The Portable Robert Frank

Robert Frank: Film Works

The Robert Frank Project was initiated by Gerhard Steidl in 2008 with the intention of republishing all of Robert Frank’s previous books, as well as committing to the publication of new book works. To date, the backlist contains 30 titles, with additional books announced in every catalogue. The original plan was to release his Complete Film Works in specially designed DVD sets (three volumes in that series were produced) but that idea has been supplanted by an even more ambitious one. Steidl has just released Robert Frank: Film Works, a collection of 27 films and four books, all packaged in a compact, light grey, wooden case with black lettering and sturdy clasps. It’s a cross between a Boîte-en-valise and a portable film festival.

Inside are eight DVDs (four PAL and four NTSC) beginning with_ Pull My Daisy_ from 1959 and ending with Fernando, a 12-minute-long video shot in 2008. (The Digital Mastering was done by Laura Israel, who also directed Don’t Blink, the revelatory documentary about Robert Frank that was released earlier this year, and the film archival work was handled by Andrew Lampert). In addition to the films the collection contains four books; a facsimile of the film script for Me and My Brother, the text and song lyrics for Pull My Daisy and a selection of photographs taken by John Cohan during its filming. These are reprints that have been designed for this project. The fourth, frank films: the film and video works of robert frank, is a second and revised edition of a book that accompanied a European retrospective of Frank’s films in 2003. The most substantial of the books in the project, edited by Brigitta Burger-Utzer and Stefan Grissemann, it contains six essays, an interview with Allen Ginsberg, a plethora of film stills and 28 useful and insightful commentaries on Frank’s films and videos, written by a number of critics and scholars. It is an indispensable book.

The films themselves comprise an almost-retrospective. There are four fewer than were listed in the original “Complete Film Works” project; not included are two music videos, a short film shot in Egypt in 2006 and the infamous and rarely seen Cocksucker Blues, the documentary of the Rolling Stones’s 1972 tour that is more evidence than art. (Legal restrictions make its release impossible, but it is included among the 28 commentaries; so what you can’t see, you can at least read about). But the absence of these films is not significant. What the 27 films that are included make clear is that Robert Frank is as significant a filmmaker as he is a photographer, and that significance can best be measured in the way he sets up one art form as a foil to the other. Regardless of which medium he chose, it carried his unmistakable stamp. In the rambling interview included in_ frank films_, Ginsberg admits that he misunderstood the degree to which Robert was present in what he made. “I never thought of Robert’s work as being autobiographical, but now in hindsight I realize it was, and had become increasingly open.” That openness to the complexity of his life is what makes the films both compelling and, often, so uncomfortable to watch. Life is both what happens to us and what we do to ourselves and the films are a conscious and decisive record of that process. “Life seems to go one way,” Frank writes in True Story, “but we go against it, swimming upstream.” It’s worth noting that he often tempers his darkness with humour that is only slightly less dark. In another part of True Story he is inventorying the ailments we suffer as we age: “Bones rot, swollen toes, nails falling out, gum disease, itching, pain, irregular heartbeat, no more pissing, constipation.” In a tone of delightful understatement he concludes, “It’s a grim picture.”

Moving Pictures (1994), a 17-minute-long soundless film, combines photography and film and then shifts back and forth between them, turning still photographs into kinetic images. Early on we see an admission about the film’s disposition and methodology printed on a white background: “I have an obsession in my life for fragments which reveal and hide truth.” We are forewarned; the film will be an assortment of words and images that negotiate a path between revelation and concealment. The film focuses on people he is close to and inspired by: his wife, the artist June Leaf, whom we see working in her studio, Allen Ginsberg, who performs some kind of pantomime, Jean- Luc Godard answering questions from cinephiles at a lecture called L’histoire du cinéma. There are also appearances from the dead, in one form or another; Danny Seymour working on a film, the sculptor Raoul Hague displaying his work, and a visit to Kerouac’s grave. In the way Frank presents his pictures, whether photographic or filmic, we get a sense of the complications involved in his naming. As the film progresses we observe him manually moving pictures, and we see the movement he has made from photography to film when he pans across examples of images from The Americans and the Mabou landscape. Most clearly, we are offered images that are emotionally moving; in this segment of the film his camera eye slides across images like Hold Still, Keep Going, Sick of Goodbyes and Look Out For Hope.

This last photograph is a piece of promising advice and a warning. It tells us to be watchful for hope and to be on the lookout to avoid it. Frank’s declarations, written on photographs and spoken in the films, are Janus utterances that look in two directionssimultaneously, towards the provisionally positive and the assuredly doubtful. He pushes this two-sidedness into the most insignificant details: in The Present he watches houseflies falling to a windowsill and remarks, “the flies drop down out of fatigue or ecstasy, who knows?”

It is commonplace for Frank to pose questions in his films, profound ones about mortality and the meaning of life, and ridiculous ones as well. In True Story (2004) he is on the beach and picks up the claw of a crab. Holding it up in the sunlit sky he asks, “What is this hand saying?” When he gets no answer, the claw disappears and a foot enters the frame. “Let’s look at this instead,” he says and still no answer is forthcoming. He knows he is engaged in a bogus epistemology but he persists in its examination. At two moments in the film he focuses his camera on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of Niagara Falls. You sense that the puzzle is less an object in the film than the message of the film itself. In Home Improvements (1985) he decides to take the garbage from the house down to the main road. It is bitterly cold and the windshield of his truck is covered in frost, which he barely scrapes away. The point of view is from inside the truck and we can hardly see anything; the world is a white, ambiguous space. Robert gets to the road just as the man collecting the garbage drives up. It is a “big moment,” they exchange country pleasantries and when the man asks him what he’s doing, Robert says, “I’m filming for fun, just for myself.” He recognizes a pattern in how he operates: “I’m always doing the same images. I’m always looking outside trying to look inside, trying to tell something that’s true. But maybe nothing is really true, except what’s out there.” The film camera shifts away from a picture of him holding his photo camera and cuts to the yard, and he says, “and what’s out there is always different.”

At the beginning of Moving Pictures, Frank is standing behind the gravestone of his parents in a Zurich cemetery. He lights a cigarette, counts the stones left by visitors, notes there are only 13, and then a text appears that describes his feelings: “It make me sad thinking about my parents.” Just before he walks out of frame, we read, “That’s how it was. That’s how it is.” For him the ‘was’ and the ‘is,’ time past and time present, are inextricably linked and he can’t consider one without the other impinging on his consciousness. In almost all his films this fluid movement of time is a shaping factor. There are reasons for this ongoing intersection; even when they are not directly about him, his films are extremely personal. In About Me: A Musical (1971) he tells us the project was to make a film about music in America, but he decides to abandon that plan. “Fuck the music, I just decided to make a film about myself.” In the film he is played by an actress who performs Frank-like actions; she rummages through old photographs declaring her wish to “separate myself from all this shit.” A smart ventriloquist’s dummy, she tells us, “I’m trying to get the past, the present and the future all in one,” and then asks, “Do you think it’s worth it?” The film has a lightness because of its conspicuous casting, but it touches on obsessions and longings that become Frank signatures. In films like Life Dances On (1980), Home Improvements and The Present (1996) his character emerges more emphatically.

As early as Conversations in Vermont (1969), he visits the school in Vermont his children are attending and uses it as a way of attempting to understand the nature of the family dynamic when they were growing up. It is both an inquiry into events and a justification of them. There is a strain of melancholy that runs throughout Frank’s work in both mediums, a temperament that was intensified by events in his life, most profoundly the death of his daughter, Andrea, in a plane crash in 1974 when she was only 20, and the physical illness and debilitating schizophrenia experienced by his son, Pablo, who died in hospital in 1994. Time becomes an unnatural and punishing measure when children predecease their parents and these losses are built into the fabric of his photographs and films. They become actual content and they visit the work, indirectly and often. When Frank writes “Sick of Goodbyes” across one of his photographs it is a devastating example of what he has elsewhere called “memory creeping along the wall.” Frank has described his films as being “a map of my journey through all this living.” It is a journey that has been difficult for him and for those around him. There is a resoluteness in his work that is absolutely uncompromising. In This Song for Jack, a film shot in 1982 at a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, one of the participants says Kerouac wanted to find more than truth. “I want to find stuff that is more true than what’s in front of me. I want to make truth.” Robert Frank was after the same thing. His films are a record of the fact that the making hasn’t made the finding any easier or any more convincing. Truth is Frank’s nemesis; he admits to a fear of telling it at the same time that he recognizes, “somewhere the fearful truth seems to endure.” Finally, he reduces his films to his desire to show “the shadow of life and death flickering on that screen.” That’s what he wants people to see. When June asks him, “Why do you take these pictures?” his answer is unhesitating, “Because I am alive.” ❚

Volume 35, Number 4: Sound Film Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #140, published December 2016.

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