Best known for his photography and filmmaking, Robert Frank has produced in the past two decades nearly a dozen remarkable video works that circle around a basic diary form. Mostly under 30 minutes each, they wander through scripted
narratives, street documentary, textual essay, and even music video, but always return to his locus primus—Frank’s Bleecker Street studio—and remain grounded in the artist’s increasingly retrospective life story and brutally honest worldview. Yet unlike lesser video diaries, Frank’s work never succumbs to prosumer narcissism. He rarely turns the camera on himself, preferring the authorial insertion of spoken or written narration. He sculpts an echo of a self out of that collection of things, moments, and situations he has witnessed.
“Scanners,” the newly rebranded New York Video Festival, presents Frank’s complete video oeuvre, topping off the two-program slate with the local premiere of his latest, the 2004 career-collage True Story, which incorporates older videos like 1994’s Moving Pictures, as well as his 1969 film Me and My Brother. True Story serves as an answer to and revisiting of his first video, Home Improvements. Shot in the mid ’80s, Home Improvements shuttles between Frank’s downtown digs and the Nova Scotia house he shares with his partner, artist June Leaf. The two face life in their fifties; Frank visits his troubled son Pablo in a psychiatric facility; Leaf requires surgery. “I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside,” Frank narrates. “Trying to tell something that’s true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there.” The true-false conundrum haunts C’Est Vrai, his quietly astounding 1991 video, shot in a single take while wandering around an empty, pre-gentrified Noho. Frank travels through the lower East Village, and the 6 train, capturing choreographed mini-scenes with actors that take place amidst street life.
At one hour, C’Est Vrai is indeed a long single take, but them’s peanuts compared to conceptualist Mary Ellen Carroll’s Federal, a 24-hour movie composed of two screens of the Federal Building in Los Angeles, a stark, International Style concrete-and-glass box. Planned to run on the same date it was shot, Federal will unfold in a re-creation of real time: shot from 9 a.m. to 9 a.m., the film will be projected in the same interval. Federal updates Andy Warhol’s skyscraper portrait Empire (which runs a piddling eight hours) for the homeland security era; like its Pop precedent, it’s a work designed more for discussion than full viewing. Judging from Carroll’s lit-crit-heavy written documentation, which drops more names than the U.S. got bombs, she’s willing to take up that challenge.