Frank as Ever

Don’t Blink, directed by Laura Israel

Don’t Blink, Laura Israel’s feature documentary about photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, makes it easy to forget how unusually close she has taken you to the world’s most influential living photographer, an artist who changed the history of his medium. It would be like getting access to the way that Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso or Jackson Pollock lived their daily lives. Israel has not crafted a conventional documentary, the kind of film that meticulously explains why an artist is a fit subject for serious exploration. Don’t Blink gives you enough information to appreciate that Robert Frank, who is now 91 years old, has been around long enough to have taken some pictures and made some films that you might have heard about.

It starts out with the idea of reputation. The opening sequence shows Frank doing the sound recording for a film in which a group of moderately informed young people are asked to name five famous photographers. They come up with a few—Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham are prodded with the name Robert, which gets Capa as a response before a young woman says, “Robert Frank. He’s an American photographer who does a lot of work in the city.” It’s an amusing scene and it sets the tone of affectionate levity the film will sustain throughout 80-some minutes. “What makes a picture good?” someone asks, and Frank’s answer starts out seriously before entertaining a wacky decline: “Sharp, number one. See the eyes, hopefully the nose; make sure they’re smiling. Say cheese. The main thing is get it over quick.”

From this sort of genial play it moves quickly in an altogether different direction. A 1984 interview conducted in Montreal forms the bulk of the archival footage and Israel returns to it on ten separate occasions throughout the course of the film. From the beginning, Frank is obviously unhappy and inattentive, so much so that he has to be asked to look towards the camera. He is smoking and drinking from a cup and he responds even before a question is put to him. “I hate these fucking interviews,” he says and when asked what he doesn’t like about them, his answer is immediate and unequivocal. “Being told to look this way and that way. I’d like to walk out of the fucking frame, you know, never come back. Get a little bit of life in these things.” Why Frank is so belligerent is not explained but nothing that happens as the interview continues alters his attitude in the slightest way. If you do interviews with artists, watching this exchange will give you nightmares for the rest of your life.

The intensity does a number of things that contribute to the quality of the film, not the least of which is to act in counterpoint to the generous and playful way that he responds to Israel’s requests. They have known one another for 25 years; she first edited his music video for New Order in 1989, and since then has worked as an editor on a number of his film projects. What Don’t Blink makes clear is how much fun can be had when subject and director have absolute respect for one another. At one point they are looking at contact sheets from The Americans and Robert comments on how much he likes the photograph of the elevator girl whose phone number Jack Kerouac wondered about in his written introduction to the book. “Her name was Eva Cunningham,” he says, and Israel is surprised at his recall. “Is that her name?” she asks. “No,” and a slightly mischievous smile appears, “I just made that up.” The film overflows with similar moments of affection¬ate play.

But it would be a mistake to assume that he acquiesced to whatever Israel wanted. In a recent interview she told Border Crossings he was more likely to do the opposite. “We’d get in the car and I’d say, ‘We’re going to New Jersey today’ and he’d say, ‘I want to go on the Staten Island ferry.’ At one point I didn’t quite catch him pulling up the shade in his apartment and I asked him if he would do it again. Instead, he pulled the shade down.”

Frank’s own sense of endearing contrariness is most apparent in a sequence when he is sitting in front of Cocksucker Blues, his infamous film about the Rolling Stones’s 1972 tour. (Jagger wrote to him after it was finished, “It’s a fucking good film, Robert—but if it’s shown in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again”). Surprisingly, he had consented to this kind of shot in other segments and his reactions resulted in some revealing observations. But he has had enough. He tells Israel, “This is exactly what I hate. To have an artist and then behind him out of his ears come the picture and the portraits. It’s real hateful footage.” She asks him if he means “what we’re doing now,” and when he says yes, her response is, “Let’s not do it. Cut.”

It’s another moment of potential conflict between director and the directed, but the effect is exactly the opposite of what happened in the 1984 Montreal interview. His resentment then had to do with a combination of being trapped (“I can’t stand to be pinned in front of a camera because I do that to people and I don’t want it done to me”), bored (“It’s always the same refrain. It’s like a fucking echo, people always ask the same questions”) and resisting convention. His abiding affection for the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac, came out of his sense that they were always moving forward. “They were very important in my development as an artist, that desire to express something new, believing that you could find your own way and create your own rules.”

The compulsion to do things his own way has characterized Frank’s photography and filmmaking throughout his entire life, most conspicuously with the publication in 1959 of The Americans (a French edition had been published the year before). But it was the American edition with Kerouac’s rhapsodic introduction that changed everything, for Robert Frank and for the medium itself. It is arguably the most significant book of photographs in the entire history of photography. Israel spends some time with it, delivering as simple text the facts about what it took to make it: 9 months, 10,000 miles, 30 states, 767 rolls of film, 27,000 images.

He says that choosing good pictures is a very important part of a photographer’s work. “In the beginning I made big prints and pinned them up on the wall and I started each section with a flag. You had to somehow organize it, to narrow it down. When I look at the 83 photographs I chose for the book, I think I really got the essence.” History and the market have agreed with him. In a quick diversion to Rockefeller Plaza, Christie’s auctioneer brings down his gavel on Trolley – New Orleans, 1955, the cover image from The Americans, at $550,000. A book that was called “a sad poem for sick people” when it was published, filled with images “of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption,” is now viewed as canonical.

Given Frank’s stature and long life, there is a plethora of material from which to choose. It took Israel five years to make the film. She deliberately makes it look the way Frank’s films look. She incorporates sections from 17 of his films and collages together with pictures, documents and texts. She has a fine eye, using fragments of images that she then scales up, creating a sense that we are able to see things more intimately than we actually can. She is especially effective at mixing sound and image. Instead of going for music that would have been exactly contemporaneous with the work she is showing, she picks songs that correspond to the feel of what is being said and seen. “The photographs had to tell their own story. In order to do that I wanted to find music that was iconic and really strong, that could stand up to the photographs but that didn’t go with them perfectly, so they add an edge to each other. It is a technique that video artists call visual humming.” Her use of The Mekons’s “Memphis Egypt,” “Hang on St. Christopher” by Tom Waits, The Velvet Underground’s “European Son,” Johnny Thunder’s “You can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” Patti Smith’s “Ask The Angels,” “What New York Used to Be” by The Kills and a cluster of Charles Mingus tunes, is inspired. The film’s score fits like a bespoke suit. Don’t Blink is populated by a compelling group of characters, all of who have played a part in his life and art. Principal among them is June Leaf, his wife and a splendid artist in her own right; they have been together since 1971 and every time she is on camera her observations are insightful, generous and candid. She is joined by a roster of what Frank calls his “collaborators,” including cinematographer Ed Lachman, darkroom associate Sid Kaplan, John Marshall, his friend from Nova Scotia and actor Tom Jarmusch; when they show up in the film they interact with Frank, looking at books of photographs, reminiscing in a photo store or driving around New York.

Israel’s first idea was to do a scaled-down road movie, a local¬ized version of The Americans, where Robert would be the subject and not the photographer. It produces some delightful encoun¬ters and allows Frank to put on his director’s hat. Early in the film, they are in the tunnel between New York and New Jersey on one of their road adventures. “So as soon as we come out of the tunnel, that’s the end of the movie,” he tells Israel, “Only one more minute.” As it turns out, the film goes on for another 60 minutes, taking us further into the complications of Frank’s life and art. We learn about the two places he lives, Bleeker Street and Mabou, NS; about the death of his two children; about his friendships with Sanyu, the Chinese painter, Bobby MacMillan, the local postman, Robert Golko, the eccentric inventor, the writer William Burroughs and Harry Smith, a “genius who did everything his own way…These are good people,” he tells Israel. “These marginal people who live at the edge, they always interested me. I prefer to walk near the edge than down the middle of the road. I don’t know people like this anymore. I guess I live a comfortable life in New York and here in Mabou.” Then he turns away from the camera and looks directly at Israel. “What do you want, more?”

Israel allows Frank one more chance to put on his director’s hat. Just before he gets out of the car into the New York night, he asks, “How do you think it will end?” He tells his friends to “keep the river on the right,” says “I’ll see you” once and then says it again. “I’ll see you.” The credits begin a two-and-a-half minute long roll. Then he’s back, very briefly, playing a small horn. He likes the sound it makes and says so in his classically concise praise, “That’s good.” Then he’s gone again and we hear him say, “Roll, Action, Cut.” The film cuts.

Even this fragment is tantalizing. In an earlier sequence, he had offered advice about how to live and work as an artist. “The best way to be is to be curious. Stand up; keep your eyes open. Don’t shake. Don’t blink.” We take the title as both an instruction and an invitation. You want your eyes open all the time because you don’t want to miss a single frame of this intelligent, indispensable and irresistible film. Don’t Blink is less a documentary than the record of a deep, affectionate and enduring friendship. It is a kind of love story.

Volume 35, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #137, published March 2016.

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