BY SARAH GINSBURG // June 2015
I’m a firm believer that it’s okay to be lost. In fact, if you’re a bit lost, you’re probably on the right track. Nobody really knows where he or she is headed. Sometimes it feels like we’re all just milling around like lemmings, bumping into one another, trying to reach some kind of happy ending. If we could take a second to examine the routes our heroes took, we would realize that we’re bound to gravitate towards the things we love, the things that give us pure pleasure. We’ve got to give ourselves the time and the chance to land and find ourselves where we belong. Les Blank was always a drifter. His films wander from place to place (Burden of Dreams, All in This Tea), from a gathering of people and their subculture (I Went To The Dance, Gap-Toothed Women) to the individual and his song (The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins). But Blank was a drifter before he found himself making films. He tried his hand at many things. Early on, he wanted to be a fisherman or athlete, but then went to school to become a brain surgeon, flunked chemistry and moved on to study writing and poetry, and then teaching. In the midst of all of this, he fell in love with the blues. As Blank recalled, “Listening to the blues being performed by those who had truly lived the blues provided an escape from my problems and also gave me a strong sense of connection to pain and suffering, even though I had not been born into a world beleaguered for generations by racism, poverty and gross injustice.” To combat his own hardships and depression, Blank put himself in the middle of a crowd where there was plenty of movement and sweat and passion. And so he explored and dug deep into the fabric, the thick stuffing of our very own United States. He had a quiet curiosity and a true admiration of his subjects’ various crafts. He connected with people, filming them doing what they loved: dancing, singing, strumming, making movies, cooking. Simultaneously, Blank was doing what he truly loved. Les made his films just as the musicians he documented sang their songs, singing not to make money but more to tell a story and out of a deep down necessity, from the heart. Les had finally ‘landed’. Watching a film by Les Blank feels like experiencing an event along with him. I suppose this is the goal of many filmmakers, but there’s something different about experiencing it with Les. It’s as if you walk into the room with him, guard down and without judgment. You notice the faces and feet of people dancing, and you can almost feel the temperature of the room. You’re given plenty of time to sink into the scene and take it all in, just as Les would do. In March of 2012, about a year before he passed away, Les Blank was interviewed by documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner. She asked him if he was happy and his subtle response is one we should carry with us as we ourselves drift along, “I’m happier than I would be if I’d done many other things that were offered me to do.”
Thank you to Maureen Gosling, Blank’s longtime collaborator and Harrod Blank, documentary filmmaker and son of Blank. Be sure to visit the official Les Blank site, where you can browse and purchase most of his works.