Documentary film director Les Blank dies at 77

Harrod Blank/Courtesy
Les Blank, who died Saturday, was well-known for creating films based on diverse subjects.

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Documentary filmmaker Les Blank died in his Berkeley home Sunday after a yearlong fight with cancer. He was 77.

Blank was known for his films on American food and music and produced 42 films in a career spanning more than 50 years, according to Blank’s website.

“He definitely was a seeker of beauty and truth and the ways to express and articulate that,” said Blank’s son Beau Blank.

Blank, who received a degree in English from Tulane University in 1958, also attended graduate school at UC Berkeley. He left, however, to pursue filmmaking at USC in 1960 after being heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“(His films) really captured a special time when there was a lot more distinctiveness in cultures and how rich they were,” said Maureen Gosling, who worked with Blank for nearly 20 years. “That’s the legacy of his work.”

Friends and family said Blank captured an intimacy in work that reflected his kind and thoughtful character. Though he was known to be shy and almost painfully quiet, Blank won over subjects and audiences with his attention to the small treasures of everyday life. Gosling said he best captured moments without words.

“We’re looking for the golden moments,” Blank once said to Gosling.

The subjects Blank chose reflected a wide variety of interests, ranging from garlic to gap-toothed women, blues musicians to Tex-Mex Chicano culture and tea-making to California hippie-culture.

“(His films) offer something unique,” said Harrod Blank, Blank’s other son. “His interests were diverse — his films were diverse.”

Harrod recalls watching foreign films, traveling and attending music festivals as a child with his father. Now a filmmaker himself, he expressed appreciation for the independence and skills that his father taught him. Both Harrod and Beau treasured the time spent with their father in the later years of his life. In the last 15 years, Harrod and his father regularly attended and filmed the annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada.

But Blank was appreciated by many more than just family members. He won several awards, including the 2011 Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, the Maya Deren Award for outstanding life achievement from the American Film Institute and a British Academy Award in 1982 for his film “Burden of Dreams.”

“I try to find a fresh way of looking at the world around me and making some sense of it,” Blank said in an interview after winning the 2011 Career Achievement Award. “Hopefully (it is) something positive, something lasting that the world would want to see 100 years from now.”

Along with leaving behind a legacy of a prolific career, Blank is survived by ex-wife Chris Simon, sons Harrod and Beau, daughter Ferris Robinson and three grandchildren.

Contact Jennie Yoon at [email protected]