Of course it’s a cliche to say that the honoree at a memorial service would have enjoyed it — but in Les Blank’s case, it’s impossible to avoid. The party was designed by Les’ two sons, Harrod and Beau, and Team Blank, a host of friends and supporters, to encompass many of the pursuits that Les delighted in and made the subject of his films, such as irresistibly catchy music and delicious strong-flavored food, as well as rituals designed to honor Les and allow his friends and colleagues to say goodbye.
The afternoon began on a beautiful sunny day at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, where a procession of art cars — one of the preoccupations of Harrod Blank, who has made two films about them — assembled, including Les’ own, a modest burgundy Toyota covered with beautiful photo-realist paintings of birds. Most of the others were much more sculptural in nature, including a pink one with black bras on the front and hair rollers on top — as its owner said, you can’t miss it. The cars paraded to Les’ gravesite in the Sunset View Cemetery in El Cerrito, where people gathered to place items honoring Les — fruit, flowers, herbs, small totems, Mardi Gras beads, and all kinds of garlic, from modest white heads to long flowering bulbs recently torn from the earth — on and around his granite marker.
The marker was already permanently decorated on one side with an inlaid color photograph of Les hoisting a camera on his shoulder, the legend LES BLANK FILMMAKER, and the quote “LIFE IS SHORT * ART IS LONG * EXPERIENCE, DIFFICULT” from Aesculapius, and on the other a black-and-white sketch of Les over LES BLANK 1935 — 2013, and “FROM TOO MUCH LOVE OF LIVING, FROM HOPE AND FEAR SET FREE, WE THANK WITH BRIEF THANKSGIVING * WHATEVER GODS MAY BE * THAT NO LIFE LIVES FOREVER, THAT DEAD MEN RISE UP NEVER, THAT EVEN THE WEARIEST RIVER WINDS SOMEWHERE SAFE TO SEA”, from Algernon Charles Swinburne. A traditional New Orleans brass band second line led by Johnny Harper wound around the graves set on a gently sloping hill — Les’ surrounded by many elaborately carved Asian monuments — with a far view of the Golden Gate.
On our return to the Unitarian church, we were greeted by tables laden with finger food — cheeses, fruits, chips and dips — and bars set up on the church’s patio, which had much the same brilliantly sunny long view of the bay as we’d seen from the gravesite. About four hundred people had assembled, some flying in from New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other points, to join the many local friends and colleagues of the Bay Area that Les Blank had called home since the 70s. We spotted early Blank supporter and 70s housemate Tom Luddy and fellow Telluride Film Festival director Gary Meyer, Pacific Film Archive director emeritus Edith Kramer, Kim Hendrickson of the Criterion Collection, film critic Sheila Benson, the SF Silent Film Festival’s Anita Monga and Peter Moore, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, and many employees of the DownHome Music Store — the last two entities share space in the El Cerrito building on San Pablo Avenue that also held Blank’s offices for Flower Films. Also there were friends and subjects of Blank’s films including Werner Herzog (“Burden of Dreams,” “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”) and from New Orleans, Marc and Ann Savoy (“J’ai Ete au Bal,” “Marc and Ann”).
After some time spent drinking, grazing, and talking, the group congregated in the church’s soaring-ceilinged great hall, where for over two hours numerous friends and colleagues of Les spoke from the heart, interspersed with films and music, affectionately introduced by Harrod and Beau, whose obvious love for their father had its bittersweet side, since as children of divorce their time with him was intermittent.
The program began with a slide show in which I glimpsed myself in the crowd attending the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse re-run of the famed event filmed for “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which Alice Waters cooked the main course when Herzog had to eat his words (i.e. “If Errol Morris finishes his film, I’ll eat my shoe”). For the anniversary event, held on the grounds of the Berkeley Art Museum on August 27, 2011, Waters wittily and wisely had a shoemaker construct the main ingredient out of entirely edible pigskin. Yum. And Les was there to film it. Perhaps a second “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” will eventually surface, in addition to the films his website lists as being “in progress,” including “Butch Anthony Film” and “How to Smell a Rose: Ricky Leacock.”
The speakers included Telluride’s Luddy, editor Maureen Gosling, a film co-worker since 1972, film reviewer Michael Goodwin, sound recordist David Silberberg, neighbor and fellow garlic farmer Claire Greensfelder, film colleague and ex-wife Chris Simon (who came back after many years apart to care for Les, along with sons Harrod and Beau, during the last seven months of his life), and director Werner Herzog, who movingly praised Les’ instinctive sense of timing — knowing what and when to film — and his art of documenting vanishing corners of American life.
A short film, “Raw,” by Shelly Roby, showed Les enjoying raw oysters, and Beau spoke of a final family excursion to Hog Island in Tomales Bay, when an ailing Les miraculously ate thirty of the fifty oysters Beau shucked. Marc Savoy gave credit to Les for changing his life — including Savoy’s marriage to Ann — and the Savoys played, as did Johnny Harper, whose set included Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
Another New Orleanian second line, this one wildly costumed, ended the memorial and started the party, leading the crowd across the atrium to the meeting hall, lined with long tables. There were two gorgeous, groaning, bacchanalian buffet tables laden with an amazing and overwhelming potluck featuring barbecued ribs and chicken, cracked crab, gumbo, paella, cornbread, and a panoply of very Berkeley sides, including salads based on kale and quinoa (all delicious). There seemingly were more dishes than celebrants. Although there was no risk of the food running out, white wine did, and we were forced to fall back upon red wine, sangria, and hard liquor.
After eating my fill of crab and ribs, I couldn’t even look at the dessert table, to which I had contributed a chocolate cake, the same one I had brought to the potluck that was part of another evening celebrating Les held at Pixar this past February 20th. Many references had been made during today’s memorial service to Les’ famed taciturnity — “He had absolutely no small talk” was one comment — but at this event, which included a screening of the rarely-seen feature about Leon Russell, “A Poem is a Naked Person,” many noticed that Les was particularly voluble and thoughtful during the lengthy Q-and-A that followed the film. I saw as I left that night that Les, whose lusty appetite had already been somewhat curtailed by his illness, was happily eating a slice of that cake.
As I left the memorial, I thought of two things quoted from Les during the service: he’d said about his filmmaking method “I meet the people and I get drunk with them,” and, after reassuring his ex-wife that he wasn’t afraid to die, he said “Love all.”