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Les Blank 

Documentary Filmmaker returns to New Orleans

A Well-Spent Life: An Evening with Les Blank

7 p.m. Sat., March 20

Double the Pleasure: Lisa Katzman and Les Blank

3 p.m. Sun., March 21

Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 569-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org

General admission $10, free for Ogden members

click to enlarge Some of Les Blank's best documentaries feature Louisiana subjects. - PHOTO BY LES BLANK
  • Photo by Les Blank
  • Some of Les Blank's best documentaries feature Louisiana subjects.

Music and food. These twin themes characterize the work of celebrated documentary filmmaker and Tulane graduate Les Blank much like the city that has often inspired him. In a career spanning five decades and including more than 40 films, Blank has trained his eye on subjects like zydeco kingpin Clifton Chenier (1973's Hot Pepper), Cajun and Creole cuisine (1990's Yum! Yum! Yum!) and the unique culture of New Orleans (Always for Pleasure, 1978). With his low-key, impressionistic style and unobtrusive methods, Blank shines a soft but revealing light on people and cultures far outside the American mainstream, contrasting sharply with the heavily staged, agenda-driven documentaries popular today.

  Blank will attend a weekend retrospective of his work as part of the Ogden Museum's Art of Southern Film: Established Masters and Emerging Makers series. The programs offer a chance to see some of Blank's rarely shown films and constitute a sort of homecoming for one of New Orleans' adopted sons.

  Blank grew up in Tampa, Fla., and found his way to New Orleans on the crew of a seagoing tugboat. The city left an impression on him that can be seen clearly in his work. "I went out carousing with a friend from prep school," Blank says. "I liked the loose style of New Orleans, the sensuousness, the attitudes of people who enjoy being human beings."

  He enrolled at Tulane, and as a mid-1950s freshman played center and linebacker for the football team — until a freak accident ended his brief gridiron career. "I fell off a fraternity truck and landed on my head, and I was in a coma all afternoon at Charity Hospital. I could have kept playing, but I saw the light. One brain concussion was enough for me." Blank went on to graduate school at the University of Southern California and returned to New Orleans in the late '60s as second camera on Dennis Hopper's countercultural classic Easy Rider. He would soon start producing films in his signature warm, intimate style.

  Among those early films is Dry Wood, a portrait of Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin, his musical partner Canray Fontenot, and their unique style of traditional Cajun music. Shot in and around Evangeline Parish in southwestern Louisiana, Dry Wood captures the special flavor of rural Mardi Gras, circa 1972, and visits a wild "men's only" country supper and a family hog-butchering and sausage-making. "Food is a unifying element, no matter where you come from," Blank says. "When people are cooking for you, or sharing their foodways with you, it's their way of giving of themselves. And it's universal, something everyone can relate to."

  These scenes also present a prime example of how Blank captures the rich detail of daily life — the context for all that wonderful music — in a natural way without inserting himself into the proceedings. "I don't set up a wall between myself and the subjects," Blank says. "It's all an exploration. I do it to learn myself, and to find something, capture it, and bring it back."

  If Blank's methods constitute a collaboration of sorts with his subjects, they also present opportunities for working with cultural historians who can provide subject-matter expertise and access to sometimes unwilling subjects. Before making A Well-Spent Life, a memorable portrait of Texas songster and bluesman Mance Lipscomb, Blank worked with John Lomax Jr. of the musicologist Lomax family (including father John Sr. and brother Alan) on Blank's 1969 classic, The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins. Blank met Lipscomb when Hopkins agreed to visit the rival musician in Navasota, Texas, while making that film. "In the course of spending one day with Mance, I realized this guy was really wonderful — and much easier to be around than Lightnin'," Blank says with a laugh. "He never had bad moods."

  Later, after finishing another film on Cajun culture called Spend It All, Blank was broke and about to return to California with the footage, a week ahead of a scheduled trip to England to make a commercial film that would help pay the bills. Lomax suggested Blank use that time to stop in Navasota and get some footage of Lipscomb for the archives. But the results were too good to be locked away. "Every time he opened his mouth, these great things came out," Blank says. "I got home to California and realized I had enough to make a whole movie."

  Blank turns 75 this year, but he shows no signs of slowing down. He recently traveled to Malaysia on a Ford Foundation grant. Over the course of his two-week tour of Malaysian cities, inspiration struck again. In hotel lobbies and on public transportation, Blank repeatedly noticed signs picturing a large tropical fruit with a big red slash through it. "I want to make a film about this fruit that grows in Southeast Asia called the durian," he says. "It's known to be the smelliest of all fruits and vegetables, but it has the highest density of protein, and it's known as a super strong aphrodisiac, so they say." Food, once again, catches the filmmaker's eye. "Mention durians to anyone there and you'll get a reaction — either disgust or unmitigated pleasure. It's sort of a keyhole for peering into a whole culture." How can he resist?

  The Ogden Museum's Saturday program includes the films Dry Wood, A Well-Spent Life, Del Mero Corazon, an exploration of love songs in the Tex-Mex Nortena music tradition, and Sprout Wings and Fly, about Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell. Also included is an excerpt of a new Les Blank film about Alabama artist Butch Anthony. On Sunday, the museum presents Tootie's Last Suit by Lisa Katzman on the late Mardi Gras Indian Allison "Tootie" Montana, and Always For Pleasure, Les Blank's vivid 1978 portrait of New Orleans.

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