Robert Frank – Filmmaker

Film Screening

Robert Frank’s photographic oeuvre has become part of the canon of art history. However, his films and videos, which were the focus of his work from 1959 onwards, are still treated in many circles as a well-kept secret in the fields of film and art history. In conjunction with the exhibition, it will now feature in a packed weekend: six screenings of works by Robert Frank, as well as Laura Israel’s wonderful film Don’t Blink about the artist.

Frank was born in Zurich and trained as a photographer. He emigrated to New York in 1947. Constrained by the narrowness of Swiss society, he had felt a strong sense of being different, not least because of his Jewish background, and this feeling of “otherness” continued to define his life and work in the USA. His 1958 volume of photographs, The Americans, offered up a spectacular contrast to America’s image of itself; the film work that he embarked on immediately afterwards made his distance from the “art business” even clearer.

From 1970 on, he mostly lived in harsh seclusion in Nova Scotia, Canada, where his way of life and artistic pursuits overlapped: in his resistance to anything polished or formulaic and in his attempt to create a cinematic realm for the “oddballs” and “misfits” and for the nether zones and parallel worlds they inhabit – a realm that transcends the usual categories.

Documentary, fictional, essayistic, experimental; diary, autobiography, cinéma vérité, fantasy; very short films and feature-length works – Frank’s cinema has various affinities with all these categories yet belongs to none of them. There is also a radical openness concerning the films’ protagonists. They include Frank himself, his relatives and his postman as well as celebrities whom he crossed paths with or who influenced his artistic choices: from the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (who wrote the voice-over for Frank’s first film Pull My Daisy in 1959) to the Rolling Stones, the reality of whose backstage life he captured in his 1972 Cocksucker Blues (which did not go down well with the band, with the result that the film can only be screened on rare occasions). Frank remained elusive, just like the gossamer tissues of reality he tried to capture. In his late masterpiece The Present (1996), we see the word “Memory” written on a piece of glass – and watch as the letters are painstakingly erased. Then we hear Frank’s voice: “I lost. So what? That's the question.”

Curated by Alexander Horwath & Regina Schlagnitweit

The event is dedicated to Robert Frank on his 100th birthday in 2024.


Saturday 2 Mar

4 pm
About Me: A Musical (1971) b/w, 30 min
Don’t Blink (2015) by Laura Israel, b/w, 82 min, Original version with German subtitles

A short, wry self-portrait imbued with scepticism, followed by a friend’s affectionate look at two decades of close collaboration. What Robert Frank says in and of About Me: A Musical verges on the defiant: “My project was to make a film about music in America. Well, fuck the music. I just decided to make the film about myself. And this here is the young lady playing me.” In an act of artistic release, the commissioned work for the American Film Institute is jettisoned – and the core question (“What should you make a film about?”) is put out to the street, to the audience. Forty-four years on, Frank’s editor and archivist, Laura Israel, is making a feature-length film about him. He has retained his mulishness even as a 90-year-old but evidently feels comfortable recounting his own story. “Don’t blink!” – because you would miss too much in this treasure trove of rare film clips, memories and photographs, surrounded by a network of friends and companions. The soundtrack features pulsating New York music ranging from Velvet Underground (“European Son”) to Tom Waits (“Hang on St. Christopher”). Hang on, St. Robert!

6:30 pm
Conversations in Vermont (1969) b/w, 26 min
Life Dances On (1980) b/w and colour, 32 min
The Present (1996) colour, 23 min

How can cinema express a first-person viewpoint? And what form does this “I” take in the great mosaic of family, friendship and the world? Robert Frank made a kind of trilogy on this subject between 1969 and 1996. The films eschew any process of autobiographical “rounding”; they are open to every crisis – including those that befall artistic practices. The past is always present, and asking questions of other people invariably calls one’s own world view into question. In his “family album” Conversations in Vermont, Frank and his children Pablo and Andrea try to get to the bottom of growing up in a bohemian society. Come 1980, Pablo wants to go to Mars – and Andrea is dead, as is Frank’s best friend, Danny Seymour. On New York’s skid row, he meets a guy who feels compelled to touch every object. Where does the thread begin that connects us to the world, and where does it end? “I’m 55 years old, I gotta do something,” says Frank, as he tries to take pictures of the wind, in colour. The final work, The Present, turns into an unpretentious summation of his oeuvre – a seemingly loose chain of diary entries. It represents the perfect balance between Frank’s personal notions of “order” and “contingency”. The places, people and motifs of his life and art all wander ghost-like through this film, never coming to rest. His animal companions in Nova Scotia and the views through the window pose new questions: Where exactly is the threshold between inner and outer?

8:45 pm
Pull My Daisy (1959) by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, b/w, 28 min
Energy and How to Get It (1981) b/w, 30 min
Paper Route (2002) colour, 23 min
Moving Pictures (1994) colour, silent, 17 min

This programme is framed by two works that are emblematic of Robert Frank’s (provisional) rejection of photography and subsequent rapprochement with it. Jack Kerouac’s words – “Early morning in the universe” – can be heard and seen as a bridge: in 1959, with Pull My Daisy, Frank and his Beat Generation pals drove a stake into the cinematic landscape. It helped establish the New American Cinema and (with Delphine Seyrig also contributing) initiated a dialogue with the Nouvelle Vague. The performances of Ginsberg, Corso and Co and Kerouac’s spoken improvisations on the soundtrack are at once boisterous, down-to-earth and on a quest for meaning. Thirty-five years later, Moving Pictures features Kerouac’s words in due silence: “Lonesome traveller…the forlorn rags of growing old.” The middle part of the programme examines two other esoteric or “marginalised” ways of living – and the most outlandish forms of verbal and cinematic speech, which are something of a characteristic element in Frank’s work. An idiosyncratically wild ride through Wendover, Nevada, Energy and How to Get It begins as a putative portrait of Robert Golka, who studied ball lightning, before the scene is hijacked by William S. Burroughs as the Energy Czar and Robert Downey as a Hollywood agent. Two decades on, Frank is winding his way along the Paper Route through his home terrain in Novia Scotia. Inspired by the eternal question “How to live your life?”, he accompanies newspaper delivery man Bobby McMillan on his snowy travels through the half-light of dawn. The dialogue ends with —“How do you like to be filmed?” —“Good!”

Sunday 3 Mar

4 pm
Tunnel (2005) b/w and colour, 4 min
Me and My Brother (1965-68, re-edited 1997) b/w and colour, 91 min

In his first feature-length film, Robert Frank investigates the zones of the “real” and the “unreal”. What are the actual events? What occurs “only” in the imagination? At what point does mere existence turn into a game? And who the heck is the “Me” in the title? Like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason or Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, Me and My Brother is part of the late 1960s wave of meta truth movies that challenged the claims being made by cinéma vérité and direct cinema. Frank’s catatonic protagonist is Julius Orlovsky, whose behaviour swings back and forth between extreme excitation and passivity. Julius drifts through Lower Manhattan together with his poet brother Peter and Peter’s lover Allen Ginsberg. On a trip cross-country to Kansas and San Francisco, he disappears – the actor Joseph Chaikin has to step in to take his place. Frank (with Sam Shepard as co-writer) shows panache in his orchestration of the conflict between different concepts of cinematic truth. A very young Christopher Walken (speaking with Frank’s voice) takes on Frank’s role and at one point Allen Ginsberg declaims: “Truth breaks through!” The “truth” also plays an uncomfortable leading role in Tunnel, Frank’s most enigmatic film: a bull being slaughtered to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

6 pm
Home Improvements (1985) colour, 24 min
Candy Mountain (1987) by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer, colour, 91 min, Original version with German subtitles

La vie de Bohème – and how life as an artist and private entanglements are mutually dependent. Home Improvements is Frank’s first video work, shot between November 1983 and late 1984 with a semi-professional Portapak camera. It is a film of “everyday life” that shifts between New York City and Mabou in Nova Scotia – the contrasting refuges to which Frank and his wife, the painter and sculptor June Leaf, retreat. Frank is 59, his son Pablo is in a psychiatric ward, June is being hospitalised. The fog and winter sun of Mabou are seared into the mind, and Frank takes a drill to a whole pile of his photos. Around the same time, he develops his only “classical” feature-length film with writer Rudy Wurlitzer. In stylistic terms Candy Mountain is the antithesis of Home Improvements, but the two are secretly related. A dreamy hapless musician is tasked with finding the best guitar-maker in the world, who has disappeared. On his way to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, he meets various oddballs including Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Dr. John and Bulle Ogier – and when he finally tracks down the person he has been looking for, he realises that in art (including the art of building guitars), the act of destruction can be just as important as the act of “making”. As J. Hoberman puts it, “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.”

8:45 pm
Cocksucker Blues (1972) b/w and colour, 89 min
Prelude: Surprise Film b/w, 8 min

“Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious. No representation of actual persons and events is intended.” Is Cocksucker Blues another deconstruction of the truth movie then? Or might one claim the opposite: that very few American documentaries have put across their subject so intimately, so directly and so pointedly? Even if the Rolling Stones are still not happy about the film being screened, they cannot deny its sheer existence. When Robert Frank met the band, it was a mutual admiration fest. Frank contributed a photo collage for the cover of Exile on Main St. and the Stones invited him to make a documentary (and perhaps even a “celebratory” record) of their first North American tour since the Altamont disaster. They presumably gave no thought to the fact that Frank had already clearly shown his lack of interest in the world of high glam with his famous photo book The Americans. Despite the untoward circumstances and lack of cooperation, the film-maker subsequently put together his own narrative. Sordid, squalid, coarse, dreary – for Jim Jarmusch, Cocksucker Blues remains a sobering revelation, a stripping away of illusions: “It makes you think that being a rock star is one of the last things you’d ever want to do.”


All films, except Don’t Blink and Candy Mountain, © Robert Frank, 2024, distributed by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

2 — 3 Mar 2024



All films in original version

Curated and introduced by Alexander Horwath & Regina Schlagnitweit (Vienna)

Day pass € 12/8

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