written by: Laura Israel and Melinda Shopsin
produced by: Laura Israel and Melinda Shopsin
directed by: Laura Israel
runtime: 82 min.
U.S. release date: September 29-October 6, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL )
Robert Frank. If you knew nothing about him or only vaguely heard of his name, Laura Israel’s documentary “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” sets out to correct that, providing a detailed and thorough look at the Swiss-born American photographer/film director. This isn’t just a film that looks at the artist, his influences and his influence on the world, it’s a film that involves the 91-year-old Frank as he looks back on his career with Israel, as she offers viewers a look at his life now. Those who know of him, might be surprised that he’s still alive. Not knowing much about Frank going in, the informative “Don’t Blink” introduced me to the cantankerous curmudgeon and reminded me of the often sad, lonely and potentially isolated struggle of being an artist.
Primarily known for his enormously influential 1958 book The Americans, a collection of 83 black-and-white photographs taken by Frank over a period of 9 months in 1955 as he toured 30 states in America traveling over 10, 000 miles, using 767 roles of film and winding up with 27,000 images. To the modern-day layman, it would be viewed as a nice-looking coffee table book, yet upon its release, critics were unkind in their harsh and obtuse response to his work, “….meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken, horizons, and general sloppiness,” and, “They are images of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption”. Clearly, their narrow minds weren’t open to accepting Frank’s intuitive, immediate and off-kilter style, as well as his method of brilliantly linking his photographs together thematically, conceptually, formally and linguistically, that made the collection so innovative.
At the time, some Americans apparently weren’t ready to see their country through Frank’s eyes. His candid and random observations brought to light prevalent racism and prejudice in a culture growing in corporate and cultural consumption. With a use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques, Frank’s focused average people and the beauty found in the overlooked corners of American life. Frank, who lists Walker Evans as one of his influences, primarily captured people, he also would give a new artful look to objects such as street signs, jukeboxes and vehicles – even the road itself―that redefined perceptions of America around the world.
In Israel’s film, Frank recalls his experience touring America during that time wasn’t without incident. There was a certain anti-Semitism vibe in the South and found police there to be suspicious of a guy they didn’t know with a camera. In one Arkansas town, he was pulled over by local police and, after Frank had explained why he was there and the sheriff caught a whiff of his indecipherable accent, Frank was told he had an hour to leave town. Throughout the film, Frank recounts various encounters during his travels as well as his motivation for shooting certain subjects or scenes.
When Frank returned from his tour, he met Beat writer Jack Kerouac on the streets of New York City and the two hit it off. This resulted in Kerouac’s involvement in the book, providing contributions for certain pictures as well as the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans. It was during this time that Frank had also befriended poet Allen Ginsberg (seen in interview footage), as he hung out more and more with the Beat Generation. The two would go on to become close friends as Frank documented the subculture in both pictures and documentary films. There was a common bond over the rising tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences. Frank’s stark photography, which often covered the gloss of American culture and wealth over these tensions gave his work a clear contrast to most of his American contemporaries.
“Don’t Blink” covers the many independent/experimental films that Frank shot just as much as it looks at his distinctive photography. His film work kicked off with the Jack Kerouac-narrated “Pull My Daisy” (1959) and goes all the way up to “True Story” (2004), often simply capturing every day conversations and relationships. He’s probably best remembered for directing “Cocksucker Blues”, the controversial 1979 Rolling Stones documentary that was never released – partly due to content, but mostly due to a lawsuit. We see footage of Frank hanging out with the band during the making of their classic “Exile on Main Street” album and although he’s accepted by everyone around him, it almost seems like they don’t know what to make of him.
All of Frank’s work shown here is eye-opening and quite fascinating to me. I had no idea he directed Christopher Walken and Sam Shepard in their acting debut in “Me and My Brother (1969), which follows Beat poet Julius Orlovsky, who returns to his friends and family in a catatonic state after spending years in a New York mental hospital. He relies heavily on his brother, Peter Orlovsky, a roommate of Ginsberg’s. Like Israel’s coverage of his other films, we’re only shown clips from the film, but it’s clear Frank’s intent is to capture who people are and where they’re at, as if to produce a time capsule. In discussing the difference between his photography and his film work, Frank states how fascinated he is by film because he can always go back and see movement of a particular time and place, whereas pictures are frozen moments.
The film touches on Frank’s influences as an artist and those who often collaborated with him. We meet Sid Kaplan, a contemporary photographer of Frank’s, whom he calls “my old dark room friend”, known for capturing New York in black-and-white and specializing in unique dark room printing. Kaplan talks about when Frank first came to America from Sweden and how he would be highly influenced by the Movietone News reels narrated by Lowell Thomas that played in movie theaters. Frank wanted the same bold blacks and sharpness in this own photography, that he saw in those old news reels.
Frank reflects on how he was hired in the early 1950s by Alexey Brodovitch, artistic director at Harper’s Bizarre as a fashion photographer. He would take pictures of clothes or other items, to be used in articles or pictorials, which is where he met Lou Faurer, another fashion photographer, who would candid photos people almost every night in Times Square. Frank was inspired, stating, “…little by little, I knew what I had to get, pictures that talked about the people”.
As much as “Don’t Blink” is about the art of the man, Israel does touch on the man in the art and, in doing so, gets personal. She covers Frank’s marriage and divorce and the formation and eventual demise of their family. He met Mary Lockspeiser in high school and eventually married her in 1950. She was an English artist, known as a largely self-taught sculptor, painter, illustrator and printmaker and wound up traveling with Frank after he received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 to tour the States, taking their two children – Pablo (named after Picasso) born and Andrea – along with them. Mary, who divorced Frank in 1969, is seen being interviewed by Israel and we also see clips of the couple together when they were married, two artists supportive of each other. Sadly, tragedy struck on December 28, 1974, when Andrea was killed in a plane crash in the Guatemalan jungle at age 20. Frank made a film “Life Dances On” (1980), in memory of his daughter. Then, about a year later Pablo, who had struggled with schizophrenia, developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would eventually die on November 11, 1994 in Pennsylvania. One can’t help but look at the tired face of Frank and notice the pain from these two losses. He still has a sense of humor and there’s an apparent sweetness, despite being somewhat difficult to deal with, but there’s an underlying sadness as well.
Frank married again in 1971 to another sculptor June Leaf, and the two of them bought property at Mabou on the remote island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The two live a secluded life there and it appears Frank divides his time between that cold domain and his cluttered loft on Bleeker Street in New York. Leaf is interviewed here as well about her life with Frank and states her first impression of Frank was “arrogant and sweet”. They appear to be two people who understand each other.
Fittingly, much of the music used in “Don’t Blink” are from artists who have played as much of a impact in the world as Franks has. Artists such a Tom Waits, The Velvet Underground, Charles Mingus, The Kills, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Jack White. Their music is appropriately used and is placed in just the right spots during the film.
Israel spent 20 years as Frank’s editor, so it’s no surprise that the director is able to get this kind of time with the reclusive artist and access to his life. Mostly shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, “Don’t Blink” is essentially an idiosyncratic look at an idiosyncratic man. His irascible attitude is front and center throughout and his work is on display all over the film. However, this personal film benefits greatly simply from the time spent with an influential artist. It’s like if you tracked down one of your favorite playwrights or painters and spent the day chatting about their life’s work. At times, we see Frank just looking through sheets of his old photographs with a curiosity and sense of awe as if he was discovering his past for the first time, which is something many viewers will be able to relate to.