What a terrific year this has been so far for documentaries. I just saw another great one, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, directed by Laura Israel. I wish I had time to write a more finished piece, but we’re leaving tomorrow for a week in Montreal and I want to post this before we go. Basically, I loved it! Anything that opens with The Mekons’ “Memphis Egypt” powering through the opening title montage has got me right off the bat.
(I originally had a clip of the title sequence here, but it’s been pulled since this post first appeared.)
Laura Israel has helped edit Frank’s own films for the last twenty years. I’d always thought of Robert Frank as a still photographer, and was surprised to learn from Don’t Blink that he’s been making films for years. By the time The Americans was published in the United States in 1959, Frank had already made his first short film, Pull My Daisy. I was aware of only this film, along with Me and My Brother (1969) and the notorious Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Rolling Stones which has never been officially released. Co-directed with Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy was written and narrated by Jack Kerouac (who also wrote the introduction to The Americans), and featured Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, and other Beat Generation figures. This reflects Frank’s continued involvement with poets and writers of the period. In Don’t Blink, he says he’s interested in “marginal people who live on the edge.” We see this in his films and in many of the photographs in The Americans, as well as in the way he’s lived his life. Don’t Blink conveys this really well.
Frank has made between twenty and thirty films (depending on which source you read), but he will be forever known — and justly so — for his monumental, hugely influential book of photographs, The Americans, published first in France in 1958 and in this country in 1959 . A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Frank to drive across the United States in 1955, shooting what he saw in all levels of society along the way. Twenty-seven to twenty-eight thousand shots were edited down to the eighty-three that appear in The Americans. Here are five of them:
I was quite energized by Don’t Blink – Robert Frank. The music selected by Hal Willner played a large part in my reaction. The film includes tracks by The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Patti Smith, and Johnny Thunders (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” — great title). Here’s a complete listing of the song credits used in the film. What a hell of a soundtrack album this would make.
Don’t Blink was shot by Liza Renzler and Ed Lachman, both great cinematographers with a long list of credits. Renzler’s work includes Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), Pollock (2000), and the awesome Steve Buscemi film Trees Lounge (1996). Lachman’s many titles include Carol (2015), Howl (2010), Far from Heaven (2002), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).
Robert Frank is a constant presence in Don’t Blink, which has a fragmented structure that reflects Frank’s approach to his own films. We see him in many archival clips — one in particular in which he clearly does not want to be interviewed and is giving the struggling filmmaker a very hard time. But he clearly likes Laura Israel, whom he’s known and worked with for many years. His present-day thoughts about his life and work have a warm, friendly quality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the iconic stature of his most famous work, The Americans, he seems to feel closer to his filmmaking. Frank says at one point that films, no matter how old, are always alive, while photographs are “just memories to put in a drawer.” But he has also said of his films, “Each is their own short moment. I forget about them. They were so much time in the moment. But it’s in the past and you can’t go back. Have to go forward. Deadly to go back.” The thing that comes out of all of this — and you really get it in Don’t Blink — is that he can’t stand still. Robert Frank is a true artist in his life and in his work.
Near the end of the film, Frank says, “Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.” This is ostensibly advice to photographers and filmmakers, but I think it has a larger meaning. In addition to being a total gas, Don’t Blink is also deeply moving. — Ted Hicks
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank is playing at Film Forum here in New York through July 26.
Director Laura Israel interviewed by the Film Society’s Kent Jones when Don’t Blink was shown at last year’s New York Festival.
“Road Show: The Journey of Robert Frank’s The Americans” by Anthony Lane — September 14, 2009, The New Yorker
Here’s a discussion of The Americans hosted by Executive Director Deborah Klochko at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California.
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank press notes
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank Grasshopper Films website (includes screening schedule for other cities)
Variety review of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank
“A Mesmerizing Marathon of Robert Frank’s Movies” by Nicholas Dawidoff — July 12, 2016, The New Yorker
Here’s Robert Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959). Robert’s son Pablo appears in the film, along with French actress Delphine Seyrig, who would star in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad two years later and many great films after that. Strange but true.