God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance
After graduating from college, Blank had paid his bills shooting industrial films, which he loathed. Throughout those early years, he went out on his own to film things that interested him. Four years before breaking out on his own he had photographed Terry Nowack's short documentary Pleasure Faire (1963-64) at California's second Renaissance Faire. Filmed before renaissance festivals became big business tourist attractions, the early film captured some of the growing counterculture, people Blank would later describe as "a free-spirit type of people who lived outside the box." (Blank, quoted by Sally Berger, Inside/Out) It even featured some people who would turn up again in the later documentary.
Unhappy with his industrial films, Blank finally broke out on his own to create Flower Films, named for the people he was filming for the company's debut release, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance. Working with longtime collaborator Skip Gerson, he hung out at the 1967 Love-In, capturing as much of the event as the two of them could from the perspective of a participant. As would be the case in all his work, the film does not editorialize in any way. It simply documents some of the events that occurred during that Easter Sunday.
They didn't have sound recording equipment at the Love-In, so they shot the film silent. Years later, Blank enlisted the psychedelic band Spontaneous Combustion to record the soundtrack, which they did at a recording studio while Blank projected the film for them. The title was an old Sufi saying that reflects the spiritual nature of dance in that offshoot of Islam.
By the time he made the film, Blank had already discovered his main subject, which Steve Dollar of The Wall Street Journal describes as "festive chronicles of indigenous American subjects." That journey had started with Pleasure Faire and his first film as director, Dizzy Gillespie (1965). He continued in that vein with such acclaimed documentaries as The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1970), Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980), In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984), Gap-Toothed Women (1987) and his last film, How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at his Farm in Normandy (2014). Ironically, his most famous films are not about American life. Burden of Dreams (1982) documents German director Werner Herzog's work in South American on the epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), while the short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) shows the results of Herzog's bet that film student Errol Morris would never finish a film. Blank's work was frequently honored, with Burden of Dreams winning a BAFTA, In Heaven There Is No Beer? capturing the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins voted the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. He was also honored with the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award from the American Film Institute, the Ashland Independent Film Award from the Ashland Independent Film Festival, the Honorary Maverick Award from the Woodstock Film Festival and a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association. Oddly, he was never even nominated for an Academy Award®, possibly because he only worked through his own Flower Films, not trusting other distributors or production houses. His early films were financed by his industrial film work; the later ones by sales of the preceding films, speaker fees and even t-shirt sales. Blank passed away from bladder cancer in 2013. His final film, a portrait of fellow documentarian Richard Leacock, is currently in postproduction, though Blank showed clips from it at the 2011 MoMA retrospective of his work.
Director: Les Blank, Skip Gerson
Score: Spontaneous Combustion
Berger, Sally. "Ultimate Insider: An Interview with Les Blank," Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog. June 24, 2011.
Dollar, Steve. ""Aliens, Operas and a Blank Slate of Documentaries," The Wall Street Journal. June 23, 2011.
Patoski, Joe Nick. "Let the Good Times Roll," Texas Monthly, April 1980.
By Frank Miller