The original cover of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), among the most momentous works of photography ever created, bears a shot of a New Orleans trolley car that, when scanned left to right, reveals the seating hierarchy demanded by Jim Crow. The final image of the landmark volume shows Frank’s first wife, Mary, and their tiny son, Pablo, in a beat-up Ford, weary and worn out from having accompanied Frank, at least on this particular day, on the transcontinental expedition that yielded these photographs. The images anticipate themes that Frank would explore further in his film and video work, which screens at BAMcinématek in a complete retrospective (including his most notorious endeavor, the 1972 Rolling Stones debauch-doc Cocksucker Blues). Frank, who was born in Zurich in 1924 and arrived in the U.S. in 1947, has always been drawn to the contradictions in this country. But inextricably tied to that talent for looking outward has been an abiding interest in turning inward. He has laid bare, without a shred of sentimentality, the glories, cruelties, and incongruities of both a nation and himself.
Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), co-directed with the painter Alfred Leslie, boasts a cast of Beat and art-world luminaries. Shot in Leslie’s downtown loft, this effervescent thirty-minute delight adapts a scene from Jack Kerouac’s never-completed play The Beat Generation; the author of On the Road (who wrote the introduction to The Americans) provides the jazzy, excitable, free-form narration, relaying the details of a chaotic, culture-clashing dinner party.
The hosts, a railroad worker named Milo (Larry Rivers, the proto-pop painter and sculptor) and his wife (Delphine Seyrig, the sublime sphinx of Euro cinema, here in her first screen role and using the beguiling mononym “Beltiane”), have invited a young bishop and his sister and mother (the great portraitist Alice Neel) for a simple supper. But these upright guests must share the table with a trio of dungareed bohos — the Beat high priests Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky — who had shown up at Milo’s earlier and refused to leave. Propelled by giddy, freewheeling energy, Pull My Daisy would become a foundational work of New American Cinema, a movement that, defined by its disregard for Hollywood convention, coalesced mainly in New York in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
A more profound shattering of form marks Me and My Brother (1968), a documentary about Orlovsky and his schizophrenic sibling, Julius, that is also a chronicle, sometimes scripted, of its own making. (Frank co-wrote the film with Sam Shepard.) The nonfiction element of the project tracks Peter and Ginsberg, who were longtime lovers, in various spots across the country during a poetry-reading (and -chanting) tour, with Julius in tow. Garrulous Peter, his voice a not unpleasing Bowery brogue, reads aloud from his brother’s psychiatric report and tenderly describes the rituals that have shaped their days since he assumed sole responsibility for Julius.
But juxtaposed with this footage are re-enactments, with actors playing various mental-health professionals and social-service workers — and sometimes the Orlovskys themselves. Absorbingly digressive, the film also includes exhortations directed at Frank about the hall of mirrors he’s creating: “Don’t make a movie about making a movie. Make it,” one actress scolds. (Playing a Frank avatar, Christopher Walken makes his screen debut here. In 1971’s About Me: A Musical, the filmmaker outsources himself to actress Lynn Reyner.) The heady tangle concludes with Julius, who, up until the final minutes, has been a mostly mute onlooker and pliant conspirator. To an unidentified interlocutor, the troubled young man delivers the film’s most provocative line: “The camera seems like a reflection of disapproval. Or disgust.”
That declaration is borne out when Frank turns the camera on himself. In Conversations in Vermont (1969), the filmmaker visits his then-teenage children, Pablo and his younger sister, Andrea, at an alternative school in the New England state — a refuge, it would seem, from the mayhem of living in New York with two self-serving artist parents. (The year Frank shot Conversations in Vermont, he separated from Mary and began a relationship with painter June Leaf, his partner ever since.) “I do realize how tight Mary and I were about living our own way without listening to the kids,” Frank confesses to Pablo, whose poise and thoughtfulness, qualities he shares with Andrea, belie his years. “I feel the burden of bringing myself up,” Pablo calmly says at one point. It’s an observation, not an accusation — a piercing insight that Frank, who knows that he has failed these remarkable young people, does not dispute. This extraordinary record of a parent and his children trying to sift through the past is made all the more moving by the fact that Frank, who will be 92 this year, has outlived his children by decades: Andrea died at age 20, in a plane crash in 1974; twenty years later, Pablo committed suicide.
The honesty that defines Conversations in Vermont is tweaked in C’est Vrai (1990); the title — “It’s True” — is only partially correct. What’s indisputable: The video is a single-take document of one hour in the afternoon of July 26, 1990, shot mainly from a moving van in a few-block radius centered on Broadway and Houston. Frank’s camera captures an abundance of era-specific, vérité riches, like a grumpy guy in a car listening to “The Power,” the ubiquitous dance jam from that season. But what seems like quotidian reportage is goosed by segments that have clearly been staged, such as an encounter between underground overlords Bill Rice and Taylor Mead near Anthology Film Archives. And threatening to destabilize the entire project is Peter Orlovsky, seemingly in the throes of a manic episode. His madness, whether real or exaggerated, proves irresistible to Frank, an artist who has never tried to smooth over the irreconcilable, in himself or others.
‘The Films of Robert Frank’
August 4–September 22
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