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2013 Outstanding Achievement Award: Les Blank

To be able to honour Les Blank is an absolute joy and a privilege, and to call him one of documentary’s greatest filmmakers feels too low a stature for this incredible director. With a career spanning over fifty years, Les’ journey to becoming a director was an unconventional one.

Born in Tampa, Florida, in 1935 Les originally aspired to be a commercial fisherman, spending his summers working on tugboats. During the summer of his senior year in high school Les got off the boat in New Orleans, and that stop marked the beginning of a relationship with a city featured in many of his films, and one that proudly considers him one of its own.

Deciding to attend Tulane University in that same city, Les found his second dream of becoming a surgeon dashed after failing chemistry and so pursued his bachelor’s degree in English. On moving to UC Berkeley to continue his graduate studies he left after one semester and found himself at a loss being turned down for jobs and believing that his lifestyle had affected his brain. Walking into a Naval recruitment centre for the free brain exam to confirm or deny his theory he was promptly signed up and given his orders for flight school in Pensacola. En route he decided to spend a night in New Orleans and met a friend who was teaching a theatre department. Les enthused to him that he has just seen Bergman’s Seventh Seal and would like to do something like that, but wasn’t sure how. Luckily, his teacher friend had a solution: the department had just begun a Master of Fine Arts with an emphasis on playwriting. Hours before Les would’ve begun a naval career, right between the Korean and Vietnam wars, his life took a very different turn.

Les’ first film Dizzy Gillespie, shown as part of our retrospective, is an intimate portrait of the legendary jazz musician. From his very first directing role you can see Les’ beautiful way of celebrating the people within his films. Here Dizzy ruminates on his life and philosophies in between stunning bursts on his famous bent horn. Les’ subtle style allowing for Dizzy’s charisma, humour and character to be at the forefront of this gorgeous portrait.

Selecting the group of films to show as part of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award was an incredibly difficult task, simply because every single one of Les’ films is a glorious addition to the art form of documentary, and so we focused on celebrating themes that ran throughout Les’ work—Maestros, Well Spent Lives and Pleasures—and we will be showing three films in each of these programmes.

Following Dizzy Gillespie are The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins and The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists. Both are portraits of artists who are unconventional, and were at times unsung—a notable great skill Les has for finding and celebrating those who deserved greater attention.

Speaking to this in his work Les said, “I try to show that the people in my films are human beings who have just as much right to be on this earth as anybody else. Maybe more right.”

One story behind the making of The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins is a glorious one. After the first full day of shooting with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Les had filmed everything possible, which included a performance of ten songs. Lightnin’ had gotten fed up by the presence of the camera and felt he’d played as many songs as an LP and was about to kick the crew out. As they were packing up Les noticed they were playing cards and went over to ask what the game was. It turned out to be Pity Pair and Lightnin’ offered to teach him how to play. He took Les for $60 in ten minutes, all the money left for the shoot. Telling him to borrow money and come back tomorrow. After gleaning him for another time, Lightnin’ was tickled by Les’ dismay and agreed to let him take the camera out and shoot. Those cards games would last through the shoot and beyond.

Our Well Spent Lives programme includes Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge, a wonderful short which was made as part of another of Les’ films, Sprout Wings and Fly, and is a beautiful example of how Les explores his characters and his absolute skill for finding some of the greatest storytellers ever shown on film. Following this is Marc and Ann, about the Savoy family, who feature in many of Les’ films. This film is particularly notable for the feeling it leaves the viewer, that of the important things in life and the celebration of music and culture. A Well Spent Life is a portrait of Texan Bluesman Mance Lipscomb, a man who has had far from an easy life, but who instead of finding bitterness in hardship, has found only sweetness.

The Pleasures programme sees three of Les’ most celebrated films Dry Wood, Gap-Toothed Women and Always for Pleasure. These are films countlessly referenced as inspirations by other filmmakers, and will no doubt continue to be so for years to come.

A fitting exploration of Les’ work would fill this programme book, and so it is highly recommended to view his work on the big screen at this year’s festival, and then to go beyond and explore any and every one of his films that you possibly can. To be able to explore Les’ work is nothing short of a lifechanging experience. Throughout his work runs the essence of joy, celebration of food, culture, music and people leaving you with renewed, and richer perspective of the world.

Throughout Les’ work you feel the sense of collaboration, not only with the characters within who are so lovingly treated and portrayed, but also with his numerous long time collaborators behind the camera. Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon have worked with Les for many years, and on a huge amount of the films in this year’s retrospective. They will be attending the festival with their own film about Chris Strachwitz, another of Les’ collaborators, This Ain’t No Mouse Music.

To enter into the cinematic world of Les Blank is to enter into one of beautiful and memorable moments, of spirit of place, music, food and joy. The people Les allows to guide you through this world are people that will live with you forever. In a 1988 issue of New Orleans Review Andrew S. Horton defined Les’ work as “Cinema Vitalite,” which couldn’t be a more fitting description, and the world of documentary and filmmaking are forever indebted to the vitality Les Blank has brought us.

— Charlotte Cook
Director of Programming

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Presenting Platinum Partner

  • logo Scotia Wealth Management

Founding Partner

  • logo Rogers

Signature Partner

  • Logo Cbc Gem

Presenting Partners

  • logo Crave
  • logo Netflix

Major Supporters

  • logo Celebrate Ontario
  • logo telefilm