Film Review: Don’t Blink—Robert Frank

This jazzy, fragmentary, inside-out portrait of photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank isn’t itself a great work of art, but it contains multitudes of them.
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If you weren’t familiar with the work of Robert Frank before seeing Laura Israel’s chummy and chatty documentary on the great photographer of the American soul, you will come away with an incomplete but rewarding tour. It’s incomplete because at no point do we get the full story of his work and life. It’s rewarding because director Laura Israel (Windfall) doesn’t leave much authorial distance between herself and her idea-overflowing subject. She goes native, and it lets her see Frank and his captivating, sharp and oblique work from the inside out.

Israel starts where the average person would, with The Americans, Frank’s still-definitive 1958 photography book of the vanished cavalcade of old, weird America. Distilled from nine months on the road, 30 states and about 27,000 images, it wasn’t received well at first, drawing criticism for being a bleak and antagonistic viewpoint from an accented immigrant with a supposed axe to grind. But like Jack Kerouac, who wrote the book’s introduction and also the narration for Frank’s short shot-from-the-hip Beat-escapade Pull My Daisy, Frank, who had emigrated from Switzerland in 1947, loved the country in an ecstatic and celebratory way. His work was full of glaring faces and bleak buildings, poor outcasts and stark loners. “Marginal people who live on the edge,” those are his favorites.

That enthusiasm for just about everything he comes across keeps bursting out of the film in unexpected ways. Alternately ornery and cheery, Frank is anything but a passive subject. He gives off-the-cuff photography advice like “Get people when they’re not aware” and “Usually the first one is the best” and isn’t afraid to give Israel or her cameraman Tom Jarmusch some tips and ideas.

For a time, Don’t Blink—Robert Frank looks like it could turn into a master class in the art. Israel fills the screen with one contact sheet after another of Frank’s work. Mixing avant-garde expressionism with stripped-down black-and-white reportage, they make a better biography in a sense than the snippets of data she lets slip about his life (assisting photographer Walker Evans, working at Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times). The film’s mostly black-and-white palette and soundtrack of Tom Waits, Velvet Underground and Patti Smith help with creating a mood of fervent creativity.

Frank’s jumpy yet considered approach is reflected in his art that Israel includes here. After the stream-of-consciousness Pull My Daisy, she shows snippets from similarly biographical yet structurally loose-limbed pieces like About Me: A Musical and Me and My Brother. A rich seam might have been mined with stories about his making of the infamous and never-released 1972 Rolling Stones tour film, Cocksucker Blues. Just the idea of this Swiss avant-gardist and a band of British blues fans roaming around the country hunting for genuine Americana seems like an epic in and of itself. But with a typically slashing pronouncement, Frank says about the talismanic film, “They paid me for it, and that was it.”

Although the 91-year-old Frank is now an artist whose prints can command prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he still comes across as the Bowery loft-dwelling artist creating just because he has to create, scavenging images and ideas wherever he can. A different film might have dug deeper and more conventionally into the work and motivations of the subject at hand, limning cause and effect, influence and reaction. But Israel is confident enough in her subject to leave it in his hands. “It’s all in the work,” Frank says near the end. “I hope.”

Click here for cast and crew information.