Robert Frank (1924–2019)

Robert Frank. © Michael Ackerman.

I REMEMBER SITTING IN MY STUDIO on Broadway and Bleecker, watching a new crop of footage I had received from Robert Frank. On the grainy black-and-white Super-8 reel of a dead horse in the sea, the animal was staring straight ahead, its long white mane of hair rippling back and forth, slowly, with the undulation of the waves. Then the camera pulled back to reveal the frozen sea, the water moving ever so slightly beneath a thin crust of stillness.

I was feeling sort of stuck in time myself. No matter how hard I tried, as the film’s editor I just couldn’t find a place to cut out of the shot—I would have preferred to create a loop and let it go on forever. I did not answer the phone that day. I felt hypnotized. Someone knocked on the door, and I pretended I wasn’t there. It was raining and chilly, and I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a nap on the couch. Robert later explained that in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where he spent half the year, it was a hard winter, and the ground was too frozen to bury the horse that had died. The owner had placed the body in the sea and tied a rock to its ankle so it wouldn’t float back to shore. It stayed there, frozen, slowly decomposing.

Robert had been sending me pieces of a video diary he was making. Some footage was shot years before, and he was adding new material each week. Often, when I watched, I found a man who was desperately trying to work through his grief, struggling to find the smallest way to break through to thaw the ice that had stilled him. These pieces would later comprise Robert’s film The Present, which he finished in 1996. 

He was heartbroken over the death of his son, Pablo. He wanted to make a film about their relationship, but his feelings were too raw at the time. “Pushing the heavy rock up the hill”—that’s what he called it, recalling the plight of Sisyphus, the Greek king of Ephry, punished by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down when it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. 

A lesson I learned from Robert is to keep busy. Even when he didn’t feel like working, he told me he would go to his studio and take a nap or write a letter. Some emotion would be stirred from writing down his thoughts, or he might have a dream that would lead him somewhere new. Robert had decided that his current inertia would become the theme of the film—trying to make a movie and not being able to, trying to remember Pablo and wanting to avoid thinking about him, working through his grief by forcing himself to examine it. Somehow, Robert’s dental appointments and our editing schedule always seemed to overlap. Looking over footage during one editing session, he commented on how similar the painful extractions seemed.

When Robert and I had our first meeting about The Present, he drew two parallel lines on a page. One was straight, and the other wavy, intersecting and crossing each other. “There’s one story, the obvious story,” he said, nodding to the straight line. Pointing to the wavy one, he added: “There’s the story you’re trying to avoid but at times just emerges. That’s the real story.” I suggested that, since this work is like a diary, it should appear as if it weren’t edited, though not entirely random.

We decided we wanted to convey a feeling of searching. Flipping through pages of a book, wandering through an attic, rifling through drawers, looking frantically around on the floor, under the pile of papers on the desk. Finding things that interest you along the way, making random connections and stirring strong memories. I used the word rummaging. That made Robert laugh. 

Maybe this scattered searching can lead to a truth deeper than the one you were looking for. Maybe a random detour will lead you somehow down the right road in the night. Maybe this is the biggest lesson I learned from Robert Frank. 

Laura Israel, longtime film editor for Robert Frank, directed the documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, which premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival.