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.

One of the curious things about these films is how often the word trust comes up. Later in Me and My Brother, we hear Frank telling Joseph Chaiken, who is being auditioned to play Julius Orlovsky, one half of the film’s eponymous subject, that he trusts Joseph as an actor. That certitude is immediately questioned in the next shot where Chaiken himself says, “I don’t trust actors, you never know what they’re doing, what they’re feeling. I mean everybody edits what comes out. I’m doing it now.” The viewer is inclined to side with the actor’s self-criticism in this regard, especially in a film where we have just seen Christopher Walken lip-synching Robert Frank’s half of an earlier conversation with Chaiken. In the film’s most astonishing turn, Julius, who has been catatonic for 13 years, suddenly begins to talk, and as he emerges from this strange lacuna, his observations assume an undeniable gravity. Frank asks him what he feels about acting, and through the awkwardness of his unpracticed language, he says, “Acting is beyond my collaboration, beyond my thought processes. It may be a waste of time.” Finally, the filmmaker asks his filmed subject what he thinks about the project, and Julius’s response is both an indictment and an act of criticism: “The camera seems like a reflection of disapproval, of disappointment, or disgust, or unhelpfulness…. ” And again Julius struggles to draw the word from his distant memory bank “ … or unexplainability to disclose any real truth that might possibly exist.” What is so telling about Orlovsky’s assessment is how neatly it plugs into an attitude shared by Frank himself. The question of cinema’s provisional engagement with truth telling is actually a subset of the larger problem of blaming the messaging technology for the unwelcome message. In Home Improvements, 1985, a film scheduled for inclusion in Volume 4 of the Steidl project, Frank addresses the function of his written-on Polaroids, photographs that indicate what he is feeling inside while looking outside. “I try to add how it looks inside with words,” he says. “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 and what’s out there is always different.” In this phenomenology, truth is fugitive. It is impossible to locate, let alone secure, and pursuing it represents a certain kind of futility.

That said, the thing that characterizes Robert Frank’s films is their insistence on asking questions, and perplexing ones at that. Each of the first three films in the series has an interrogative nature, and although they operate in different registers, they all address the nature of providential intervention. In Pull My Daisy, the assembled poets insist on asking the bishop about the “holy” status of everything from baseball to alligators to the male organ. This is high church undermined by below-the-belt camp. In The Sin of Jesus, 1961, the plaintiff question posed by the woman, pregnant and abandoned, is “who made me like this?” (Her uncontrollable desire has accidentally killed the angel gifted to her by a slightly laconic Christ.) The philosophical questioning here is tinged with the tragic. At the end of the film, she rejects the saviour’s request for forgiveness, saying simply that she has none left to give. The story, adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a bitter but justifiable example of the creator being abandoned by his creation.

In the opening line of OK End Here, 1963, the female protagonist wakes up with an unusual bedroom question for her French partner, “Deus ex machina, what does that mean?” His bemused response (“it means time to get up”) is a coy way of avoiding the deeper issues she would really rather discuss. In the context of the troubled relationship the film traces over the course of a desultory Sunday, the bedroom Q and A is innocent enough. But seen through the lens of Frank’s early inquiry into human motivation and divine intervention, the question is a larger one that focuses on the aesthetics and ethics of the filmmaker more than the characters played by his actors. Frank’s recognition is that there are no machines that can be brought in to resolve the questions they have asked or that can tidy up the loose ends of their ambiguous relationship. His real power, while it may not be divine, is to recognize that there are no quick fixes, yet alone anything as convenient as an eleventh hour metamorphosis. His answer is to fall back on whatever individual resources he can muster, a tendency that explains why the personal dimension is among the most shaping components of Frank’s film practice. “All you’re trying to do is get across your own story” is the off-camera accusation levelled at a young actress who is explaining her commitment to her profession in one of the fictional documentary scenes in Me and My Brother. In this filmed universe, telling your own story is less an accusation than a self-evident truth.

In About Me: A Musical, 1971, the actress Frank has picked to play himself says, by way of apology at the end of her artistic inhabitation, “I hope you got what you wanted. It’s true I don’t believe in words, but you can always add something of your own if you want to make it more honest.” This is not a surprising suggestion in a film that dramatically changed course from its inception. As Frank tells us in the prologue to this 30-minute-long unorthodox autobiography, “My project was to make a film about music in America. Well, fuck the music. I just decided to make a film about myself.” At one point, a member of the company of inquisitors who hound Frank’s stand-in with questions says, “You don’t seem too sure about anything.” The affirmation-in-the-negative is the way Frank operates. In this regard, he is a Platonist; his wisdom arises from admitting how little he knows rather than how much.

There are times in these early films when Frank pushes fairly hard in his search for answers, particularly familial ones. In Conversations in Vermont, 1969, the preamble to the story he wants to tell concerns his giving up photography to tell more personal stories. “Maybe this film is about growing older,” Frank says. “Anyway, it’s about the present and the past; it’s some kind of family album.” In the film he takes a film crew to the special school his children are attending in Vermont. He wants to find out what caused the tension between himself, his wife, Mary, and Pablo and Andrea while they were living in New York. Frank initially admits that he thought the problems the family had were Pablo’s fault, but he becomes more conciliatory when he looks at the family photos he had taken at the time. “I don’t want to come out and say it was our fault,” he says to Pablo, but “I realized how tight Mary and I were in not giving into the children in any way.” The films, then, are a confusing combination of confession and self-absolution. In Liferaft Earth, 1969, a film documenting a week-long starve-in aimed at overpopulation held in Hayward, California, Frank abandons the shoot when weather conditions become difficult. “I want to tell the people who see this film,” he says in a voiceover, “how deep I felt and how bad I felt, but I didn’t have the guts.” The admission is classic Frank—a case of the filmmaker crossing over, effortlessly, into the making of his film.

One of the things the actress Lynn Reyner says as Robert Frank’s surrogate in About Me: A Musical is that the purpose of making art is “to get the past, the present and the future all in one.” It is an admirable and impossible aspiration. But throughout his unparalleled career—in photographs, books and films—Robert Frank has been able to weave together those three time frames. The complexity of their intersections has produced a uniquely fascinating body of work. What The Robert Frank Project now affords is an ongoing look into the range of his achievement. ■

Volume 27, Number 4: Photography

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

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