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Mapping a Journey: ROBERT FRANK

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T: Film still from ME AND MY BROTHER Robert Frank (dir. Robert Frank)

B: Film still from PULL MY DAISY Robert Frank (dir. Robert Frank, co-dir by Alfred Leslie)

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Friday, February 06, 2009

By Michael Joshua Rowin



The National Gallery in Washington, DC recently opened the exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” in celebration of the artist’s monumental 1959 book of photography. Last fall, Anthology Film Archives in New York screened a series of Frank’s fascinating work as a filmmaker, includiung the Beat classic Pull My Daisy and the notorious Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues


In The Americans, Robert Frank’s seminal 1958 collection of black and white photographs taken along the highways, graveyards, farmlands, and diners of the United States, the country and its inhabitants are, perhaps for the first time ever, laid completely bare in their loneliness. Whether it be a half-dazed Chicano contemplating a jukebox in an empty, cavernous bar, a quartet of small town mourners standing quizzically over a blanketed corpse on a snowy dirt road, or a picture of President Eisenhower keeping a tuxedoed mannequin company inside a ramshackle window display, Frank’s images document an unnamable, forlorn loss particular to the American landscape, something haunted and absurd, tragic and obscene, epic and disposable. Both the process and result of Frank’s voyage throughout the States have been endlessly imitated but never successfully reproduced — how many would-be photographers have taken Frank’s cue to set out on the open road in pursuit of capturing the diverse discontents of America? — and so singular is The Americans in its impact on modern photography that it became Frank’s synonymous signature work, the work that cemented his reputation and career, but also the work he soon had to leave behind to pursue a new direction.

That new direction was direction. A Swiss-Jewish ex-pat who immigrated to an America from which he grew profoundly estranged, Frank possessed an outsider’s vision that quickly found kindred spirit in the major bohemian art of the Fifties, the Beat scene of downtown Manhattan. Replacing the isolated melancholy of still photography with the open narrative possibilities of moving pictures, Frank began his film career with collaborative endeavor Pull My Daisy, co-directed by Alfred Leslie and written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, who also supplied the written introduction of The Americans. Made a year after The Americans was released, Daisy is often deemed the first Beat film, though it’s remarkable how well it’s aged even as the Beats, including Kerouac himself, have largely fallen out of favor in the postwar literature canon. The film’s freshness hasn’t as much to do with its “documentation” of the antics of legends Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso, who crash a friend’s respectable party for an esteemed bishop, as it does with still-fresh experimentation that saves it from the status of mere countercultural artifact. Daisy turns Beat duties over to Kerouac, whose muttering multi-voiced narration (he playfully imitates almost all the characters) provides the film’s commentary, dialogue, and free-associational bass-line, while Frank’s sober grey palette strips the hip milieu of most of its pretension. Daisy was widely considered one of the early American independent movement’s masterpieces of improvisation, but Leslie and Frank planned each shot carefully to balance Kerouac’s voiceover. It’s amazing how long this legend of spontaneity had persisted — Frank’s photographer’s eye for skillfully composed drabness (here, an apartment as humble artistic sanctuary and playground) is unmistakable, and the saturnine mood of metropolitan twilight with which he and Leslie choose to surround their giddy subjects expands Daisy into a film modestly grand.

Frank might have possibly ridden the relative notoriety of Daisy — which found success in the burgeoning independent film scene — and used it to launch a more mainstream career. Instead he continued directing short low-budget, low-key dramas, and his couple of post-Daisy fictions are among the most interesting films of early American independent cinema, though their missing Beat cachet has inevitably resulted in a lack of attention. Based on an Isaac Babel short story, The Sin of Jesus (1961) replaces bohemian hi-jinks with religious parable, with an abandoned, homely pregnant woman (Julie Bovasso) delivered companionship in the form of a beautiful young angel whom she accidentally “kills” after breaking the one rule given to her by prayer-answering Christ (Roberts Blossom) Though its flights of expressionism (such as a seduction scene’s superimpositions of floating feathers) tend to overreach, Frank’s film retains an impressively stark realization of spiritual and sexual longing, a rare early American art cinema response to the tortured visions of Dreyer and Bergman. Made two years later, OK End Here similarly hints at Antonioni’s disconnecting couples in a narrative centered on the disintegrating relationship between upscale New York intellectuals Sue Graham and Pickpocket’s Martin LaSalle. As in Sin, Frank’s patient handheld camerawork and precise framing amplify the long silences and strained distances that separate characters from one another and each from his or her environment. Such a style forms an outsider cinema among outsider cinema: while the major names of American independent cinema were probing marginalized subcultures in kinetic montage (Shirley Clarke) or improvised performance jazz (John Cassavetes), Frank was more subtly exploring “ordinary” characters’ longings for companionship and solace in humble, unsexy settings.

Frank’s next straight fiction effort was the 1988 post-Jarmusch road movie Candy Mountain (co-directed with frequent collaborator Rudy Wurlitzer on color 35mm); until then Frank produced a prolific stream of fiction/non-fiction hybrids, films that can hardly be confined to the narrow meaning the label “documentary” has come to assume in recent years. Incorporating elements of direct cinema, performance documentation, the home movie and autobiographical self-portrait, they remain open to any approach appropriate to capturing the moment, and as a consequence achieve a freedom from pre-planned agendas — political or otherwise — by discovering their subjects in the very process of filming. The results testify to an ever-searching ethos frequently claimed by documentary filmmakers but rarely realized, though that freedom can be at times mistaken for incompleteness. Conversations in Vermont or Life-raft Earth, both direct cinema projects from 1969, each end at the half hour mark without providing a total picture of their respective subjects: Frank’s children’s education at an experimental farm in New England, and a “hunger circus” organized by countercultural radicals protesting capitalism’s responsibility for worldwide starvation. But whatever is lost in scope is gained by proximity. Frank’s uncontrived, if hesitant, rapport with his teenage son and daughter fosters an intimacy awkward and revealing, and his ability to situate himself in the protestors’ badly organized camp allows their Quixotic commitment to emerge on camera in multiple dimensions: self-righteous, delusional, and yet strangely sympathetic.

Even more daring are Me and My Brother (1968) and About Me: A Musical (1971), the first a feature length-documentary by way of fiction and the second a short fiction by way of documentary. Brother focuses on Orlovsky’s schizophrenic brother Julius through interviews with the subject that are replaced, once Julius goes AWOL, by reenactments starring Joseph Chaikin in the title role. Switches from color stock to black and white are supposed to mark off fantasy from reality, and yet the open-ended narrative — as willing to give time over to Ginsburg and Orlovsky’s poetry readings as to Julius’s tortured mental health history — generates a meta-critique of the director’s methods of portraiture that is far ahead of its time. Audience members and film aficionados comment on the action: “You’re always watching privacy . . . Don’t make a movie about making a movie — make it . . . Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you didn’t even have to have a piece of celluloid between you and what you saw?” About Me auto-critiques Frank as director and person, with actress Lynn Reyner playing the part of Frank in a film originally intended to document indigenous American music — like a psychological trick, the stunt casting allows Frank to air grievances about work and home from the safety of a removed position. For Frank, a tangent or a ploy can easily become an entire film, and his willingness to allow his life, family and friends included, to become cinematic material dissolves distinctions between reality off- and on-limits for the intrusion of a camera.

Dissolution between the private and the public is at the center of Frank’s most notorious documentary, Cocksucker Blues (1972), though due to a court order making it mandatory for Frank to be in attendance for its screenings, few have seen it. A chaotic, dissipated, and entirely unromantic chronicle of the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street tour through America, Cocksucker won’t be a shocking behind-the-scenes bacchanal to anyone familiar with the hedonism of the Stones, which is to say, most everybody. Rather, what makes it important, and lasting, is Frank’s ability to penetrate the sacred space of the rock ’n’ roll ritual. Rather than a titillating tease for viewers given a glimpse of celebrity sex and inebriation, it’s a demythologizing, almost too-close wallow in artistic resignation in the face of commercial obligation — one that gets first-person up-close when Mick Jagger films himself in a mirror masturbating, in a doubled act of onanism. Where the artist protagonists of the improvised fiction Keep Busy (1975, co-directed by Wurlitzer, featuring Richard Serra and others) attempt to construct a resistant community on the margins of society, and where the scientist subject of half-documentary/half-mockumentary Energy and How to Get It (1981, also with Wurlitzer) bitterly vows to keep working despite government interference, Cocksucker watches in disgust and fascination as the promise of countercultural creativity dies on the vine, rotted from indulgence. Between the utopian experiments and protest happenings of the Sixties in Conversations and Life-raft and the micro-political islands of opposition of the post-Vietnam War era in Busy and Energy, there stands Cocksucker, a dark blues to the waste of the hipster’s compromised integrity and dignity.

Since the Eighties Frank has, while directing music videos for Patti Smith and New Order, increasingly worked in video, a format best suited for fragmentary, intensely personal shorts that look backward as much as they look inward. Sanyu (1999), a portrait of the Chinese artist and Frank’s friend, and Paper Route (2002), a tag-along with a newspaper deliverer in Nova Scotia, where Frank lives part-time, give the floor over to the work of others (mostly — Frank at the very least hovers as a presence at his films’ margins). But Life Dances On (1980), Home Improvements (1985), Moving Pictures (1994), The Present (1996) and True Story (2004) are raw home-movie snippets of Frank’s everyday life, with rapid montage mosaics replacing the long-take style of the early films. Just as Frank laid bare the secret loneliness of Americans in his famous collection, these films and videos expose his own, a personal mourning over the death of daughter Andrea and the declining mental health of son Pablo. Returning to his parents’ grave in Zürich, panning over his own photographs (and incorporating footage from his own previous movies), visiting Pablo in a hospital, Frank encounters the ghosts of the past in the ongoing present — beautifully discovered in tucked-away moments like crows crying for food amidst a swirling fog.

“I have an obsession with fragments of images which reveal and hide the truth,” Frank states in Moving Pictures, an echo of an earlier declaration in Home Improvements, “I’m always outside looking inside. Always trying to find what’s true. Except what’s out there, which is different.” Not content with a simple definition of the truth, Frank has spent his filmmaking career going deeper into images — removing the polish of both documentary and fiction narratives, combining them, or else turning the lens on himself — to diminish concealment, to erase the difference between the subject and the filmmaker. An impossible project, perhaps, but one that has driven him to ever more ambitious, and personal, attempts at bringing about cinematic revelation.


“Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” runs through April 26th at the National Gallery. “Mapping a Journey: The Films and Videos of Robert Frank” screened November 7th through 16 at Anthology Film Archives

 

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