Documentaries Can Dance

Les Blank has made a film or two. Closer to 40, actually, with more on the way. They’re spirited movies about passionate people keeping traditions alive. Films that’ll make your soul soar and your feet move. Profiles of Cajun (Yum, Yum, Yum!), zydeco (Hot Pepper), and Tex-Mex musicians (Chulas Fronteras). Documentaries about polka aficionados (In Heaven There is No Beer) and ardent lovers of garlic (Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers).

Oops. Maybe I shouldn’t call them documentaries. Blank, 67, thinks the word is too stuffy to describe his work–and he’s got a point. His films about the commingled pleasures of eating, dancing, and making music are anything but stuffy. While drawn into film by the influence of Ingmar Bergman, his college years in New Orleans seem to have made a more lasting impression. Now based in the Bay Area, Blank is drawn to joyful subjects and to people who exhibit at least a little divine madness.

Blank’s combination of curiosity and respect leads to a contagious, playful, even lusty spirit in his work. One of my favorite Blank films is Gap-Toothed Women in which model Lauren Hutton, folksinger Claudia Schmidt, and other gap-toothed gals describe the diastemic life.

Blank has always been drawn to people with a sense of mission. He’s now chronicling a Californian who treks annually to China to buy tea. To me, Blank’s most mesmerizing film is Burden of Dreams, a 1982 picture documenting the extreme conditions German director Werner Herzog underwent to film Fitzcarraldo, a tale about a man’s quest to bring opera to the Amazon, in part by hauling a riverboat over a mountain.

To make Burden of Dreams, Blank discarded 99 percent of the footage he shot, a process he has compared to a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone. In one telling scene shot on location, Herzog talks about the jungle. “Nature here is vile and base,” Herzog says. “I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. The trees here are in misery. The birds here are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.”

At this point in the film there’s a full minute without a human voice, just close-ups of a man cutting then holding up a red bird, an ant lugging a scarlet feather to and fro, a tree frog with its neck pulsing, two more insects, one at a time, all accompanied by the cries of a jungle bird, the Screaming Piha. Blank then cuts back to Herzog expounding on the jungle as “a land that God, if he exists, has created out of anger.” It is not that he hates it, says Herzog: “I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.” Blank, like the subject of his film, is fascinated by a love so powerful.

Blank has explained that his aim in making movies is to “expand awareness of the world” and “to appreciate being alive.” And that’s what he does. Jump at the next chance to see one of his movies (learn more at, and you’ll know what it feels like when people’s dreams–and maybe yours too–learn to dance.

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