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Master Class with Les Blank

By Kathleen Fairweather

A white man with a beard and mustache wears a white hat and holds his camera on his shoulder.

Les Blank appears and then fades into the hazy Arkansas sunlight. Now you see him, now you don’t. He is like a ghost, an ephemera, a shadow of a soul caught on a summer breeze. He speaks to me in hushed soft-tones. I have to lean my chair in real close just to hear him. It’s tempting to touch him, or poke my finger into his flesh—his presence is immutable, and I want to make sure he is really there. His work speaks for him and through him—and it is clear to anyone watching, that in this instance the axiom is true: Les is really more.

Blank is setting up for his next screening and workshop, “Directing the Documentary” a two-day workshop hosted by the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute and Department of Radio/TV/Film at the University of Arkansas. He lopes off through the parking lot in giant, easy strides. A few minutes later he is in front of the classroom, showing the students clips from his films. He is amiable, soft-spoken, clearly more comfortable behind the camera as the observer—not the observed.

He screens a few clips for the class. His work looks effortless and deceptively easy. He is the kind of filmmaker that inspires everyone one to pick up the camera. The class studies his films carefully for hidden techniques and tips. They ply him with questions on the making of his films. He responds with answers, but it is like asking a magician to explain a sleight-of-hand or a magic trick: Some things you can only learn by watching very closely.

Blank shares with the class how he grew up in Tampa, Florida, hung out on fishing boats and originally planned a fishing career. A close encounter with a drunken sea captain and a maggot-filled fish head caused him to reconsider. He changed course and pursued his education in New Orleans where he received a BA in English literature and an MFA in theater. Les looked for work after graduation and reveals his lack of success with wry candor, “I couldn’t find work. I even failed the IQ test as a bill collector, so I decided to write instead.”

Unable to tolerate the requisite rejection from publishers, and, after disastrous run as a studio script reader for Otto Preminger, Blank sought artistic fulfillment through the visual arts and commenced his film training in the Ph.D film program at the University of Southern California. He began freelancing his way around Los Angeles, until he stumbled onto funding from the father of an underachieving friend who offered the duo $1,500 to make a film. Blank and his new assistant, Skip Gerson, set off for Texas in search of the infamous bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, which resulted in one of Blank’s first music documentaries, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. It is Blank’s favorite film to date, and he tells the class that: “If I had only one film to take to a desert island it would be Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

A student raises his hand and asks the Big Question: Where did you get your funding? “Mostly out of my own pocket,” he says. “I’ve financed several of my films through the sale of stock footage.” He admonishes the students to keep everything they shoot on a digital master and catalog it for future use, or revenue. He also explains how he also got few grants here and there from organizations like the NEA and the Guggenheim, and points out that he financed a lot of his work through industrial films.

To underscore this point, Blank shows the class a clip from a Holly Farms Poultry industrial shoot. He can make anything look interesting, and this particular film on chicken farming looks like poultry-in-motion. It is clear that industrial films have had a big influence on Blank’s style. He has a way of focusing on minutiae that is engrossing and at the same time, deeply revealing. This shows up in many works—particularly Garlic Is as Good as 10 Mothers, a celebration of the virtues of garlic where viewers learn everything about the culture of garlic from seed to soup, and Yum, Yum, Yum, which is part of a series celebrating rural Louisiana French musicians and their cooking. These are all detailed in a way that is part cookbook, history class and music lesson. Other food films and music films include J'aiEte Au Bal—I Went to the Dance; Dry Wood; Hot Pepper; Spend It All; and Marc and Ann.

Blank’s other works are woven as disparate landscape inhabited by gap-toothed women, bluesmen, obsessed filmmakers, Polish Polka dancers, cowboy artists, rock musicians and performers and artisans from around the world. He reveals some works-in-progress: a study of the social and medicinal uses of fungus, and another on Chinese tea culture. He will be travelling to India this year to film the nomadic people of Rajasthan and their music. While on the surface his subjects seem have nothing in common, through Blank’s eyes they all appear on the screen as celebrations of life.

The students raise their hands again. They want answers—a formula for success. They pry him for details on his pre-production planning methods. “I have no patience for that stuff,” Blank tells them with a shy smile. “I just go out and shoot.” A student persists: “How do you know when you are ready to go into the editing suite?” Blank shrugs and deadpans, “I know I’m ready when I’ve spent all of my money, and I’m sick of my subject.” He tosses these pearls out casually and the students take careful notes. This is the stuff that is left out of the film school books.

Blank shows the final clip of the day, and turns his attention to a table laden with video cassettes, posters and T-shirts. This is also how he distributes and finances his films. The lesson is not lost on the students who eagerly snap up posters and tapes while chatting with the master. “The best thing about Les,” confides a student in a Flower Films T-shirt, “is that he makes you believe you can do it.”

Kathleen Fairweather is editor of International Documentary.