Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Swiss-American photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank is now 94, which means he has been in the midst what he calls a “natural disaster” – old age – for at least fifteen years. Yet when he was 80, as Gerald Fox trailed him for Fox’s 2005 documentary Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank, which recently screened at the Film Forum after he had belatedly approved its theatrical release, Frank seemed an artist whose age and experience only made him a more formidable personality. Rich as it is lean at 85 minutes, the movie foregoes any systematic critical appraisal of Frank’s oeuvre. But it elicits a full measure of his unchecked candor and salty existential wisdom, suffused with a dourness that sometimes seems to border on misanthropy but in the end ramifies as powerfully human. Chronicling the same qualities in an older Frank, if not quite as sharply, is Laura Israel’s documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (2015).
As Jasper Johns had scraped the putative majesty off the Stars-and-Stripes in his painting Flag (1954–55), Frank, in his equally influential black-and-white photo collection The Americans (1958–59), presented its subjects unvarnished, suggesting disillusionment, obduracy, pessimism, and racism. Initially derided as condescending and anti-American, in time this work came to be seen as grimly oracular. Now, in the Trump epoch, it may have acquired even greater profundity. At the time, the collection reified the beats’ uneasy affinity for the downtrodden. In 1959, Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first American edition of the book reproducing the pictures. The same year, Frank and Alfred Leslie co-directed the short experimental film Pull My Daisy, a sardonic dollop of social disruption that Kerouac adapted from his play Beat Generation and loosely narrated, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso as well as Alice Neel and Larry Rivers.
Natalie Merchant, in her luminously nuanced 1987 song “Hey Jack Kerouac,” elegiacally asked him “when you were the brightest star, who were the shadows?” Frank was surely among the longer ones. His social and artistic kindredness with the beat crowd was natural and unforced. Clellon Holmes – the so-called quiet beat – wrote that what distinguished them was “the will to believe even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms.” Frank seems to credit this basic idea in a deadpan reflection: “I’m not happy about anything, but I’m not afraid of anything.” Although his immediate purpose is to advance the notion that imperfection and its possibilities are key to his work, the sentiment also captures his – and many artists’ – restive quest for some kind of independent truth.
The circumstances of Frank’s life haven’t made that quarry any less elusive. He lost his daughter to a plane crash when she was 20 years old, and his troubled son died at age 43. Regret and sorrow are etched on his face, and the film includes a remarkable mea culpa about his performance as a parent. But in his cantankerous equanimity, he seeks no pity, decries bitterness, and declines to mitigate his pain with the customary salves of faith, material comfort, and celebrity. Over the years, he and his wife, the artist June Leaf, have spent more and more of their time in an austere cabin on Nova Scotia’s forbidding Cape Breton Island in lieu of their Bowery loft in part because the neighborhood has simply become too nice and complacent. “The Yuppies, they have a right to live, too,” he says. “I just don’t want to live amongst them.” Cocksucker Blues, the film the Rolling Stones commissioned him to make about them, saw no contemporaneous release in theaters; Jagger found it unflattering, to say the least.
Leaf is the constant in Frank’s life, yet she herself acknowledges, with frankness on a par with his, that “we do everything together – and apart.” Frank remains alone and relentless. Perhaps that makes him the quintessential artist.
Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank, directed by Gerald Fox, 2005
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, directed by Laura Israel, 2015