5 Films by Robert Frank
by Tracy Stephenson
When Robert Frank won the Hasselblad International Photography Prize in 1996, Gunilla Knape, director of the HasselbladCenter in Giteborg, Sweden, declared Frank as "one of today's leading visual artists. He has contributed to a renewal in the fields of both documentary and fine art photography and 'independent American film art.'" With his relentless search for the truth in his work, Robert Frank exposes reality in a way that causes viewers to examine the subject more closely. When people look at his art, he wants them to feel the way they do when they go back to a line of poetry. The majority of Frank's films are intensely personal, revealing a deep kinship with the Beat emphasis on a broadly auto/biographical thematic. All of Frank's films require close attention and their effect benefits from repeated viewings; each has a personal message that resists interpretation and leaves the filmmaker an enigma forever trapped on the other side of the lens.
Robert Frank moved from photography to filmmaking when he became concerned that he would repeat himself if he continued to take only still pictures. Friend and filmmaker Rudy Wurlitzer said that with each new project Frank "constantly resurrects himself like a phoenix — he reinvents himself again to find out how to look at things."
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston owns one of the most extensive collections and archives of photographs by Robert Frank. These outstanding holdings are the basis of the exhibition, Robert Frank: A Retrospective from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition features images chronicling Frank's career, from his early pictures of Europe in the late 19405, to his searing views of America in the mid-1950s, to the late Polaroid self-portraits and prints of his family and homes in New York and Nova Scotia. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum's film department presented 5 Films by Robert Frank: Recent and Restored on consecutive Sundays in September. The program included Frank's latest short films, Flamingo (1997), The Present (1996), / Remember (1998), Sanyu (1999) and a recently restored print of About Me: A Musical (1971).
Eager to explore the intersection between photography and filmmaking, artists often cross boundaries in ways that throw critics off balance and leave audiences slightly puzzled. Frank's tendency to combine documentary and narrative fiction often makes his films impossible to classify. As in the case of About Me: A Musical, the intended subject matter is abandoned in favor of a more personal choice. As the film begins, the titles onscreen acknowledge the film was made with support from the American Film Institute while the voice-over narration by Frank states, "My project was to make a film about music in America. Well — fuck the music. I just decided to make the film about myself." To further complicate matters, Frank decides a woman will play him in the film. About Me: A Musical does not completely ignore American music; in fact, many scenes of music making are included as expressions of personalities and gestures of self-assertion. Frank intercuts footage of various impromptu musical performances with footage of his female alter ego, "real" footage of the making of the film, and sound bites of Frank himself narrating his feelings about his purpose. For Frank, music is another form of self-expression, one that communicates in some manner, but which also brings people in closer contact with themselves. This also means bringing people closer to nature, especially in the cultural context of the 19605 counterculture. Not surprisingly, many of the musical sequences are filmed out of doors — rather than in a concert hall.
In the film, Frank (played by Lynn Reyner wrapped in a chenille bedspread) demonstrates the desire to escape his reputation as a photographer of specific types of American imagery, a reference to The Americans, Frank's landmark book of photographs taken across the country in the 19505. As Frank/Reyner dumps a drawer full of photographs onto the bed, he/she says, "That's it, that's my past. I have to get rid of all this shit — I can make a musical out of it." When thosearound Frank/Reyner protest the "dismissal" of his work, the photographer leaves the room indifferent to their praise. It is as if Frank wants to escape his association with the still (photographic) world and enter a more active (film) one. As most of the music in the film is not professional, performed by street musicians, and Frank's violin playing, real-life companion June Leaf, its improvisation and heartfelt presentation communicates honesty. The sequence involving a group of five incarcerated black convicts singing a gospel song perhaps best demonstrates this honesty: cut off from society and their cultural roots, the men sing as an expression of their desires and their freedom as human beings.
The other short films in the series deal with autobiographical elements from Frank's later life. As an aging artist and aparent who has lost both of his children, Frank grows more reflective and introspective in his more recent video projects. In The Present (1996), Frank wonders if he is able to find a story to tell. He reconsiders themes that have influenced his work, reflects on the death of his children, visits friends, and contemplates the solitude of an artist's soul. He seems to be taking inventory of his life and creating a list of things to accomplish; the present is not only a gift to viewers, it is a reminder to live life to the fullest. In Flamingo (1997), Frank creates a "poetic diary recording the construction of a new foundation for his house in Nova Scotia." The seven-minute short takes inventory of the artist's home while reflecting his need to remain active through the upheaval of nature/life/remodeling. Frank's prediction that he “will see more” from the higher view once the construction is complete is an optimistic promise of new work to come.
I Remember (1998) is a charming reenactment of Frank's visit to the home of photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The cast comprises June Leaf as Georgia O'Keeffe, Jerome Sother as Robert Frank and Frank himself as Stieglitz. The 5-minute short details an afternoon of lunch and photography at the home of the artists.
Frank's most recent video, Sanyu (1999), is perhaps his most melancholic. Chinese artist Chang Yu, known in France as Sanyu (1901-1966), attracted the interest of Chinese modernists in the 19305 by synthesizing ancient painting tools and aesthetics with the modern art of contemporary Europe.
Sanyu and Frank became friends when they exchanged studios in Paris and New York to save money. Frank includesdramatic and documentary scenes set in Paris and chronicles his trip to Taipei to attend the Sotheby's auction of Sanyu's paintings. Frank questions friends about the nature of success and reflects upon Sanyu's belated popularity 30 years afterhis mysterious death. He is nostalgic and reverent when examining paintings by Sanyu in his own collection, while commenting on the impersonal way in which the modern art world deals with the work. Frank's explanation of his friend's self-destruction appears to be based on Sanyu's lack of self-confidence and inability to continue working in the face of poverty. An actor portraying Sanyu declares, "If you don't think about your dreams, they will go away." Perhaps Frank believes his friend gave up on his dreams, yet in doing so achieved the success he deserved.
By incorporating documentary with fiction, voice-over narration, and dramatic re-creations of memories, Robert Frank presents his version of truth while remaining ambiguous about his own presence. When he does venture in front of the camera as alter ego, narrator, actor, or interviewer, Frank continues to question audiences whether or not what is onscreen is accurate. As he says in an earlier film, "I'm always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to tell something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there — and what's out there is alwayschanging."