image002 copyLES BLANK

A National Treasure

Les Blank died last Sunday at 77.

Taylor Hackford called him a “national treasure.”

“Although his films are not well known at the moment, they’ll take their place,” he told The New York Times. “Films are great when they live a long time, and I think Les’ will live.”

Blank was quietly renowned for intimate documentaries exploring comparatively unknown music genres and regional cultures (Cajun/Zydeco titles like Spend It AllDry WoodMarc And Anne and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste Of Cajun And Creole Cooking) as well as artists including film director Werner Herzog (the celebrated Burden Of Dreams).

“You could call him an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist,” continued Hackford, who himself directed the 1987 Chuck Berry music documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. “He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it.”

Particularly fascinating in the Times obit, though, was Telluride Film Festival founder Thomas Luddy’s account of the awarding to Blank of the 2007 Edward MacDowell Medal, presented annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the arts (previous winners including Thornton Wilder, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and only two film directors: avant-gardist Stan Brakhage and animator Chuck Jones.)

“I was expecting that we’d be discussing names like Francis, Marty, David Lynch and so on,” said Luddy, a member of the jury. But chairman Hackford, he said, stated that his own films and many of those by the acknowledged “big names” could well be forgotten in 100 years, whereas “Les Blank’s films will be revered as time-capsule classics.”

“We never even discussed another name, and our meeting was over in less than an hour,” Luddy concluded. Contrast this, then with the news that this year’s Billboard Music Awards, to air May 19 on ABC, has Bruno Mars, the Band Perry, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Miguel and Pitbull up for “the new fan-driven ‘presented by Chevrolet’ Milestone Award, recognizing, Billboard proclaims, “the ingenuity of this year’s hitmakers.”

Say what?

“The six finalists are artists whose amazing achievements on the Billboard charts in the past year have exemplified originality and skill,” says the mag’s website. Let’s see if we get this right: The same big names we see on every other award show, this one purportedly predicated primarily on chart performance, are not only being further rewarded merely for sales achievement, but are also up for another award to be determined solely by online voting popularity—via Billboard’s site. And to top it off voters are encouraged to submit reasons (200 words or less) why they’re “the perfect person” to co-present the Milestone Award live with Cee Lo Green.

Nowhere in the press releases does it say anything about a Les Blank tribute, let alone the kind of music that he promoted, that many people buy even if it rarely dents the Billboard pop charts.

And by the way, Billboard’s Icon Award will go to Prince, who will deliver “what will likely be an unforgettable performance during the broadcast,” prophesizes Billboard.

Jim Bessman

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