Who is Robert Frank? The most influential of mid-century American photographers? Eternal boho and Beat Generation fellow traveler? Venerable titan of the (old) New American Cinema?
Although he’s made over 20 personal films since 1959, it’s symptomatic of Frank’s subterranean career that his best known is still the Beat family portrait Pull My Daisy, co-directed with painter Alfred Leslie and narrated by Jack Kerouac. Still, Anthology’s comprehensive retro “Mapping a Journey: The Films & Videos of Robert Frank” (November 7–16, coinciding with the artist’s 84th birthday) could hardly begin anywhere else. The first two programs are devoted to Frank’s beatnik movies—notably his faux cinema verité feature Me and My Brother (1968), which, although ostensibly a portrait of poet Peter Orlovsky and his catatonic sibling Julius, is filled with theater people and self-identified actors.
Me and My Brother, which Frank re-edited in the late ’90s, is the weightiest item in his oeuvre, but, for my money, he came into his own as a filmmaker with the first-person Conversations in Vermont (1969), which concerns his ambivalent confrontation with his adolescent children. Anticipating by several years Yvonne Rainer’s more polished avant-celebrity psychodramas, Conversations in Vermont and its successors Life-Raft Earth (1969), documenting a week-long “starve-in” organized by Wavy Gravy and Stewart Brand, and About Me: A Musical (1971), which mutated from traditional music doc to startlingly manic self-presentation, are steeped in the pungent clutter of late-’60s hippie boho life. The elusive, ineffably sad Life Dances On (1980) provides a postscript to this period, touching on the accidental deaths of Frank’s daughter Andrea and his young assistant, Danny Seymour.
Frank’s legendary and usually restricted Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972) is scheduled for two rare screenings. Less sensational but more felt is the (very) quasi-commercial feature Candy Mountain (1987), a collaboration with novelist Rudy Wurlitzer. In a way, this shaggy-dog hipster road film is Frank’s ultimate work—evoking the end of the road and even the end of Endsville—but he has persevered. “Mapping a Journey” includes subsequent low-tech music videos (for New Order and Patti Smith), eccentric tributes to fellow artists (Kerouac and Alfred Stieglitz), and at least one nearly unknown gem, C’est Vrai! One Hour (1990), a single-take chunk of real time choreographed one summer afternoon in the artist’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood.
Here, 30 years later, is the (almost) spontaneous action documentary Frank claimed to have made with Pull My Daisy. Even the milieu is similar: C’est Vrai! begins in the artist’s impressively disheveled studio; the camera moves outside to the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette and into a beat-up van that drives in circles around the neighborhood, occasionally stopping to allow the camera to run out into a diner or record a bit of on-street conversation. Truth is an elastic concept: One soon realizes that Frank has salted the area with staged events. C’est Vrai! is a one-of-a-kind stunt, both street theater and an urban road movie.