BERKELEY -- Filmmaker Les Blank, known for his documentary depictions of regional music and food and whimsical explorations into the obscure -- including gaptoothed women -- died in his Berkeley home Sunday surrounded by family.
The cause of death was bladder cancer, his family said. He was 77.
In his more than four-decade career, Blank created poetic visual depictions of jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins, but he also took on topics like garlic and created a film titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe."
"He's really one of America's treasurers," said Zoe Elton, director of programming at the Mill Valley Film Festival, who first met Blank in the 1970s. "How lucky we've been to have him here in the East Bay."
Known as a quiet and shy filmmaker, Blank first grabbed attention for his films about Herzog, the German director, including his 1982 documentary about Herzog producing a film in the jungles of South America.
Blank earned a bachelor's degree in English from Tulane University in New Orleans and flirted with the idea of becoming a writer, but that idea quickly faded. He then attended UC Berkeley, but, feeling uninspired, left.
His inspiration to become a filmmaker came from watching Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal," in which a man encounters the figure of Death.
"When I came out of the film, I discovered I was feeling good, my state in life compared to that of the protagonist was much better. I felt so good in comparison," he told this newspaper in 2008. "I thought, 'Well this is what I want to do. I want to be working around people that do this kind of film work.'"
Over the years, Blank developed a knack for capturing corners of America below the cultural radar and otherwise ignored by his contemporaries. His films on music feature Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, Polish polka enthusiasts and the sounds of Norteno bands on the Texas-Mexico border.
He always kept one eye in his viewfinder and let the other eye wander, said Chris Strachwitz, a Berkeley record label executive who worked on several films with Blank.
"Culture was a very family oriented thing being lost in the urban life," said Strachwitz. "I think he'll be remembered for capturing these extraordinary ethnic traditions that are sort of fading away."
For his films, Blank won several awards, including the Edward MacDowell Medal in 2007. The medal has been presented by the MacDowell Colony of New Hampshire annually since 1960 to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the arts.
"Hopefully, hundreds of years from now, people will be grateful that there was a Les Blank around," film producer Tom Luddy told this newspaper in 2008. "To show people in the future where the blues came from, where Cajun music came from and with real authenticity."
Blank is survived by his ex-wife Chris Simon, his sons Harrod and Beau Blank, daughter Ferris Robinson and three grandchildren.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.