The myriad stories of venerable filmmaker Werner Herzog are mythic, and he’s often considered a living legend. He was shot with an air rifle during an interview and brushed it off. He pulled a man out of car wreckage on a canyon road above Sunset Blvd. and it turned out to be Joaquin Phoenix. But the early legends of Herzog and his cinematic exploits crystallized largely thanks to documentarian Les Blank. The filmmaker captured the short film, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” in 1979 — Herzog lost a bet to then-fledgling filmmaker Errol Morris who he ventured would never make a movie — and then later directed and shot the astounding doc, “Burden Of Dreams” (1982), about the chaotic production Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” filmed in the jungles of South America in the same year. Known for his idiosyncratic documentaries about the eccentric, sadly, the New York Times reports this afternoon that Blank died today at the age of 77 at his home in Berkeley, California.
We won’t pretend many of us are Blank experts, “Ry Cooder And The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces” is an excellent music doc, but Blank has over 40 documentary directing credits to his name, many of them centered around musicians, filmmakers, artists and peculiar characters (for a more traditional obituary, please read this New York Times piece and this Thompson On Hollywood article). Noted to be unlike cinema verite or observational documentarians such as Frederick Wiseman, D. A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, some of his subjects included Dizzy Gillespie, Huey Lewis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, Cooder, an obssessive American Tea importer, New Orleans, garlic, the advent of the California flower child movement (“God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance“), a portrait of an ex-wage slave who gave up everything to adopt the persona of a Western-Movie Singing Cowboy (“The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists“) and many more.
“I think he’s a national treasure,” Taylor Hackford told the Times today. “Although his films are not well known at the moment, they’ll take their place. Films are great when they live a long time, and I think Les’s will live.” Perhaps his sad passing will encourage others to dig deeper into his oeuvre. Doesn’t it all seem overdue for a Criterion Collection retrospective or Eclipse set? Herzog has yet to release a statement, but one would assume he would call Blank a “good solider of cinema.” Some clips from his body of work are below.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins – That Woman Named Mary” from Les Blank’s 1970 doc, “‘The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins“
The opening of Les Blanks’ 1979 doc “Chulas Fronteras,” a documentary that explores the music of the Texas-Mexican border region.
A clip from 1989’s “J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Ball)” about the Zydeco music and Cajun music scene in Louisiana.
A scene from 1983’s “Sprout Wings and Fly” about Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell.
The opening of 1978’s “Always for Pleasure” about the vibrancy of New Orleans.
The first 7 minutes of “Burden of Dreams.”
“Burden Of Dreams” in its entirety for free on Hulu Plus.
“Dreams & Burdens” – Herzog On Blank making “Burden Of Dreams.”
“Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”