Review: ‘Don’t Blink — Robert Frank,’ a Portrait of a Quintessential New York Artist


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The photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, the subject of Laura Israel’s documentary “Don’t Blink — Robert Frank.”

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Lisa Rinzler/Grasshopper Film

Laura Israel’s new film is called “Don’t Blink — Robert Frank,” and it’s at once a welcome admonition and an efficient motto. This compact, fast-moving portrait of the artist proceeds through a flurry of images, many of them gleaned from Mr. Frank’s long and prodigious career. The man himself, barreling through his early 90s with a mixture of impatience, resignation and good humor, has spent a lifetime looking, mostly at North American people and landscapes, but also somehow inward, using cameras as instruments of documentation and introspection.

Mr. Frank, a filmmaker and photographer who was born in Switzerland in 1924, is in many ways a quintessential New York artist of a certain vintage and temperament, a resident of the eclectic Bohemia that defined an important part of the city’s cultural life in the decades after World War II. He was friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who appeared in his 1959 film, “Pull My Daisy,” for which Kerouac also provided voice-over narration. Mr. Frank had the good fortune to practice his art when living was cheap, and minds were open, and the genius and discipline to turn his pluck and curiosity into a vital and formidable body of work. (Starting next month, BAM Cinematek will present a retrospective of his films).

Ms. Israel and her crew — including the Oscar-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman — spend time with Mr. Frank in his cluttered Manhattan apartment and in the windswept cabin in Mabou, Nova Scotia, that has been his rustic retreat for decades. Her film is less like a full biography than like a magazine profile, which is as it should be. You leave with a vivid sense of the man’s living presence and a reasonably thorough account of his life, work and associations.

Given the sheer volume and variety of the work in question, this is an impressive achievement. The son of an amateur photographer, Mr. Frank may still be best known for “The Americans,” his collection of black-and-white images harvested during his travels across the United States in the mid-50s. At the time, the pictures, which cast a candid eye on racism, alienation and class division, were criticized for their challenge to the official optimism of the postwar consensus. Before long, they took their rightful place in the photographic canon, alongside the works of Walker Evans, who was one of Mr. Frank’s idols and early teachers.

But his later work is in many ways even more radical and challenging. His films are defiantly anti-industrial products: dreamlike documentaries, free-form essay films, meditations on loss and perseverance. The most notorious is a film commissioned by the Rolling Stones (the cover of whose album “Exile on Main Street” consists of Mr. Frank’s contact sheets). Never released — and with a title that can’t be published here — it is one of the strangest and toughest artifacts of its era, by turns haunting, horrifying and beautiful.

There is a different kind of beauty in the pictures Mr. Frank made in Mabou, many of which feature words or crude pictures starched onto the negative. Along with the films he made in the ’70s and after, they are a chronicle of pain, exuberance and spiritual calm. Interweaving footage from them with clips from older interviews and her own conversations, Ms. Israel executes a biographical sketch that is informative without seeming unduly invasive. Mr. Frank, as if living up to his surname, talks about the terrible deaths of his two children and his long creative and romantic partnership with the artist June Leaf, who also appears in the film.

A few other friends and associates do, too, most notably Ginsberg, an irrepressible ghost in our cultural machinery. We can be grateful that Mr. Frank still walks among us, his eyes wide open.

“Don’t Blink — Robert Frank” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes.

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