Les Blank, Noted Documentarian, Dies at 77

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His films explored Werner Herzog and jazz great Dizzy Gilespie — along with garlic and gap-toothed women

Filmmaker Les Blank, known for his documentary depictions of American music and food, died in his Berkeley, Calif., home Sunday of bladder cancer, his family said.

Getty ImagesBlank was surrounded by his family when he died around 9 a.m., according to family spokeswoman. He was 77.

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In his over four-decade career Blank created distinctive film portraits of jazz musician Dizzy Gilespie and bluesman Lightning' Hopkins — and whimsically took on other topics, including garlic and gap-toothed women. One of his films was called "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe."

In 1981, he traveled to the remote jungles of South America for a more serious take on the iconoclastic German director. His documentary "Burden of Dreams" followed Herzog therough the chaotic filming of "Fitzcarraldo" (photo above).

"Fitzcarraldo" was about a man who hauls a steamship through the jungle and wants to bring opera to the local people. Herzog decided he would reenact the feat for the film, and Blank's film captures his quest through horrible weather, cast upheaval, irate native workers and a border war.

The majority of his films focused on American traditional music forms including blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka, tamburitza, and Hawaiian. Blank's films often focused on the music's cultural context, portraying the surroundings from which these American roots musics come.

Blank's work was showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in New York. Two of them, "Chulas Fronteras" and "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers," were chosen for the National Film Registry.

Blank attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received a B.A. in English literature and an Masters in theater. He had also studied communications at the University of Southern California.

Upon graduation, he founded his own production company, Flower Films, and most of his films since then were independently produced.

He is survived by his ex-wife Chris Simon, his sons Harrod and Beau Blank as well as his daughter Ferris Robinson.