January 7, 2017 -- This documentary film about the life and work of artist Robert Frank is done in the style of a Robert Frank film, a rambling collage of interviews, stories, images and numerous clips of his films. Frank (born November 9, 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland) is best known for his seminal 1958 photographic book, “The Americans,” and for his unreleased 1972 documentary film of a Rolling Stones tour, “Cocksucker Blues.”
Robert Frank comes across in the film much like his favorite photographic subjects, a cantankerous old man who looks a lot like a street person, but who is highly opinionated, with a fascinating past. He does not like being famous and has spent years living, hermit-like on remote Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. He argues with the people shooting the documentary of him. At one point, he objects to being interviewed in front of a movie screen showing clips of one of his films. He doesn't want to compete with his own work. He orders the camera turned off, and it is immediately turned off. During the filming of this documentary, Frank is often seen taking photos of the filmmakers with a cheap camera.
Clips of Frank's home movies are interspersed with clips of Frank's commercial movies and photographs. These help illustrate stories about himself, his family and friends. Some of his friends, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, were giants of the Beat Generation. Kerouac wrote the introduction to the U.S. Edition of The Americans (first published in France). There is a clip in the film of Ginsberg forcefully reading poetry to an audience as part of a tour. There is an image of Frank's arrest record from when he was arrested in the South in the 1950s, basically for being Jewish.
Two of the more painful subjects in the film are the deaths of Frank's children. First his daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash in 1974, then his troubled son Pablo died in 1994. A strange collage of a letter written by Pablo, who was diagnosed schizophrenic, is seen in the film. Those deaths greatly impacted Frank and his work. Frank's second wife, sculptor June Leaf also appears in the film.
Frank's photography and films offer a unique vision of the world. Like his Beat Generation contemporaries, he experimented with different techniques, including direct manipulation of film negatives. In the film, some of this is explained by Sid Kaplan, Frank's longtime darkroom assistant. Kaplan said that Frank told him that Fox Movietone News clips shown in movie theaters, were a big influence on Frank's photographic style.
The film is directed by Laura Israel, who worked as Frank's film editor for 20 years. She not only had the confidence of Frank himself to engage in this project, but a good idea about which film clips from his films to include in this documentary. Clips from 17 of Frank's films, including “Pull My Daisy” (1959) “Life-Raft Earth” (1969) “Cocksucker Blues,” “Energy and How to Get it” (1981) “Life Dances On” (1980) “This Song for Jack” (1983) and “Paper Route” 2002, are included in the film.
Music in the film includes some energetic songs, including songs performed by The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Tom Waits (who also appears in one of Frank's commercial films), The Velvet Underground, New Order and Bob Dylan. This movie is mainly for those interested in Robert Frank and his work. Others may find it forgettable. For me, I immediately checked the catalog to see if his book, “The Americans,” was in my local library, and that says something. This film rates a C+.
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