PRINT April 2007


Robert Frank

“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.

Steidl’s ambitious three-year plan to publish the complete Frank oeuvre—books, projects, movies—includes the release of nine multi-DVD volumes of his film and video work, as well as a half-dozen tomes in which the artist recycled material from his cinematic productions. 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, but it is nonetheless appropriate that the first set of Steidl DVDs (coming out this month) should encompass Frank’s Beat trilogy—Pull My Daisy, The Sin of Jesus (1961), and Me and My Brother (1968; revised 1997). 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.

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 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.

Not so The Sin of Jesus, a fairly transparent bid for art-house acceptance. Adapted from Isaac Babel’s story of the same name, Frank’s second movie is nothing if not studied. Off-off-Broadway diva Julie Bovasso makes her movie debut as a sad-faced, slack-jawed Beat chick, with Telly Savalas (also in his first film) playing the Stanley Kowalski type who knocks her up and leaves her to run their ineffably bleak chicken farm alone: “I’m sick of you and I’m sick of this place.” Then, to Bovasso’s total absence of surprise, a depressed-seeming Jesus materializes in the barn and offers her an angel husband for four years, with predictably disastrous results.

The movie’s literary pedigree and straightforward acting, if not its fastidious framing and stark rural setting, are anomalous in Frank’s work. Thanks in part to Bovasso’s strangulated performance, The Sin of Jesus feels like homemade Ingmar Bergman. (Mekas, perhaps the movie’s most ardent defender, praised it as “one of the most pessimistic films ever made. . . . There is not a single note of hope.”) Static as it is, The Sin of Jesus and its follow-up, the Antonioni-esque OK End Here (1963), are Frank’s aesthetic road (movies) not taken. Indeed, he would not complete another film for five years, when, inspired by Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” he undertook a complicated, self-referential staged documentary on the relationship between Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky and Orlovsky’s schizophrenic sibling Julius.

Frank’s most conventionally ambitious movie, Me and My Brother, as the project was eventually called, is both troubling and troubled. (The artist reedited his already overedited footage in 1997.) Some of the material is unambiguous documentary footage of Julius, released from a mental hospital to his brother’s care, on tour with Peter and Allen. Other scenes have Peter recounting the story of Julius’s breakdown as Julius silently shuffles around their East Village apartment. (“He has to be told each thing to do,” Peter explains.) Framing is crucial—more than once Frank cuts from a scene being filmed to the footage being screened. Partially written by Sam Shepard, Me and My Brother is filled with theater people and self-identified actors. Open Theater founder Joseph Chaikin plays Julius more precisely than Julius plays himself. Seth Allen is a similarly vivid Peter; at one point a very young Christopher Walken stands in for Frank, as does Roscoe Lee Browne. In the midst of this role-playing, catatonic Julius is a beacon of authenticity. (A fake shrink declares him a saint.)

Me and My Brother is loose enough to include a digression on photography—the image of old photos being flipped across the screen would be a recurring one in Frank’s films. But the nature of consciousness is, of course, unphotographical. Is the movie’s subject aware of what’s going on? Frustratingly fussy, Me and My Brother ends with the startling effect of Julius breaking character, as it were, to discuss the nature of the circumstances in which he finds himself. Suddenly voluble, he observes that “the camera seems like a reflection of disapproval or disgust or disappointment or unhelpfulness” that’s unable “to disclose any real truth that might possibly exist.” In retrospect, these revelatory final few minutes accrue all the greater weight for preceding Frank’s breakthrough Conversations in Vermont (1969), a first-person movie that begins with the filmmaker’s face as he cleans the camera lens and goes on to document his ambivalent confrontation with his adolescent children.

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. All are due from Steidl next fall in the second volume of Frank’s film works. Jumping chronology and available now, 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.

Shades of Me and My Brother: 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.

J. Hoberman, senior film critic at the Village Voice, is the author of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (New Press, 2003).