Sunday, April 7, 2013

Les Blank, Ur-Chowhound

Note: some of the links below aren't working, as Les' web site has been overwhelmed with visitors (I can hear the sardonic chortle from Beyond). It should be running ok in a few days.
My hiking buddy, granola-making idol, and favorite documentary director Les Blank passed away today. Just a year ago, he was kicking my ass fast-hiking up the steep Berklee hills surrounding his home. But his illness hit suddenly and the fadeout was quick.

Most people would, it's safe to say, prefer not to die. But Les was more anti-death than the next guy. Though he'd been a legendary chowhound in his day, by the time I befriended him he referred to sugar and flour as "white death". Just my luck: to hang out with the great Les Blank during his Gary Null stage, when he was taking all possible steps to stop the clock.

But, oh, the eating he'd done before. One of Les' most famous films was "Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers"(1980), a survey of the annual garlic festival in Gilroy California. The film would drive audiences wild with hunger, and he'd heighten the effect by frying garlic in-theater during screenings. I caught it back in college, and it was a big influence on me, and on many of the people who went on to persuade Americans to care about what they ate.

He made quirkily wonderful films about quirkily wonderful people and quirkily wonderful scenes. Blues musicians and folk artists and Mexican polka bands and even "Gap-Toothed Women" (read this swell Roger Ebert review of the latter). And since everyone eats, Les usually seized opportunities to slip in an incredible meal scene or two (mostly, he confessed, so he could partake).

Less food-oriented, but a unanimous classic, his "Burden of Dreams" (1982) was a feature-length portrayal of the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" in the jungles of South America. It's considered the only making-of film as good as the (classic) film it's about. Herzog was telling the story of a megalomaniac opera impresario who, in his determination to bring fine opera to the natives of the South American jungle, managed to push a 320-ton steamship up a mountain, so it could be set down in the river behind the mountain and piloted thousands of miles into the rain forest. Herzog, a megalomaniac himself, insisted on shooting without film tricks, so he actually pushed a huge steamship up a mountain. The meta levels could make one's head explode, and Les drank up the dizzying irony, crafting a film looking deeply (but never weightily) at art, obsession, and ego.

Les' fame had been in decline for some time, but those in the know know. It's a pity Roger Ebert isn't around to eulogize him, but he did previously describe Les as a "brilliant filmmaker".

The great thing about Les was that once you actually got him eating, he'd slip off his health food dogma without a second thought. He was very quiet, and ate very slowly - often hardly appearing to be eating at all. But at the point where table mates were gripping midsections in pain, Les would eat smoothly on - effortlessly and with perfect gentility - until every last speck of food was gone. Les Blank would eat you under the table every time. He was like a one-man locust swarm. How he relished deliciousness!

I often stayed at Les' place when visiting the Bay Area. Due to my musician's time clock, I'd wake up hours after he did, but when I walked into the kitchen, there'd always be a freshly-served bowl of his homemade granola awaiting me, festooned with local fruit (much of it stolen from neighbor's trees or the local fruitstand's dumpster, as Les was notoriously stingy), including his beloved persimmons (he made a cult of drying them on strings hung all over his house).
Also: unpeeled kiwis. It was Les' opinion that anyone lacking the verve to ingest them skins-on was undeserving of his granola. I've learned to prefer them that way, too.

Before it was taken over by CNET and CBS, Chowhound sold most of Les' films. That's how I got to know him. Les introduced me to tea pundit David Hoffman, with whom I've enjoyed some evocative meals. Les recently released an amazing film about David, called "All in This Tea". It was among his best works, but failed to draw the attention it deserved. I tried to persuade Roger Ebert to champion it, but Ebert was too saddled with drek he needed to screen and review to work far down my Schindler's list.

I wasn't present for Les' fade-out. I sent emails until he was too weak to reply. I missed "Les Blank Day" - hastily declared in Berklee when local residents, who'd for decades taken him for granted, realized they'd better honor him quickly. I did send him the following note of congratulations, along with some great goat milk caramels. I hope it made him smile:


Sorry there's not time for me to make it out west for Les Blank Day. But as far as I'm concerned, every day is Les Blank day.

Every day I eat garlic, every day I eat kiwis with the skins on, every day I play my trombone with extra funky brio, every day I make tea, every day I walk past my bookcase (loaded with your movies), every day I hike, and anytime I so much as hear the word "granola", it's Les Blank day.

It's more thickly Les Blank-ish around here than in other places, of course, just because I know you. But it's at least thinly Les Blank anywhere there's good food or good music, or anytime anything the least bit funky happens in a motion picture.

I'm sorry no other director fully picked up your mantle of funkiness. Cinematic funkiness started, and mostly ended, with you. But for generations, lucky people will continue to blunder into your films and be illuminated re: 20th century American culture in a way that's unavailable via any other channel.

In year 3000, someone will be wishing he could go where you've gone and see what you've seen, because the ecstasy of it will remain vividly potent. Just like some of us today, he'll feel insanely lucky to have found this treasure, and wonder why everyone in the world doesn't know about it.

Your fans will always be unique glowing misfits, just like your subjects. By connecting the two, you've done incalculable good.

Your friend,


UPDATE: If you're unfamiliar with Les Blank's work (or, for that matter, if you're a huge fan), this remembrance on includes lots of great embedded excerpts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a great insight to a man I never met but feel so very close to. What a cool guy!

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