Robert Frank: Film Works

NOT LONG AFTER Robert Frank's still photographs in The Americans, published in 1958, definitively revealed the grim underside of the 1950s American dream, he put his Leica away and embarked on a new career as a filmmaker. This set of publications and DVDs, packaged in a handsome wooden case the size of a large-format art book, chronicles the half century of movies that followed. The book features a 1985 interview with Frank's close friend and collaborator Allen Ginsberg, who says the photographer shifted to filmmaking to sidestep the pitfalls of being an acclaimed artist, to "stay with life as it is with an ordinary eye . . . He got tired of looking through the camera, through like a frame."

Picture frames, often empty, turn up repeatedly in the films, as if to symbolize the Swiss-born artist's seemingly innate attention to borders, and his determination to move across and outside of them. He was always mixing genres and mediums, and juxtaposing "real fiction against invented reality," as a character says in his 1992 movie, Last Supper. He influentially blended scripted dialogue with improvisation in his earliest and still-best-known film, Pull My Daisy (1959), codirected with the painter Alfred Leslie. There are scripts here for that film and for Me and My Brother (1968), whose "fictional" characters include Julius Orlovsky, the schizophrenic brother of poet Peter Orlovsky, who was alternately (and disturbingly) played by Julius and a young Joseph Chaikin, the great actor and founder of the Open Theater.

Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy, 1959, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 28 minutes. Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.
Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy, 1959, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 28 minutes. Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.

Beginning with Conversations in Vermont (1969) and About Me: A Musical (1971), Frank found his true subjects: himself and the people around him. It was rare, however, that Frank allowed himself to be the focus of a scene; he may be self-obsessed, but he's always lacked vanity. Despite his apparently solipsistic approach, the films coalesce as an unvarnished, unsentimental chronicle of a New York bohemian community, informed by Frank's melancholy but unquenchable fascination with the ordinary, what Ginsberg called his "glum attentiveness."

Critic Stefan Grissemann contributes a perceptive overview of Frank's moviemaking career, and Kent Jones, Amy Taubin, and others offer compelling essays and interviews. A couple of quibbles: Frank worked with many now-famous artists, performers, and poets in his films, but the filmographies here fail to provide comprehensive lists of casts and characters. And several of the better-known ones, like Cocksucker Blues (1972) and Candy Mountain (1987), aren't on the DVDs. But overall, Robert Frank: Film Works is a revelation of the inner truths Frank seeks in everyday moments. "I'm always looking outside trying to look inside," Frank tells the camera in Home Improvements (1985). "But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there. And what's out there is always changing."