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Les Blank: Documentary Filmmaker Showed Berserk Werner Herzog

Burden of Dreams Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog Burden of Dreams: Les Blank documentary about the making of Herzog’s troubled Fitzcarraldo.

Documentary filmmaker Les Blank has died: Best remembered for Werner Herzog documentary ‘Burden of Dreams’

Les Blank, among whose credits is the BAFTA-winning documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog’s problem-plagued Amazon-set Fitzcarraldo, died at age 77 on April 7 in Berkeley, California, Deadline.com reports.

In the late 1960s, Les Blank (born on Nov. 27, in Tampa, Florida) was directing industrial and promotional shorts so as to subsidize his independently made documentary shorts, among them Chicago International Film Festival winner The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969) and the “flower children”-themed God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1969).

Music and its cultural context were frequent themes in Blank’s work. Examples include the norteño music documentary Chulas Fronteras (1976), set in the Mexico-Texas border, and J’ai été au bal / I Was at the Ball (1989), a look at the beginnings of the Cajun / zydeco music genre, which Blank co-directed with Chris Strachwitz.

Werner Herzog and Burden of Dreams

Les Blank’s best-known documentaries, however, are probably the ones in which he focused on filmmaker Werner Herzog: the 20-minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which Herzog (quite literally, it seems) eats his boiled shoe after losing a bet with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris; and the feature Burden of Dreams (1982), about the mind-numbing making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, featuring Herzog (who comes across as a – humorous – madman), Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Mick Jagger, and the original Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards.

Les Blank documentary awards

Besides the BAFTA for Burden of Dreams and the Chicago Film Festival Award for The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, among Les Blank’s other honors were the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for In Heaven There Is No Beer? in 1984, about polka lovers; the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award in 1990; and the International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award in 2011.

Les Blank’s son Harrod Blank is an actor-filmmaker-cinematographer. Among the younger Blank’s directorial credits are the short comedy-drama In the Land of the Owl Turds (1987), and the car-art feature documentary Automorphosis (2009). As per the IMDb, Blank was also an extra/bit player in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), with Nicolas Cage and Kathleen Turner, and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, with Jason Patric and Corey Haim.

Burden of Dreams Werner Herzog image: Flower Films / The Criterion Collection.

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