Don’t Blink — Robert Frank

DON’T BLINK — ROBERT FRANK, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen,

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Paul Wei­de­man

3.5 chiles

This film opens with im­ages of an apart­ment and stu­dio crowded with cam­eras and prints, with light­ning and fire, and with sirens and brash mu­sic. It’s a good prepa­ra­tion for what is to come: di­rec­tor Laura Is­rael’s un­var­nished por­trait of a pho­tog­ra­pher who likes his sub­jects un­var­nished. She gives view­ers the feel­ing that they’re right there with Robert Frank, in his New York digs, out on the street, and at his un­likely refuge, a cabin in Nova Sco­tia. In­ter­view seg­ments are in­ter­spersed with mon­tages of Frank’s pho­to­graphs and clips from his films.

Born in Zurich in 1924, Frank came of age near the grow­ing specter of Nazism and em­i­grated to the United States in 1947. He shot for Harper’s

Bazaar and other mag­a­zines, in his own time school­ing him­self in the art of street photography. In 1954, he won a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and set out to see the United States and take ap­prox­i­mately 27,000 photos. Back in New York, he se­lected just 83 of those for what is (so far) his most fa­mous project, The Amer­i­cans, pub­lished in 1959. The book de­picts noth­ing but or­di­nary peo­ple, but it was a less san­i­tized Amer­ica than peo­ple were ac­cus­tomed to see­ing. The Amer­i­cans was a land­mark in photography, though at the time it was widely re­viled.

Frank re­calls in the film, “Most of the crit­ics were mean: ‘That guy re­ally hates Amer­ica to pho­to­graph peo­ple like that.’ It sur­prised me.”

He added film to his pro­lific, ex­plo­rational record­ings of life early on, and he loved Super 8 be­cause he didn’t have to worry about sound. Thus his first short, 1959’s Pull My Daisy, with Beat writer Jack Ker­ouac as “ac­tor” and provider of im­pro­vised nar­ra­tion. “This was a good pe­riod be­cause of these peo­ple like [Gre­gory] Corso and [Allen] Gins­berg and Ker­ouac. Maybe they didn’t know where they were go­ing, but they were mov­ing for­ward, all the time,” says Frank.

Is­rael fol­lows Frank into a photography store, where he meets an old ac­quain­tance, dark­room mas­ter Sid Ka­plan, who re­lates that Frank once spent “a hell of a lot of time in the dark­room” him­self. A lit­tle later in the film, Ka­plan tells of a time dur­ing a Rolling Stones shoot when some­thing hap­pened with Frank’s Le­ica. “The only thing he had was the Super 8, so he took the strips of film, made an en­large­ment, and printed it from there. He was able to pull a rab­bit out of a hat. He would do a lot of things like that.”

About the more than 20 movies he shot, Frank tells Is­rael, “The films I make are per­sonal.” His sub­jects have in­cluded Beat writer William Bur­roughs and mu­si­cians Tom Waits and Patti Smith. The pub­lic re­sponse to Frank’s films has been un­even. Is­rael shows us a fo­rum at which a man in the au­di­ence tells Frank, “Your films seem schiz­o­phrenic. They seem dis­jointed. Why is this nec­es­sary?”

“I cre­ate, um, chaos,” Frank re­sponds. “I am look­ing for some­thing, and my films are in no way as suc­cess­ful, to al­most all peo­ple, as my pho­to­graphs are. It just makes me look harder to ex­press it stronger or bet­ter. Maybe I never get there. I’m just happy that I’m look­ing for it.”

Shut­ter­bug: Robert Frank

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