'Don't Blink': A New York Film Festival interview with director Laura Israel

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Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink: Robert Frank is about the photographer and filmmaker best-known for his book of photographs entitled The Americans (Grove Press, 1959). In a telephone interview in New York City, Israel says the documentary took more than three years to complete. “I would become obsessed with something I read by Robert, and would want to shoot footage about it,” she explains. “Then I would find something else, and I would want to do that. The film was almost revealing itself to me at the same time I was making it.” Israel confides that she did not do much research before production began. She has been Frank’s editor since the 1990s. “Editing with Robert?” the New Jersey native says, jokingly, when asked about her position. “Sometimes it entails just going out to lunch.”

Israel’s mercurial, sometimes puckish subject may not be as familiar as the photographer he is often compared to, Walker Evans (1903-1975), whose American Photographs (Doubleday, 1938) influenced Frank (b. 1924). Evans helped Frank to get the Guggenheim Foundation grant that funded the journey which led to The Americans, 83 photographs culled from the 27,000 Frank shot during his 10,000-mile trek across the United States in 1955. In the documentary, Israel begins with the book, in part to contextualize the photographer's work. “I wanted to start with The Americans and have it be a door that opened,” Israel says. “Then, the work starts to build on itself and you see that Robert did so much more than The Americans.” Along with the photographs of Evans and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) of Depression-era migrants and “resettled” Japanese-Americans during World War II, Frank’s pictures of post-war America comprise many of our most iconic images. While Lange and Evans were American-born, Frank is a Swiss immigrant.

Don’t Blink is Israel’s second documentary. Her first was Windfall (2010), a very different project, but also one inspired by her life and work. It is about the effect of wind turbines on those living in a rural area of upstate New York where Israel owns a weekend retreat. “I am really looking forward to going out and showing Don’t Blink,” Israel declares, “whereas Windfall was very challenging because a lot of people are very passionate about wind energy and I was critical of it.” The filmmaker is a graduate of NYU’s film school and began working as an editor while she was still a student. “Everybody was doing ‘earn while you learn,’” she says. “It was the MTV era. Because I had a film background, but I was also interested in video art at the time, I understood the video system and non-linear editing.” By the time she graduated, Israel had her own company.

Israel’s skill is apparent in the finely crafted Don’t Blink, in which the filmmaker captures the spirit of Frank’s work, the "catch it before it disappears" feeling that pervades his photographs and his films. Frank’s vision of the world is devoid of wistfulness or sentiment; always there is the sense of the “rightness” of a first look or a hasty observation. In the film, he recalls his frustration at being misunderstood by his contemporaries in the U.S.. Ironically, The Americans was first published in France. “The first time I ever worked with him, I had just put his tape on video,” Israel says, referring to the transfer process that made it possible to edit on a non-linear system. “I asked him if he wanted to look at it all afterward, and he said, ‘No, we don’t go back. We move forward.’” Israel’s first thought was: “This is my kind of guy to work with. I like that kind of decisiveness.”

Israel’s interpretation of Frank’s images is apparent in her pacing of the documentary, and of course in the juxtaposition of image and music. At NYFF’s press conference, I asked about her approach, commenting on the fact that I felt Frank was continually attempting to erase the impression left by his photos. Israel replied that she felt exactly the same way, and that this quality is what informed her edit. Don’t Blink represents a critical eye, not a mimicking of Frank’s style. In the storytelling, Israel glosses over some of the artist’s shortcomings, for instance his sacrificing of his children and his first wife in favor of his work (see Frank’s “U.S. 90 En route to Del Rio, Texas,” 1955, that evinces this aspect of his life), but she never lionizes her subject. For instance, Frank fell in with the Beat writers for a while and made a film about the Rolling Stones, which some think led to innovative work, although Israel leaves the audience to decide.

Israel’s respect for Frank is apparent in every frame, as is his relative ease with her and the camera, although he admits early in the film that he despises being photographed. At some point during production, Israel realized that their longstanding collaboration, and the inevitable “shorthand” that resulted from it, was getting in the way of the film. “The advantages I had in making the documentary are obvious,” she says, “but knowing Robert also worked to my disadvantage.” Israel describes what happened on-set. “I would ask a question and he would say, ‘Why are you asking me this? You know the answer.’” Israel decided to invite cameramen Ed Lachman and Tom Jarmusch to have on-camera conversations with Frank. “It became a bit more of a guy thing,” Israel says. “They have a different sort of relationship with him.”

Israel also films Frank and his second wife, the sculptor June Leaf, at work in their cabin in Mabou, Nova Scotia. There she revisits Frank’s photographs of a wood pole, or piles of wood, and a rock he had placed near the house. “The thing about his work is that you get it on one level,” Israel says, “but when you start to look at it on a deeper level, it means something completely different.” She uses the example of the wood piles. “He started to do these things in Mabou, putting a piece of wood on top of another piece of wood, or putting a large rock on his property and photographing the rock,” she observes. “I did not realize at first that these things have meaning for him. They’re totems.” Don’t Blink, on the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate, will screen on October 4th and 6th.