On the Road Again

J. Hoberman on Robert Frank

Left: Robert Frank, Me and My Brother, 1968, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes. Julius (Joseph Chaikin). Right: Robert Frank, C’est vrai! (One Hour), 1990, still from a color video, 60 minutes.

“NEVER HAVE I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film.” So wrote the young Robert Frank to his parents soon after his arrival in the United States in 1947. The Swiss-born Frank is far better known (and vastly more influential) as a photographer than as a filmmaker, but it is arguable that film is more central to his aesthetic project.

One might even think of Frank’s first photography collection, The Americans (1958), as the prototypical road movie—a journey through America’s vernacular landscape. Frank’s mid-’50s trip to the Strip realm of billboards, drive-ins, and gas stations has been recapitulated in American films from Ron Rice’s Senseless (1962) and the unfinished Merry Pranksters epic through the echt ’60s Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) to Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Thelma and Louise (1991), and—need we go on?

Distilled to a single overarching concern, the quintessential Frank enterprise would be either the existential drama of being a stranger in a strange land or the existential situation of being an actor in a movie. His letter home merges these states, as do his own road movies—the (very) quasi-commercial feature Candy Mountain (1987), a collaboration with Rudy Wurlitzer, and the legendary Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972). In the latter film’s most extended sequence, Frank persuades the Stones to forgo their private jet and drive from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Nashville. Initially bored, Mick Jagger is soon prancing with delight to be jiving and shooting pool at a roadside juke joint filled with down-home black folk—which is to say, to find himself in The Americans.

An acerbic European commentator once remarked of that volume that Frank’s photographs revealed “a land of children wearing masks, acting out roles with no comprehension of the self, no awareness of the infinity of history and humanity, no awareness of what is called culture.” Yes, to be sure, but what those pictures also intimated, particularly for Americans, was an alternate America of subcultures and counterculture. And the same must be said of Frank’s first real movie, Pull My Daisy, which he directed with Alfred Leslie in 1959, the same year that The Americans was first published in the United States.

It is symptomatic of Frank’s subterranean film career that his best-known movie would still be this Beat family portrait. Just as Frank’s photographs provided images of American beatitude, so his early movies provided an image for American beatniks. Based on the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unproduced play The Beat Generation (1957), Pull My Daisy, for instance, features poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky; painters Larry Rivers and Alice Neel; plus Delphine Seyrig, a young French actress who had come to New York to study the Method. The unseen Kerouac describes the film’s action—scarcely more than a series of antic doings in Leslie’s Fourth Avenue studio—speaking for all characters in a humorous and grandiloquent monologue that’s interspersed with sound effects and David Amram’s music. Like the painter’s theater that first appeared on the cusp of the ’60s, Pull My Daisy suggested the culmination of postwar trends in acting, painting, music, and poetry that variously proclaimed improvisation, spontaneity, and “emptiness” as their hallmarks.

Left: Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy, 1959, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 30 minutes. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Right: Robert Frank, The Sin of Jesus, 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 37 minutes. Woman (Julie Bovasso).

Pull My Daisy was championed by then Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas (himself an émigré of Frank’s generation), for whom the movie pointed “towards new directions, new ways out of the frozen officialdom and mid-century senility of our arts, towards a
new thematic, a new sensitivity.” Nine years later, Leslie published an article, also in the Voice, debunking the notion that the film was (as Frank had termed it) a “spontaneous documentary”: The extreme informality that characterized Pull My Daisy was a deliberate and sophisticated aesthetic strategy.

Populated by bohemian personalities basically playing themselves, blurring the distinction between documentary and artifice, Pull My Daisy presaged Frank’s subsequent interests. The dialectic between staged and unstaged, as well as between celebrity and obscurity, informs his impure documentary features Me and My Brother (1968; revised 1997) and Cocksucker Blues, as well as the smaller, more personal, process-oriented movies Frank began making in the late ’60s—many of which derived their integrity from a sense that the filmmaker couldn’t care less if they were ever shown.


Conversations in Vermont and its successors Liferaft Earth (1969) and About Me: A Musical (1971) are rooted in the chaos of the late ’60s and steeped in the pungent, disheveled clutter of hippie life. Jumping chronology, however, is the unknown gem C’est vrai! (One Hour) (1990), a sixty-minute-long single-take chunk of real time choreographed one summer afternoon in the artist’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood. Here, thirty years later, is the (almost) spontaneous action documentary Frank claimed to have made with Pull My Daisy. Even the milieu is similar. C’est vrai! begins in the artist’s impressively shambolic studio; the camera moves outside to the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette streets and into a beat-up van, which proceeds to drive in circles around the area, occasionally stopping to allow the camera to foray out into a diner or to record a bit of on-street conversation.

Technically speaking, C’est vrai! is a minor miracle—although the nature of its truth is an elastic concept. The movie is full of staged events. Frank obviously planted actors around the neighborhood, and drove from location to location to harvest their performances; but, given a confused meeting with a woman in the middle of Houston Street, it’s possible that the production stumbled across at least one acquaintance by chance. For the greater part of the film, however, Kevin O’Connor, the protagonist of Candy Mountain, is charged with addressing the camera, until the irrepressibly garrulous Peter Orlovsky clambers into the van and more or less supplants the younger actor as the center of attention. Frank himself never appears, although his voice is heard now and again.

Ranting all the while, Orlovsky leads Frank down into the subway, where the filmmaker records his longtime star serenading expressionless straphangers with a snatch of an aria from Pagliacci and a toneless “Home on the Range.” It’s an aptly underground ending for a piece that is both street theater and an urban road movie.

The complete version of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Artforum. “Mapping a Journey: The Films & Videos of Robert Frank” runs November 7–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more information, click here.