak, which documented the second Renaissance Fair in California in 1963/64. You were the cinematographer, using a Bell and Howell spring-wound camera. This work reminds me of another title by you being shown in a later program, God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, which captures the first big “love-in” in Los Angeles, on Easter Sunday 1967. I believe some of the same revelers are in both films; certainly the Renaissance-style clothing inspired a lot of the “hippie” styles. Perhaps you could say something about your experience of the relationship between the Renaissance fairs and the beginning of the California counterculture?
Les Blank: There is an overlapping. People at the Pleasure Faire and the love-in were a free-spirit type of people who lived outside the box. There was something in the fairs that reflected a purity of spirit. Their sound recordings were genuine Renaissance music authentically gleaned from the period and played on the Renaissance instruments. The love-in was one of the first outdoor rock concerts filled with talented musicians such as Ray Manzarek, then the bass player from the Doors, among many others.
We didn’t have a person recording sound, so the sound track had to be recreated. I was invited to a Halloween party in an old house sponsored by the public independent television station KCET. We all dressed up in costumes inspired by Fellini films—I was dressed as a country priest. There I heard the psychedelic rock band Spontaneous Combustion and asked them to do the soundtrack. I projected the film on screen in the practice session and recording studio and they made the soundtrack to that. I tweaked the final version in the editing room.
SB: You made the second film in the opening program, Dizzie Gillespie, about the jazz trumpeter, in 1965; interviewed him 20 years later for your film about Afro-Cuban percussionist Francisco Aquabella (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aquabella, 1985); and then again for Roots of Rhythm (1994), a series narrated by Harry Belafonte (not in the program). Gillespie is such a showman! How did you gain access to him for making your portrait and what was it like working with him?
LB: Dizzie Gillespie was an ebullient, uplifting person. He loved being around people. We filmed one afternoon and in the evening of the second day and at a rehearsal of the Stan Kenton Neophonic Orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The performance at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach was shot with non-sync sound!
SB: You have worked with some of the same individuals over the years on your films, including Skip Gerson, Chris Strachwitz, Maureen Gosling, Chris Simon, and Gina Leibreicht. Please talk a bit about the role of collaborators and what working with the same people on several films brings to the quality of your productions.
LB: All these people were very social. I am shy, so working with others who are more at ease in a social situation helps. They also have good film ideas. Chris knows music and what he likes. He came to the U.S. after WWII, heard Louis Armstrong and knew that he had come to heaven. This brought him to the blues in Texas and to become an expert on Norteño, Cajun, Creole, and zydeco music. Maureen is a natural editor and worked as sound recordist, assistant camera starting in 1972, fresh out of college with a degree in anthropology. In time, she became full editor. She has a very sensitive, loving spirit and this carries through in her work.
SB: Gosling has worked with you on a number of films, including most recently the music videos of the music group and art center Los Cenzontles, and earlier on Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Burden of Dreams, Dry Wood, and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking. You both traveled twice to the Amazon to shoot your documentary on Werner Herzog’s making of Fitzcarraldo, and kept fascinating journals of the adventure. You seemed really miserable at times—bored, lonely, uncomfortable with the situation and physically out of your element—and at other times, when in nature, you were full of delight. Today, when you look back at the experience, do you see it with any fresh insights?
LB: As time passes I only remember the pleasant things. It was a very rich experience. I had known Werner for a while before making the film. He knew that the film he was making was very risky and wanted it documented. He convinced the Peruvian businessman who showed him one of the abandoned boats that helped inspire the story to specifically support the documentary.
SB: Gina Leibrecht collaborated with you as a codirector on All in This Tea (2007) and the work-in-progress How to Smell a Rose (2011) (about Ricky Leacock). These recent works seem to have a more developed dramatic structure, less based on pure observation and music. What accounts for this change in style?
LB: Gina needs a dramatic arc; this is the way she works. She majored in film at the University of Oregon. She edited Frank Green’s Counting Sheep and Karina Epperlein’s Phoenix Dance, which made the short list for Best Short Subject Documentary in 2006.
SB: What kind of advice might you have for emerging documentary filmmakers today? What types of things are different from when you started out making films in the mid 1960s to an emerging filmmaker in 2011?
LB: Do it while you can do it. Just plunge in, don’t put all your energy into making preparations. Everyone is making films today—you have to find a way to distinguish yourself.
SB: Please share some of your favorite shooting experiences and some of your least favorite experiences. Your films are often about having a good time, but is this always the case for the filmmaker?
LB: One of my worst experiences was in New York City while working on an industrial film; I did industrials to support my independent filmmaking. The company made carbon paper and White-Out—these materials either absorbed light or reflected it and the shooting conditions were terrible. The film got finished somehow, but not without me being covered in black carbon.
While making Burden of Dreams I remember vividly a long boat ride at night, at the end of an exhausting, difficult day shooting a big scene with hundreds of Indians and canoes. The stars and moon were shining very bright in the clean, pure air and aromatic, night-blooming blossoms were thoroughly intoxicating—you could only experience something like this in the jungle. Michael Goodwin had come down to work as my assistant, replacing Pacho Lane in the last couple of weeks and was sitting next to Herzog. Goodwin said something like “Aren’t the stars beautiful?” and Herzog responded, “The stars are a mess.” I knew we had to capture these sentiments about the shoot that Herzog was feeling; we soon found an opportunity to do so and the interview is in Burden of Dreams.
SB: I would characterize your work as being about humanity, culture, and unique individuals, as well as the inspiration of music, dance, food, and abandon. What are the things in your life—early experiences, people, your own nature—that helped define this vision?
LB: Eating, music, theater, and the arts inspire me. Hearing the musical notes of a trombone and the steel guitar for the first time…listening to Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree at Summer camp in Tennessee… I grew up in Tampa, Florida and enjoyed meeting people who were different from me—Cubans and African Americans lived in my neighborhood. My mother made me go to Sunday school, but I liked the country honky tonks better. I would go to the Florida State Barn Dance where it was rowdy and the music lively. People opened up their tailgates and talked, drank, fought, and danced all night.
SB: What other filmmakers, artists, film, art, music, culinary arts, writing, poetry, dancing, drinking, and socializing helped you to define your own ideas in filmmaking?
LB: Ingmar Bergman made me realize I wanted to become a filmmaker. When I saw The Seventh Seal for the first time I was in a pretty low state—he showed me a world where someone was worse off then me. And he showed me that art and beauty can come from the worst misery of the human experience. I was also profoundly moved by the work of Robert Flaherty, Robert Gardner, and Slavko Vorkapich.
SB: For people who are discovering your work for the first time, which films would you suggest they go to see first?
LB: The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Burden of Dreams, Chulas Fronteras, Gap Toothed Women, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Always for Pleasure, God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, In Heaven There Is No Beer?, Spend It All, Sprout Wings and Fly, A Well Spent Life, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Dry Wood, Hot Pepper—I like all of my films!
SB: Many of your films are portraits of a very specific place and time. Two of your films are part of the National Film Registry of The Library of Congress (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and Chulas Fronteras), joining Fred Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers as the only other documentarians to be honored on the list with multiple entries. I think that many people would be interested in knowing more about many of your subjects today. Have you kept up with any of these subjects over the years and if so, can you bring the audience up to date on any of them?
LB: Werner Herzog is plunging ahead full steam. Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3-D is superb and pure Werner. Many of my subjects were older and some have passed away. When I recorded Tommy Jarrell and Mance Lipscomb they were cultural treasures and their lives and music needed to be documented. Often I did not have a lot of time to shoot. The film with Mance was made from a shooting ratio of 4 to 1, which is very little.
I had started shooting a film on Tommy Jarrell and had to stop the editing for about a year and a half in order to start and finish Burden of Dreams. Jarrell called upon me to finish the film on him by saying he would “come back from the dead and ‘haint’” me if I didn’t finish. It took me a little time to figure out he meant ‘haunt.’ We had the world premiere in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he came out from behind the curtain and played his fiddle when the screening was over to a wildly enthusiastic audience. He passed away shortly thereafter.
SB: Many film directors have recognized your camera work and sought you as a cinematographer on their films. You were the second camera on the early filming of Easy Rider (1969) the cinematographer for Jean Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1978) and some of Dusan Makavejev’s Hole in the Soul (1995). How did you get involved with any one of these films?
LB: I was part of an initial team that shot footage over one intense week around New Orleans for the film Easy Rider. We were brought in to help get backers for the film. The financiers gave the film the money it needed and then we got fired and were never credited. Cinematographer and filmmaker Baird Bryant, of Gimme Shelter fame, was the DP who hired me; he fought to get us screen credits, but never succeeded.
Gorin was a good friend of Tom Luddy’s and he saw and liked my Cajun and Blues films. We stayed in his apartment in Dan Diego, ate extremely delicious French meals at his table, and raced along the harrowing freeways to and from shooting while he chain-smoked stinky Gallois cigarettes and talked endlessly about his film theories. On two occasions his treadles tires had blow-outs at 70 miles per hour in dense traffic.
SB: You have shown us a tantalizing work-in-progress about Ricky Leacock that not only gives us tidbits of interviews with his thoughts on filmmaking, but reveals how central cooking and food were to his life in France. Food plays a central role in many of your films—Yum Yum Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) with recipes of stews from local people to K Paul’s restaurant in New Orleans; Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979) literally, on stage; When you showed Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers as a work in progress at MoMA in 1979, you cooked garlic at a reception afterward; For All in This Tea, tea importer David Hoffman sometimes travels with the film and gives tea service. So it is true then that filmmaking and cooking go hand in hand. Do you have any recipes to share?
LB: Les Blank’s Grilled Fresh Anchovies in Grape Leaves
I like recipes that are very simple and fresh. Here is one I like for right now, during the spring on the West coast.
Fresh Anchovies, in season (or fresh sardines or fresh mackerel). Remove the head and bones.
Grape leaves, with olive oil coating the outside
Sprinkle chopped garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper on anchovies and wrap tightly with grape leaf. Insert a toothpick to keep it from unraveling. Place the anchovy-filled grape leaves on a hot grill and steam until the leaves change color from bright green to olive. This takes just seconds. Don’t overcook.