Our Frank

Amy Taubin on Robert Frank

Laura Israel, Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, 2016, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes. Robert Frank.

LAURA ISRAEL’S PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK is a remarkable reflection of the immediate connection of outer and inner vision that defines the lens-based art of its subject. If you want lists of Frank’s works and achievements, consult the Robert Frank Collection pages at the National Gallery of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Or for a laugh, you might search out the 1984 Arte documentary, which Israel uses for a few seconds here and there as a foil, to show that Frank doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly. And that he once possessed, and probably still does, a nice tweed jacket. As he acknowledges in Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, “I’m kind of a collector. I hardly throw anything away.”

Israel, a filmmaker and editor, had been Frank’s moving-image editor and archivist for more than twenty years when a colleague suggested that she make a film about her boss. She thought no, then yes. She asked Frank, who said no, and then yes. Even after she began shooting, she suspected that he believed she was making a ten-minute video. But Frank got into it and, as the movie makes exuberantly clear, became more collaborator than subject. Don’t Blink is a freeform retrospective, in which the now ninety-two-year-old photographer and moviemaker contributes nonstop loop-de-loops of show-and-tell through nearly seventy years of living and making art in North America.

Fast-paced and elliptical, the film is an editing tour de force. Israel and her editor Alex Bingham drop a couple of anchors so that we have some sense of where we are as we follow Frank, who prefers not to know exactly where he’s going. “I love mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes they work out.” There are two main locations: Frank’s cluttered Bleecker Street studio (the film is the best argument against minimalist living) and the more airy house in Mabou, Nova Scotia, where he and his wife, sculptor and painter June Leaf, have lived part-time since the 1970s. The harsh, often snow-covered landscape reminded Frank, he said, of his native Switzerland. Leaf’s comment about their first Mabou winter: “I wouldn’t say it was hard. It was impossible.”

Robert Frank, Life Dances On, 1980, black-and-white and color, sound, 30 minutes.

The other anchor is The Americans (1958), the book of eighty-three photographs that Frank, a European in search of the real America, shot on various road trips across and all around the United States between 1955 and 1957. Don’t Blink opens with a chockablock montage of images from the artist’s films and photographs and a clip of Frank shooting a movie and joking with bystanders who haven’t a clue who the grubby guy with the camera could be, before settling into the Bleecker Street studio where he is examining contact sheets of images from his most celebrated and influential work. Israel and Frank thread The Americans through the nearly sixty years of Frank’s life and art that the film covers in hop, skips, and jumps. When it first appeared, the book was reviled by critics who resented that a foreigner—specifically, a Swiss Jew—had seen through the smiling, airbrushed mask of the Eisenhower ’50s. Recently, a single image from the series sold for $550,000.

Sid Kaplan, the photographer’s longtime darkroom man, explains that Frank wanted the photographs in The Americans to have a similar look to the Fox Movietone News films that he saw in theaters when he arrived in New York just after World War II. At which point, Israel intercuts several images from The Americans with bits of those News films, and even if we know the photographs well, we may see them in a slightly different way—as documentary rather than as art photography. It’s a tiny moment in a film that’s filled with hundreds of just such revealing connections. Asked what makes a good photograph, Frank, whose dry humor is on display throughout, replies, “Sharp, number one. Make sure they see the eyes, hopefully the nose, smiling, say cheese. The main thing: Get it over quick. Get people when they’re not aware of the camera. Usually the first picture is the best.”

Jack Kerouac, whose introduction to The Americans nudged a series of still photographs into the shape of a road movie, is also the narrator of Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), a slightly fictionalized Beat Generation home movie which has Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso hanging out in a Tenth Street loft that is home to a railroad engineer (Larry Rivers), his painter wife (Delphine Seyrig), and their son (Pablo Frank). “The Beat writers were very important in my development, they showed you could create your own rules,” says Frank. One of the rules was to ignore the differentiation of documentary and fiction, leading to the Pirandelloesque Me and My Brother (1969), in which an answer to the question of what happens between a camera and its subject comes from Julius Orlovsky, for many years a catatonic schizophrenic. Frank, who had an amazing rapport with Julius, asks what he thinks about being in a movie. Julius paces around as he speaks, and although you have to fill in a keyword or two, his meaning is clear: “The camera is a reflection of disapproval or disgust… or unexplainability to disclose any real truth.”

Robert Frank, Me and My Brother, 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 91 minutes. Peter Orlovsky.

In Don’t Blink, Frank is almost never without a still camera in his hand, most of them of the small, easy-to-use variety. There’s a lovely sequence in which he and the cinematographer Ed Lachman take Polaroids of each other. (Don’t Blink was shot by Lisa Rinzler with additional camerawork by Lachman.) But looking at a sequence from the twisty self-portrait About Me: A Musical (1971) that Israel projected on the wall of his studio, he is struck by how alive it is. “They come back, they move and talk.…It brings back the real scene. A photograph is just a memory. Put it back in the drawer.” These days, he shoots video. It’s cheaper and more immediate than film. “I think I should shoot ten minutes of video a day. With people in it,” he tells Israel when they are hanging out in Mabou.

The New York bohemia that Frank captured—“people who lived on the edge”—is mostly gone, as are his children, Andrea and Pablo, who died much too young. Frank coped with terrible loss by working—making movies and shooting photographs that he wrote on and scratched over because single beautiful images were not enough to express grief and anger and a whole mess of emotions and ideas. “An important part of a photographer’s work is to choose the pictures. Make big prints, put them on the wall.” In the Bleecker Street studio, all the images of a lifetime seem to be just an arm’s-length away—the ones already chosen and those yet to be. Don’t Blink captures “the real scene” that Frank inhabits and continues to transform with his art.

“The Films of Robert Frank,” a series of eight Thursday-evening programs at BAMcinématek (August 4 through September 22) includes some twenty-five moving-image works of varying lengths and genres. The series as a whole cannot be summarized, nor can the individual films except to say that they share the characteristic of having been made by someone who stubbornly insists on walking out on a high wire without a net. If you’ve not seen Pull My Daisy, it is the classic. But do not miss Conversations in Vermont (1969), Life Dances On (1980), and True Story (2008)—all of them naked in their confusion and anguish about fathering. Best of all is the seemingly casual Paper Route (2002), as close to a perfect movie as you’ll ever see. The last Thursday (September 22) is listed as TBA, which is usually a signal that Mick Jagger has granted permission to show Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Exile on Main St tour. Take a chance and buy a ticket in advance. It is the most thrilling movie about performer-as-magician ever made.

Don’t Blink—Robert Frank runs through Tuesday, August 9 at New York’s Film Forum. “The Films of Robert Frank” plays every Thursday evening August 4 through September 22 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.