Don’t Blink — Robert Frank
DON’T BLINK — ROBERT FRANK, documentary, not rated, The Screen,
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