Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 08, 2019 5:56 pm 
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Robert Frank: portrait of a trail blazer and a survivor

Robert Frank is ninety-four now but this film was made when he was eighty, walking around and talking in New York and Nova Scotia, sometimes with his longtime (second) wife, the artist June Leaf. The release in this eighty-five minute form came the end of May 2019: it was reviewed by Glenn Kenny inThe New York Times. Kenny explains that a one-hour edit of it was originally shown in 2004 on the BBC "South Bank Show." The added twenty-five minutes may have been deemed too personal till now. They include some intimate bits. Frank goes off and swears at the cameramen for running out of film and asking him to repeat himself, and there are unguarded moments of Frank and his wife (they both show how loud they can scream). They also include Frank's emotional description of the tragic losses of his son Pablo, who was schizophrenic and died at forty-four after years in institutions, and later of his daughter Andrea, who died in a plane crash in South America at the age of twenty.

This is a closeup look at Frank the man as he was then and as he saw his life, but not a detailed, fact-filled biography, of course, with assessments, interviews with people who knew him (who, alas, in any case, as he comments - "they check out" - were disappearing then and are even fewer now).

Of course Frank talks about the book that made him famous, probably the most influential and important photography book of the twentieth century, The Americans, made in 1955 on a Guggenheim grant Walker Evans helped him get, driving around the country and talking thousands of photographs and published, first in France, in 1958. This film shows some of those photographs, but they are poorly reproduced. Get hold of, instead, a copy of the book and soak up the reproductions that show their actual grainy richness of texture and tone, an essential part of the iconic images themselves. They show an extraordinary vision, far ahead of the times. The film excerpts half a dozen rude pans of the book. Now we can see them as not only original, but beautiful photographs.

Robert Frank is a Jew who grew up in Switzerland, with his father who had escaped from German and his Swiss mother. He emigrated to the United States in the forties. He had published a book, 40 fotos, and on the strength of it got a job with a glossy fashion magazine. (Those were the days.)

It's interesting to see Frank pick up big prints or old photographs in he apparent disorder of his longtime New York studio on Bleeker Street near the Bowery, and that way we see some other images he took way back when. They follow him to Coney Island, where he seeks help from locals old enough to know finding the site of a big print he's carrying, of the raised railroad station, from when he took a lot of photos on the beach. He wanders it now, saying that the people have not changed. (Maybe they haven't, much. It seems as populous and unfashionable as before.)

Gerald Fox follows Frank around his studio in New York, the street, and eventually his "shack" in Mabou, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he and June Leaf have also lived since the Seventies. Early on Frank declares that New York is tough, but real, and he likes it that way, but it's not for everyone. He might have to leave because of the Yuppies, the gentrification, the Bloomberg era.

There are priceless moments with June Leaf, who is very different - her sinewy drawings sometimes recall Giocometti; and she makes small delicately crafted balancing metal sculptures. She is able to laugh t how publicity has suggested he struggles to live alone in the remote place in Nova Scotia, when she has always been there. She might resent that he is more famous but hardly does any work.

Some of that work, a great deal less known than the photographs, are a series of short black and white documentary films, some made with Kerouac and Ginsberg (Pull My Daisy) (1959), one commissioned by the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues (1972), made during their tour for "Exile on Main Street" album, for which also Frank did the cover montage. We get substantial looks at each of these films. Conversations in Vermont (1969) shows Frank's son Pablo and daughter Andrea, whom we see at various ages through other films, including Home Improvements (1985), which has a disheartening visit to his son Pablo in a mental institution. Pull My Daisy was shown at avant-garde film showings in New York in the early sixties and was influential. Cocksucker Blues shows the Stones to be so self-indulgent they sued to prevent it from being shown publicly, and few have seen the other Franc short films.

For some, despite his 25 films and dozen books, Frank seems to have been goofing off since The Americans, which is a long time. But he has been working, slowly. He shows here how he edits his written-on montages of still photographs - a medium to which he returned after the films.

At the end Frank retails his aging ailments. "Irregular heartbeat, no more pissing, constipation. It's a grim picture. It's a natural disaster, growing old, and you have to be careful not to become bitter about it, not to become a nasty old man. But sometimes," he chuckles, "it's better to be a nasty old man than to be too polite."

There is another documentary about Frank I reviewed in 2015 in the New York Film Festival. It's called Don't Blink - Robert Frank and was made by Laura Israel. It contains an interview/conversation with the cinematographer Edward Lachman, and the quality of the black and white images is, unlike Fox's film, very rich. The later portrait came out earlier.

Frank is an interesting and important figure; it's hard to get him on film. These are attempts.

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank, 85 mins., shown in one-hour form at (South Bank TV Show) 2004, shown at festivals in Rotterdam and Tribeca 2005, Biografilm 2007, Canada 2013, and released in New York City May 29, 2019. To be shown at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco July 19-25, 2019.

Robert Frank died Sept. 9, 2019, a month short of his ninety-fifth birthday.

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