Les Blank’s Final Foray

Les Blank’s Final Foray


Gina Leibrecht and Les Blank

He brings cinema verité pioneer Richard Leacock into focus with an East Bay release.

The late, great East Bay documentary filmmaker Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, among many, many others) was a connoisseur of good food, good music, and good company. A superb observer and listener, he was adept at the gently incisive follow-up question. All those attributes are on display in his endearing final film, How to Smell a Rose: A Visit With Ricky Leacock in Normandy. Completed after his death by his partner, Gina Leibrecht, How to Smell a Rose is an intimate yet unsentimental portrait of another filmmaking legend, the cinema verité pioneer Richard Leacock.

The film originated in a couple of late 1990s visits by Blank to Leacock’s rural farmhouse, where they talked, ate, and—unexpectedly yet inevitably—filmed.

“They had at that point already known each other for 30 years, and I think there was a deep mutual respect for one another’s work,” Leibrecht said. “They would run into each other every few years at film festivals and whatnot, and I think the reason Les wanted to make a film about Ricky was he was in France for another reason, and he paid Ricky a visit for a few days. It was sort of a spontaneous idea to film him.”

Hanging out with his wife and Blank, Leacock recollects a fascinating and brilliant career that began as the cinematographer of Robert Flaherty’s gorgeous, dreamy Louisiana Story (1948). Leacock was one of the cameramen of Primary (1960), Robert Drew’s influential record of JFK and Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. He was also one of the cinematographers of D.A. Pennebaker’s pivotal 1968 concert film, Monterey Pop. Meanwhile, Leacock directed his own artful documentaries, clips of which are sprinkled generously throughout How to Smell a Rose.

For her part, Leibrecht was an aspiring editor when she met Blank in 1998. She saw the footage he shot in Normandy with a camera borrowed from Leacock, and proposed a follow-up visit—that both she and Blank would shoot—to coincide with a European trip she was planning.

“I realized at the time it was really about the conversation and chemistry between the two of them,” the Berkeley-based filmmaker recalls. “For me, it was magical being in the room with these two guys. I felt privileged to be there.”

Various hurdles and interruptions, notably the time and money that Blank and Leibrecht devoted to making the China-set doc All In This Tea (2007) with importer David Lee Hoffman, delayed postproduction. Leibrecht was finally able to complete How to Smell a Rose in 2014, a year after Blank’s death and three years after Leacock’s passing.

How to Smell a Rose debuted at the prestigious Telluride and New York film festivals, and returned to Manhattan last summer for a weeklong theatrical run. The film receives its Bay Area release this month on successive days in Oakland (March 8 at The New Parkway), San Francisco, and San Rafael with Leibrecht in person. By turns elegiac and earthy, majestic and prosaic, How to Smell a Rose is a touching tribute to two men who embraced life with their own brands of brio.