“I hate these fuckin’ interviews,” Robert Frank says just a few moments into Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink, a vigorous documentary surveying the career and life of the photographer/filmmaker/one-man Beat happening. That clip, from midway through the Reagan era, finds Frank at his most rewardingly crotchety — or “arrogant,” as some loved ones in Israel’s film have it. After carping, the artist makes his case: He hates the steady falseness of talking-head framing, and he would appreciate it if his interviewers allowed him more freedom. He’s more collaborative than combative in more recent footage. Frank calls the filmmakers’ idea to pose him near a wall with his movies projected over it “hateful,” but he’s nice about it.
Israel’s willingness to honor Frank’s own vision powers the film. A scintillating early montage, crisply edited by Alex Bingham, wheels us through Frank’s contact sheets and famous how-we-actually-live photographs from his 1958 collection The Americans, the On the Road of photography books, shot during the Swiss immigrant’s first U.S. road trip. The familiar images — the segregated South, Los Angeles’ Skid Row, workers in a Ford factory — still thrill, blunt and revelatory almost sixty years later. Don’t Blink cuts from them to Frank today, studying them himself while out his windows the traffic grinds through Lower Manhattan. Then, as a rimshot, we glimpse a Christie’s auction where one truth-telling photo is snapped up for a half-million bucks.
From there, Don’t Blink dashes through Frank’s film work, with a refreshing emphasis on personal, homespun projects over the familiar ones with the famous names. Of the Rolling Stones’ decision not to release Frank’s notorious 1972 Cocksucker Blues doc, Frank shrugs, noting that he did get paid. (That filthy slice of apocrypha will screen at Film Forum on July 20 and 21.) Frank’s own footage is supplemented with beautiful reminiscences about the Beats, Bleecker Street, and winters in Nova Scotia. Throughout, Israel — Frank’s longtime editor and archivist — centers Frank’s own images, even capturing his habit of shooting the doc-makers themselves as he tour-guides them through his old Village haunts. “I guess I don’t know people like this anymore,” he says of the “marginal” folks whose words, faces, and burning-mad courage lit up his chaotic early films. But he still knows himself, which ain’t nothing.
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
Directed by Laura Israel
Opens July 13, Film Forum