Skip to main content

Les Blank, IDA Career Achievement Award Honoree, Dies at 77

By Tom White

Les Blank, whose scintillating portraits of Americana defined a six-decade career, died April 7 at his home in Berkeley, Calif., of complications of bladder cancer.  He was 77.

He leaves behind a trove of poetic explorations into the lives of legends and unknowns alike—Lightinin' Hopkins and Leon Russell, as well as gap-toothed women, garlic and tea aficionados and Mardi Gras revelers. Legendary folklorist Alan Lomax mined this territory too, but Blank opened it up further and deeper, beyond the conventions of ethnographic filmmaking to a more resonant kind of poetry. (For more on Blank's canon and career, click here.)

And, of course, there's Werner Herzog, the subject of both Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe—the result of a bet he had lost to Errol Morris—and Burden of Dreams, the story of Herzog's epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo. Herzog presented the 2011 IDA Career Achievement Award to Blank, citing his work as "always defining America, in a way."


Les Blank (left) talking to filmmaker Josh Fox at the 2011 IDA Documentary Awards. Photo: Humberto Mendez. 


In addition to the Career Achievement Award, Blank received the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award and, in 2007, the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts, which, according to an obituary in The New York Times, had only been given to two other filmmakers. The jury that year included filmmakers Taylor Hackford, Ken Burns, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair and Spike Jonze, as well as Thomas Luddy, a founder of the Telluride Film Festival. As a fitting final testament to his work, Blank was also to receive the 2013 Outstanding Achievement Award at the upcoming Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which will present a retrospective of his work. When the honor was announced last month, Charlotte Cooke, Hot Docs' director of programming, said in a statement,"His is an incredible body of work that explores culture, music, personality and beyond with grace, humor and the highest caliber of craft, and one which has also inspired generations of filmmakers."

In an interview with Documentary magazine, Blank mused about his work: "I try to find a fresh way of looking at the world around me and making some sense of it—hopefully something positive, something lasting that the world would want to see 100 years from now."

Blank is survived by two sons, Harrod and Beau, a daughter,  Ferris Robinson; and three grandchildren.