Deus Ex Filmica: The Films of Robert Frank

In Fire in the East, the compelling 1986 documentary portrait about the life and art of Robert Frank, there are a number of occasions when the photographer-turned-filmmaker reflects on the nature of his achievement. “I have no regrets,” he says in responding to the suggestion that he was relentless in making his films, “and I don’t think I’ve ever gone far enough. I would like to reveal more, to push further and to get people to trust me more.” The question of how hard he pushed and how much he revealed is something that will now be much easier to judge, thanks to The Robert Frank Project, an ambitious and laudable publishing venture undertaken by Steidl, which will oversee the re-release of all his books of photographs published over his 60-year career, as well as make available his films in 10 projected volumes. So far three DVD volumes have been released, totalling nine films, beginning with Pull My Daisy, 1959, the legendary beat film written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, and concluding with Keep Busy, 1975, an absurdist romp set in Cape Breton and featuring a cast of artists who take the film’s title as a moral imperative. (Never have so many been kept so busy doing so little.) The only film missing from this chronology is Cocksucker Blues, the 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones’s drug- and sex-saturated tour that is only shown a limited number of times per year because of legal restrictions.

The films vary radically in length and kind; the shortest is an eight-minute-long montage of still and moving images taken for his brilliant cover design for the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main Street *album, 1971, while the longest is *Me and My Brother, 1968, an 85-minute documentary that freely mixes fact and fiction without apology for the truths or inventions that attach themselves to either condition. Very close to the beginning we are given the following disclaimer: “In this film all events and people are real. Whatever is unreal is purely my imagination.” This is a cinematic world, to raise DH Lawrence’s discerning distinction, where you don’t know whether to trust the teller or the tale…

Buy Issue 108 to read the entire column!

Volume 27, Number 4: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #108, published December 2008.

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