Food Filmmaker Les Blank Puts The Scent In Cinema

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005

It's appropriate that filmmaker Les Blank would show his work at this year's Environmental Film Festival. Part of what Blank has become famous for during his 45-year career is creating little environments, especially at screenings of his documentaries about food.

When he shows the 1978 film "Always for Pleasure," about the food, music and indigenous culture of New Orleans, he has been known to whip up a pot of red beans and rice in the back of the theater. At presentations of the 1980 documentary "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers" -- about the joys of cooking and eating "the stinking rose" -- Blank can occasionally be spied tossing several heads of garlic into a toaster oven so that the aroma wafts over the audience at just the right mouth-watering moment.

"In the film, when [restaurateur] Alice Waters asks, 'Can you smell the garlic?' the audience yelled back, 'Yes!' " Blank said recently from his home in Berkeley, Calif., recalling a past screening of "Garlic."

Chances are good that when he appears with the film Saturday at the AFI Silver, local viewers will also be privy to a similar exhibition.

"I never insist on it," Blank says of his signature bit of showmanship, a technique he has dubbed "Smellaround." "Sometimes theater owners worry that the garlic smell will stay in the theater forever."

With or without olfactory assistance, Blank's films have made an indelible impact on people who have seen them throughout the years, evoking as they do the sensuous pleasures of cooking and eating, as well as an almost anthropological curiosity about America's regional food ways. In "Yum, Yum, Yum" (1990), Blank documents the culinary traditions of Louisiana, specifically the spicy Cajun cooking for which the area is known. "Chicken Real" (1970) examines chicken as big business (both films will be shown with "Garlic" on Saturday). Without narration, simply training his observant eye and ear on local bayou dwellers and chefs, Blank achieves in half an hour what most filmmakers couldn't do with twice the time and budget: conjuring a world so specific and vivid that, even without Smellaround, viewers feel as though they can smell and taste what's bubbling so deliciously on-screen.

If Blank is best known among foodies for his movies about cooking and music aficionados for music documentaries about polka, zydeco and blues artists, for movie fans he's famous for "Burden of Dreams." The chronicle of how German director Werner Herzog (a friend and frequent collaborator of Blank's) traveled to the Amazon River to make his 1982 historical epic "Fitzcarraldo" is one of the greatest documentaries ever made about obsession, artistic commitment and the behavioral oddities of actor Klaus Kinski. Six years earlier, Blank had made another movie about Herzog, a short film called "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe," which shows the title character making good on a bet with Errol Morris that he would never finish his first film, "Gates of Heaven." Both films will be screened Friday as part of the Environmental Film Festival's mini-retrospective of Blank's work.

"Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers" and "Yum, Yum, Yum" are a natural fit with the festival's focus this year on films about food and water. But festival director Flo Stone adds that "Burden of Dreams" has its own environmental message. The documentary "has such an incredible essence of place, of that part of the Peruvian Amazon, and of the people there who were extras and starred in the film," Stone says. She adds that the film also unflinchingly shows how Herzog often exploited not only the indigenous tribespeople but the physical environment as well. "When you bring in a crew like that it makes an enormous impact," she says. "Someone else asked us why we put in 'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,' well, that's a new take on food!"

Blank, a soft-spoken man of 69 who still retains the Southern accent of his native Florida, says this is the first time his films have been shown in an environmental context, but he can see the connection.

"I guess [Herzog] could be shown to be one of the people destroying the environment," he says. Both the garlic film and "Yum, Yum, Yum"--as well as most of his other food movies--are, he says, at their core "about good things grown in good ways, eaten well, pleasantly."

Ironically, it's a clip of a work in progress that probably qualifies as explicitly environmental. In 1997, Blank began filming a Berkeley-based tea importer who, on his visits to Chinese tea merchants, found himself trying to explain why pesticides, industrial tea-growing operations and concern with quantity over quality were at odds with the tastes of his high-end customers. Blank will show a snippet of the unnamed project Saturday, and he's hoping to get some money soon to edit it into a finished product.

In addition to being an engaging portrait of connoisseurship, the tea film has an inherently green sensibility.

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