In 1955, armed with two cameras and bolstered by a Guggenheim Fellowship (and a supply of French brandy), Robert Frank drove 10,000 miles across America with the intent to document the country and its people. Of the 27,000 photographs Frank took, he selected 83: images that spoke to the complexity of the nation’s cultural make-up, and the tensions (of race, and of class) that bubbled just beneath the surface of the American dream. Imbued with Frank’s spontaneous, rough-around-the-edges style, these photos were assembled together for publication under the banner of The Americans.
Today, The Americans is regarded as a seminal, groundbreaking tome of photography, and the Swiss-born Frank, now 91, is “the most influential photographer alive”. This was not always the case: like many works we now herald as genius, The Americans was originally met with scorn. Upon publication in 1958, many American critics regarded the monograph with suspicion and anger. It seemed distinctly ‘un-American’ (and nothing makes Americans more nervous than that). Frank hadn’t even been able to secure a U.S. publisher for his work, turning instead to a French company, where The Americans ironically became Les Américains.
All of the above is covered in Laura Israel’s new documentary, Don’t Blink: Robert Frank—more or less, I think. It’s hard to say, because the film’s chronology is so scrambled, and jumps around so frequently, that piecing together the narrative can be quite a task. (Better take heed of the film’s imperative title—don’t blink.) Early on, we’re given a glimpse of the controversy surrounding The Americans, one particularly derisive review condemning its “drunken horizons, and general sloppiness”. As the documentary progressed, I found myself increasingly inclined to accuse Israel of the same offences—and, in equal measure, increasingly suspicious that I was replicating the philistinism of that unimpressed critic.
Not wanting to wrongly charge the film (and in the process reveal my own unsophisticated tastes), I considered the functions of such “sloppiness”: for one, the film’s hurried clip is the natural correlate of Frank’s advanced years and incredible career. He not only broadened the horizons of photography-as-art with The Americans, but also performed a similar feat in the realm of moving images. In 1959, Frank directed (in tandem with painter Alfred Leslie) Pull My Daisy—a quirky set piece featuring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, et al. horsing around at a dinner party, enlivened by narration from Jack Kerouac and Frank’s roving, inquisitive camerawork. The film is both a vital document of the Beat Generation and a landmark of underground cinema.
The latter claim also applies to Cocksucker Blues, Frank’s infamous—and still unreleased—documentary of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour, in which he captured the rampant hedonism and tedium of life on the road for the wily stars. But Frank’s considerable film catalog is for the most part deeply personal in nature (as is his post-Americans photography): verité vignettes from the lives of friends and family; bleakly absurdist meditations on life’s cruel surprises. Don’t Blink features numerous clips from these lesser-known works, which buoy Frank’s gruff and rather scant reflections on his relationship to his children (both of whom met tragic, untimely ends), his spouses, and himself.
And so secondly, and importantly, Israel’s meandering and free-associative approach to her subject is a reflection of Frank’s own filmmaking style—something that, as editor on a number of his films, she would know about. Don’t Blink was indeed made possible by Israel’s proximity to Frank, as a friend and collaborator. Not a recluse as such, Frank does have a pronounced distaste for fame (and the compromises to creative autonomy that fame invites). It makes sense, then, that Israel would want to minimise the wild praise usually featured in this type of documentary—courtesy of ‘experts’—and instead go for a more direct encounter with her subject, via the man himself and his work.
However, in sacrificing such handy devices as the fawning critic and the authoritative narrator, important information gets buried in the bricolage, and key players in Frank’s life float in and out without explanation. It may sound like what I’m objecting to here is Israel’s transference of the work of interpretation to the viewer, but the real problem with her approach is that too often it comes off as shallow—it’s ‘sloppy’ in a way that both bars anyone not already au fait with the content from participating, and fails to access its deeper resonances for those who are.
Throughout the film, I wished that Israel would rest on a film or a story for more than a few minutes: without the standard framing devices, viewers need a bit more time to process the audiovisual onslaught. The constant sampling of Frank’s work made me feel like I was hurriedly flipping through one of his books in a bookstore whilst the owner is trying to close up—a feeling compounded by the quick-fire montages of Frank’s photographs that recur throughout. After a few of these slideshows on speed, I was feeling pretty disoriented.
It doesn’t help that Frank himself, the star of the show, is such a reticent interviewee. “I’m not a verbal man, I’m a visual man,” he insists. “I have nothing to reveal. It’s all in the work, I hope.” This statement, positioned right at the film’s end, is not just an exhortation to look to the art rather than the man for explanations: it entirely undercuts the preceding documentary. Sure, Israel heavily features Frank’s films and photos, but the compilation format flattens their emotional content; the pieces are a poor substitute for the wholes. Given the choice between watching one of his movies and (what at times felt like) a bunch of trailers, I’ll go for the movie.
It is telling that Frank’s primary sentiment in the featured interviews, old and new, is disdain for the entire process. (Nor does he like being photographed: “That’s what I do to other people,” he grumbles.) You know you’re in trouble when the star thinks the most important thing to say is that his saying anything is redundant. “It’s all in the work” is perhaps the take-home message of Don’t Blink: if you’re looking for insight into this fiercely uncompromising artist, maybe train your unblinking eyes on his art instead.