The American: Don’t Blink – Robert Frank

Robert Frank in DON’T BLINK – ROBERT FRANK, directed by Laura Israel.  Photo by Lisa Rinzler.  Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank
Directed by Laura Israel
Opens July 13 at Film Forum

“The best way to be is to be curious, stand up, keep your eyes open, don’t shake, don’t blink,” advises the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank near the end of Laura Israel’s dynamic new documentary portrait, which takes its title from that last imperative tossed off by the artist. Frank, a Swiss-born American who will turn 92 this fall, remains most famous for the immensely influential 1958 photo book The Americans, an evocatively unsettled (and unsettling) canvassing of midcentury society in the States. His best-known movie, on the other hand, is one that few people have seen at all: 1972’s Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the bacchanal that was the Rolling Stones’ American Exile on Main St. tour. The band originally commissioned the film but moved to bar its release once they’d had the evidently sobering experience of watching their own debauched behavior projected up on the screen. (Film Forum will host two rare screenings later this month.)

“It’s a fucking good film, Robert—but if it’s shown in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again,” reads a Mick Jagger quote that Israel displays on-screen around the midway point of her film. In Don’t Blink, Frank himself can be heard admiring the aging Stones’ present-day energy, but he nonetheless curtly characterizes their response to the final cut of Cocksucker as “boring.” And as it turns out, the counterculturally inclined Frank has even less patience with square questions than he does with the concept of brand management. Besides the requisite clips from Frank’s own filmography—from the Beat-filled Pull My Daisy (1959) to more diaristic projects like True Story (2004)—some of the most compelling footage Israel hauls out from the archive shows her playfully combative subject practically squirming his way through interviews. During one videotaped sit-down, Frank complains about being “pinned in front of the camera” and asked the same old questions. “What’s your philosophy?” someone asks at a 1971 NYU Q&A shown later in the film; “I have none,” he responds from the lectern, to audience laughter. Israel herself is not immune from the talkback, either: At one point, Frank objects to the projected background she’s asked him to sit in front of.

Israel—who worked with Frank as an editor on a few of his latter-day shorts—has made a film (her second as a director) that moves with such speed it’s often difficult to keep up with. It’s unusual to encounter a documentary, particularly a portrait of an artist with most of the usual retrospective trappings, that hits on a rhythm more or less all its own, but Don’t Blink does as much—the deliberately choppy editing and rock-jukebox soundtrack give the film the distinct air of a runaway slide show. As a result, some of the more emotionally fraught topics—for instance, Frank’s daughter, who died in a plane crash at age 20; his son, who committed suicide in his early 40s; and, to a lesser extent, his difficulties in making his only narrative feature, 1987’s Candy Mountain, which he co-directed with the writer Rudy Wurlitzer—come and go all too fleetingly. In the end, however, Israel’s agitated career survey feels admirably true to the spirit of its subject, who’s spent so many years so restlessly moving forward as a maker and collector of images. At this point, the “scavenger,” as his second wife calls him here, needs another lifetime just to give all that work more than a cursory sorting through. And, as Frank himself might rejoin, who wants to spend a whole lifetime doing that?

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