Monday, April 08, 2013

Roger Ebert, Les Blank - Two of Cinema's Good Ones

We just lost two good souls of filmmaking, Roger Ebert and Les Blank. One, famous, one, not as much. Both were influential to film fans and filmmakers alike. Roger Ebert accomplished much in his 70 years. Critic, journalist, author, screenwriter, TV personality, and recently, after he lost his voice to the cancer that ravaged him, twitter-user extraordinaire.

Throughout the 70s, I watched him banter with and discuss movies with the late Gene Siskel on their popular TV show, Sneak Previews. Their passion for films, along with my Mom's old-movie-watching habit, most likely steered me toward filmmaking. Siskel and Ebert made it look easy—talking about film merits and flaws. But anyone who's discussed movies with friends knows it can get boring fast. They always kept it lively, engaging, and thoughtful. It was a show dedicated to their viewers. They wanted you to see good films. They wanted you to avoid the bad ones. That was thoughtful of them.

I didn't know much about Ebert personally from his TV career. His movie reviews were syndicated in our local newspaper on occasion, but his wacky past (he infamously wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a seriously bad but cultish exploitation film) should have clued me in. Not until I read Charles Bukowski's novel, Hollywood—about the making of the movie, Barfly—did I get a window into the kind of person Ebert was.

Here's Bukowski, not known for his effusive praise when it came to characterizing humanity, describing his stand-in for Ebert, Rick Talbot, in Hollywood (Ebert's account of this meeting is well worth the read):

"I don't think I've ever had such a good time on a set," said Rick Talbot. ..."It's a feel in the air. Sometimes with low budget films you get that feel, that carnival feel. It's here. But I feel it more here than I ever have..." 

He meant it. His eyes sparkled, he smiled with real joy. 

...I loved Rick's lack of sophistication. That took guts, when you were on top, to say that you enjoyed what you did, that you were having fun while you did it. ...He was a wonderful and innocent man.

These simple, straightforward words stayed with me over the years. That a film critic could be a wonderful and innocent man—I didn't know such a thing was possible. When I started following Ebert on Twitter, I was so impressed with his passion for information, for human rights, for art and for writing, of course. Above all, for his kindness, which is impossible to fake over time. It bubbles out of a person again and again when it's real. He loved life, appreciated what he had, even through his terrible illness, which he faced with grace and spirit. I knew him through his generous writing and I'll miss him.

Les Blank is someone you should know about, if you don't already. He lived in Berkeley, so I got to see a lot of his documentaries over the years. He visited my film department at SFSU on a regular basis, especially to screen new work, and he always stayed afterwards for discussions. He was another generous, big-hearted person who was shy around strangers and dedicated to the joy of creation.

He's most famous for his collaborations with film maverick Werner Herzog, but you should check out his prolific documentary career covering his numerous obsessions, including American roots music, food, and gap-teethed women—the stuff that makes life great.

The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, 1995 - Blank's tribute to Gerald Gaxiola, who lives to create art.

Innocents Abroad, 1991 - Travel to ten European countries with 40 American tourists in ten days. Blank is the ultimate tour guide.

Gap-Toothed Women, 1987 - Apparently Blank once had a crush on a gap-toothed neighbor. Then he made this delightful film.

Burden of Dreams
, 1982 - The documentary on the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Here are some Herzog quotes to put in your memory hopper.

God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance - Hippies, dancing at the Love-in in 1967!

Dizzie Gillespie, 1965 - enjoy.

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