New documentary turns the lens on photographer Robert Frank

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

In 1957, aspiring photographer Robert Frank met Jack Kerouac at a party for the writer’s recently published novel “On the Road.” Frank himself had just come back from his own road trip, an eerily similar journey into the real heart of America.

Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Frank spent nine months driving more than 10,000 miles across America and shooting like mad. Of the 27,000 photos he took, 83 would comprise his era-defining photobook “The Americans,” which included rundown motels, ghostly highways, diner jukeboxes and, most of all, the faces of people on society’s margins, those whom no one ever bothered to point a camera at.

For Frank, a photo was less about composition than capturing a moment. “I was a hunter, moved by intuition,” says the photographer in “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank” (Japan title: “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank no Utsushita Jidai”), a revealing documentary about the reclusive artist by Laura Israel, a longtime collaborator and editor.

Given Frank’s disenchantment with the American dream and his restless curiosity, it’s no surprise that he hit it off with members of the Beat Generation. His first stab at directing came with 1959’s “Pull My Daisy,” which looks like a home movie, albeit one set in the home of Beat icon Neal Cassady, with poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso hamming it up for the camera, and topped off by a stream-of-consciousness narration by Kerouac.

In a phone interview, Israel notes: “(Frank) always said he admired (the Beats) because he felt they could do things that he couldn’t do. He always said he was kind of a straight-laced Swiss guy who came to America and was blown away by these people and their freedom and the fact that you don’t have to follow the rules. You can just make up your own rules.”

Though initially criticized for his unconventional shooting style, Frank would go on to become a wildly influential and successful photographer — his prints have sold for over half a million dollars at Sotheby’s and his grainy look defined the album cover of the Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street.” He is, however, less known as a filmmaker. His short films, such as the 2002 “Paper Route,” are deliberately mundane, and his most notorious work — “Cocksucker Blues” — is the hardest one to find. The Stones liked Frank’s raw authenticity, but his subsequent fly-on-the-wall documentary of their 1972 tour was a little too real, and the group banned it from being shown in public.

Despite being associated with celebrities, Frank himself never sought the limelight, and thankfully “Don’t Blink” doesn’t really shove him into it. In fact, it gives ample evidence of how curmudgeonly he can be.

When asked if it was difficult to persuade Frank to be the subject of a documentary, Israel says: “I think he felt that maybe it was time to tell his story or to show parts of himself that he didn’t want to show before. I reluctantly made the film as well. Someone convinced me to make it, insisting that I had to make this film, because no one could even get Robert on the phone.”

The film is not a linear documentary of Frank’s career but rather a snapshot of the artist’s present intermingled with ruminations on his past. Montages of his photographs and clips of his rarely seen super-8s are set to a soundtrack of Frank admirers, such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Patti Smith and Yo La Tengo.

The film’s fragmentary feel mirrors that of its subject. “We did not want to copy Robert Frank, but we also wanted to sort of live in a world that wasn’t so different,” explains the director.

One of the challenges of this film was the sheer volume of work Frank has amassed over his career. Even in his 90s, he still seems to be shooting nonstop. Frank’s studio apartment looks like a hoarder’s heaven, but according to Israel there’s a method to his mess.

“He has this whole system. He is a lot more organized than anyone thinks,” she says. “He works with chaos very well.”

Frank helped Israel out of her own mess while she was assembling all the archival footage for the film.

“I was having difficulties,” she recalls. “I went to go to meet (Robert) and he turned to me at one point and asked how the film was going. I said, ‘Oookay,’ not feeling very sure of myself. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I trust you.’ I thought I really need to get my s—- together, but I also felt empowered by it. This person that doesn’t really trust people trusted me.”

Another piece of advice served her well, and it came when they first worked together in 1989, on a project editing a music video for New Order’s “Run.”

“Back then it was tape editing and we had to pick little selects of tape, and I remember casually asking him, ‘Once we select these, are we going to go back? Are we going to change our minds?’ And he was, like, ‘No, once we make these choices, it’s first thought, best thought,'” she recalls. “And I remember thinking, this is my kind of director.”

Israel could be criticized for leaving out many biographical details and hanging on to seemingly random moments, but she clearly goes with her gut, and it works.

As Frank barks in one painful mid-career interview, “I have nothing to say. It’s all in my work”: Israel wisely took a similar approach in making this film.

“I wanted to keep that mystery a little bit with Robert as well,” she says. “I think that’s what he does in his work. He tries to make the viewer a kind of active participant rather somebody who has been lulled into complacency. … I would rather be challenged, and that’s the kind of film that I made.”

To coincide with the screening of “Don’t Blink” at Le Cinema, Bunkamura The Museum is also featuring an exhibition of selected photos by one of Frank’s contemporaries, Saul Leiter, who passed away in 2013. Long considered part of the New York school of photography, along with Frank and Diane Arbus, Leiter has only recently been recognized for his lyrical shots with bold hues. His Kodachrome work makes a very interesting foil to Frank’s grainy black-and-white aesthetic. Imagine if Wong Kar-wai directed an episode of “Mad Men” and you might be getting close.

“Don’t Blink: Robert Frank” opens April 29 and will be screened at Bunkamura Le Cinema in Tokyo before moving to Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Yokohama, Sapporo, Kobe and Kanazawa. For more information, visit www.robertfrank-movie.jp.