Les Blank doesn't make movies to get rich and his movies don't make him rich. But they are aesthetically satisfying to him and bring great joy to those who see them.
Who else, for example, would make a 20-minute documentary about a famous film director eating footwear ("Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe"), or a 30-minute observation of women who have a space between their two front teeth ("Gap-Toothed Women"), or 51-minute examinations of garlic ("Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers"), Polish-American polka ("In Heaven There Is No Beer") and Serbian-American music ("Ziveli: Medicine For the Heart")?With occasional diversions, Blank often records in his short and feature-length documentaries the diverse cultures of America, and in doing so preserves them. One of his current projects is an attempt at the definitive history of cajun music. He is also at work on two other films, one about musician Ry Cooder, and another about a cajun accordion maker.
Les Blank will show and discuss examples of his work Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Salt Lake Art Center auditorium, 20 E. South Temple. Admission is $4. Screenings of "Gap-Toothed Women" and "BEFORE!" are sponsored by the Utah Media Arts Center, with grants by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Utah Arts Council. For further information phone the Media Center, 534-1158.
To be sure, Blank has made forays into commercial success with "Burden of Dreams," a documentary feature about the difficult adventure that went into the making of Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo," a film that crossed over into national mainstream theater distribution, and "BEFORE!" about the making of the "Stuck On You" video in the Bahamas by Huey Lewis and the News.
But more often they are offbeat little films about offbeat little subjects, subjects treated with humor and warmth. Blank's work is always tasteful, gentle and genuine.
"I like them," Blank says of his subjects. Speaking by telephone Thursday from his home in California, Blank said he looks at his films as a way of expressing affection for these people.
"I grew up in Tampa, Fla., and there were several ethnic groups there Cubans, blacks, Appalachians, Florida crackers, and I was always fascinated with people different from myself and the qualities of life that my own culture didn't have."
One of the ethnic groups that has most fascinated him is Cajuns, the Appalachians of the south who have their own brand of life, food and music, but who have received negative stereotyping in a number of feature films ever since "Deliverance" painted them as crazed killers living in swamps.
"I had been to a Cajun dance in college and found it very interesting. Then I heard Cajun music on the radio in New Orleans where I went to college."
Inspired by the Cajun culture, Blank headed for St. Martinville, La., "in the heart of Cajun country. It was like going to a foreign country." Though there was some reluctance, most of the people were friendly and greeted his ideas about filming them with open arms.
The result has been a number of films on various aspects of the culture and a renewed respect for Cajuns by outsiders who see the movies. More satisfying for Blank, however, was learning that when one of his films, "Spend It All," was shown on local television in Louisiana some Cajun youngsters felt new pride in their heritage and Cajun music began to replace rock and roll on their list of priorities.
Blank began making movies more than 20 years ago with an eye to doing narrative feature films, an ambition he has not completely lost. But he has been locked into documentaries for so long, and has so many forthcoming projects in the works, he's not sure when the opportunity will present itself.
The hardest part of making his movies is the same thing that has daunted his progress all along money. "It's hard to get them funded. Sometimes you get a film started and then it will languish for a year or two until the money to finish it comes in. Some take a backseat while others have deadlines.
"And the kinds of films I make don't tend to make me giant money."
Nearly all of the people profiled in Blank's movies have liked them though, including those in "Gap-Toothed Women."
There are 40 women in this 30-minute documentary, each talking about their experiences as unique women with spaces between their front teeth. The film is often funny, but it is also very poignant, especially when larger questions about life and death loom in with surprising ease.
For the 40 chosen there were 100 on-camera interviews and 400 women who volunteered to take part in the film.
And how Blank went about making it says a lot about him. "It was hard for me to get into the film because I was so timid about approaching women about a subject so personal and possibly embarrassing. It took me a year to get started doing it."
Blank advertised a casting call for women with spaces in their teeth and asked the 400 callers to provide photos and a statement about themselves, their teeth and their attitudes about life. "It was a lack of organization that kept us from getting some of the really good ones on camera (including Whoopi Goldberg before she became famous), and there were three years of gap-toothed women coming through our offices. And it was so enjoyable we just took our time about making the film, until the American Film Institute, who had given us the grant, got nervous. So I had to finish the film. It took about four years altogether."
The result? "All the women in the film liked it very much." Blank also acknowledged the help of Maureen Gosling, Chris Simon and Susan Kell, who acted as co-filmmakers and who gave it an edge he couldn't have gotten on his own. "They made it more of a film for women than I could have."
But it's also a film for men. Blank narrows the focus of his subjects in each of his films, but the films themselves have a truly universal appeal.
Those interested in film rentals or videos of Blank's work should contact Flower Films & Video, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA. Phone (415) 525-0942.