Les Blank, playful and passionate documentarian, dead at 77

Obit Les Blank
This image provided by Harrod Blank shows an undated image of his father Les Blank. Blank, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who focused his camera on cultural corners ranging from blues music, to garlic lovers, to shoe-eating artists, died Sunday April 7, 2013 at age 77, his son said. Blank died at his home in Berkeley, Calif. nearly a year after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, Harrod Blank said. (AP Photo/Harrod Blank)

Les Blank used to screen his 1980 doc, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, in a unique “format” -- a kind of funky version of Smell-O-Vision. That is, he’d get the film rolling and then start cookin’ up a pot of garlic, letting the aroma waft over the crowd.

Similarly, when Blank showed Always for Pleasure, his 1978 celebration of all things Cajun (the cuisine, the music, the people), he was known to serve up red beans and rice from the back of the house.

There was even a culinary angle to his short 1980 doc, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – the result of a bet Herzog made with Errol Morris: that Herzog would eat his shoe if Morris ever got around to finishing his pet cemetery doc, Gates of Heaven. Morris did finish, Herzog did eat his shoe (spiced, seasoned and cooked at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery), and Blank captured the moment on film.

Blank also captured some of Herzog’s crazier and more Herculean moments in Burden of Dreams (1982), a chronicle of the German director’s obsessive quest to shoot Fitzcarraldo, a mad movie about a Peruvian rubber baron, shot in the jungles of South America. It's a remarkable document.

Blank, 77, died Sunday. Unstoppably productive in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, his non-fiction features and shorts  displayed a careening passion for folk art, folk music, and folksy people – and yes, for food. His most recent completed project, All In this Tea, co-directed with Gina Leibrecht, premiered at the San Francisco Internation Film Festival in 2007. A celebration of Chinese tea, the film followed American tea expert David Lee Hoffman as he toured the remote tea-growing regions of China, sniffing, sipping and trying to get the tea cultivators there to adopt organic farming techniques .