Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2015 7:15 pm 
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A worthy and vibrant tribute, if not a full portrait

An entertaining tribute, more than a documentary, by someone who for the past 25 years has worked for Robert Frank on his films, but decided to turn the camera on him. The center of the film is a running recent interview with Frank himself, today, shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, who also occasionally appears. At 90, the man clearly still has the vigor and iconoclasm.

The anchor and establishment of his career is Frank's seminal collection of 35 mm. black and white photos of America published as the book Les Américains/The Americans 1958. The photos were shot on a nine-month, 10,000-mile trip around the country by the Zurich-born Frank while on a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He chose 83 out of 28,000 shots he made. The book, whose importance is hard to overstate, forever changed the way we see the country and the way photographers framed its people and places. But originally it was badly received, seen as negative, ugly, and over-critical. In fact Frank says he loved America. And this Swiss-born artist stayed and became his own kind of emphatic American. The film shows a vintage print of one of the most famous photos from The Americans, of people in the windows of a bus, being sold at auction for $500,000. This remains probably the most influential photography book of the twentieth century.

Frank's book had an introduction by Jack Kerouac, and he associated with the Beats, and led a bohemian life. Though he was hired by Vanity Fair, Frank ultimately chose not to continue working primarily as a still photographer as did other similar influential practitioners of the art, like Cartier Bresson, Lee Friedlander, or Gary Winogrand, instead turning to short films that have not been much seen, though the names of some, like Pull My Daisy and the never released Cocksucker Blues, are famous. He also went to live with his long-time second wife in a primitive house in Nova Scotia.

Frank lived in a messy, wild, bohemian style all his life, and Israel captures the messy, wild, bohemian quality of that life and the work in this film, which is loud, fast moving, and a compendium of many of the enormous number of things that Frank has done and lived through, including the sad early deaths of his two children by his first wife, Mary Frank. An anchor to the film consists of moments from an earlier interview (from the Eighties?) by someone not very perceptive, whose conventional questions Frank scorns. This marks him as not only an iconoclast but one who despite his geniality does not suffer fools gladly.

In a Q&A for Don't Blink's 2015 New York Film Festival premiere, director Israel admitted she made some of that interviewer's mistakes at first while working on this editing-intensive film -- whose black and white images, fortunately, have a voluptuous richness starting with those wonderful The Americans photos. She thought after so many years of working with Robert Frank that she she knew enough about him, but realized in time that there were many subjects she needed to brush up on. (Naturally, since his life spanned so many more years than hers.) This film, which amounts to a whirlwind tour of Frank's life and work, is strong in its depiction of short films on which she has collaborated with him.

You could do a documentary just on The Americans. And it's always debatable, despite the richness of Robert Frank's life, whether anything else he has done matters by comparison. Ever since I saw Frank's rough-hewn 37-minute film The Sin of Jesus at a Cinema 16 presentation in New York in 1961 I have wished he'd stuck to still photography and felt in some sense that he has thrown his life away. He has certainly done so with vigor, and while involved with a great many interesting and famous people. Israel's film captures the style of the man with appropriate images, sound, and editing rhythms, but at the cost of not filling us in on all the facts.

Don't Blink, 80 mins., is a new film making its debut at the 53rd New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened 23 Sept. 2015 for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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