a foundational work of the New American Cinema movement, and rarities like his notorious 1972 backstage document of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” tour, a fascinating, often chilling look at the rock star apparatus at its most grotesque and banal. (The film’s title includes the word “Blues” but is too smutty to print in full here.)
On the Roads He Traveled
“ ‘I told you to wait in the car,’ say people in America, so Robert sneaks around,” Jack Kerouac writes in the introduction to “The Americans,” Robert Frank’s tender and unflinching photographic portrait of this country and its people. Mr. Frank, who turns 84 on Sunday, took his photographs during an on-and-off road trip, at times with his young family in tow, pressing pedal to the metal from New York to New Mexico, Montana to Texas, from 1955 to 1956. Bankrolled by Guggenheim fellowship money, he captured a tremulous diversity — immortalized by his image of a spectrally white baby in the arms of a black nurse — at the very instant it was sending shock waves across the country.
The project, he wrote in a Guggenheim proposal, would be what “one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” The “finds to see” is telling. The images in “The Americans,” first published in 1958, have the deceptively casual quality of snapshots, despite their compositional harmony and occasional purposefully skewed framing. “I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere — easily found, not easily selected and interpreted. A small catalog comes to the mind’s eye: a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none.” A newly transplanted Swiss Jew, Mr. Frank was pitching himself as a poet of the American quotidian.
The restlessness and the poetry permeate the must-see 10-program retrospective, “Mapping a Journey: The Films & Videos of Robert Frank,” that opened on Friday at the Anthology Film Archives. The retrospective, which makes an argument for Mr. Frank as one of the most important and influential American independent filmmakers of the last half-century, includes somewhat familiar titles like “Pull My Daisy” (1959), a foundational work of the New American Cinema movement, and rarities like his notorious 1972 backstage document of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” tour, a fascinating, often chilling look at the rock star apparatus at its most grotesque and banal. (The film’s title includes the word “Blues” but is too smutty to print in full here.)
The somewhat reclusive Mr. Frank has not always seemed especially interested in sharing his work or his thoughts about his work. He refused to be interviewed for the excellent 2003 essay collection “Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank” (Scalo), as if insulted by the idea of such close attention. But he appears to have settled into a more expansive, perhaps autumnal mood. The German publisher Steidl recently released nine of his early films on DVD in three welcome if ridiculously expensive boxed sets (each more than $80 a pop). A book of his photographs taken in Paris in the 1950s was published in May, and in January the National Gallery of Art marks the 50th anniversary of “The Americans” with a touring exhibition.
Shortly after publication of “The Americans,” Mr. Frank joined forces with Kerouac again on the artist’s second-most-famous work, the experimental short film “Pull My Daisy.” Directed with Alfred Leslie and narrated (scatted) by Kerouac in playful bebop, spoken verse rhythms, the film is something of a domestic drama about a railway brakeman and his wife (the painter Larry Rivers and a luminously young Delphine Seyrig) who over the course of one chaotic evening navigate between opposed shores (family versus freedom) while juggling a bishop, two church ladies and the husband’s friends (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky). The film was first shown by Cinema 16 in November 1959 on a double bill with another New York tone poem and American classic, John Cassavetes’s debut feature, “Shadows.”
At the end of “Pull My Daisy” the husband and his friends pile out the door, leaving the wife behind. For years I resented the film for abandoning her, but there is poignancy in leaving, too, as Mr. Frank’s own story as an exile, a permanently displaced person, suggests. The critic Amy Taubin has described “The Americans” as a road movie, an observation that underscores the rootless, searching quality of so many of his images, still and moving. This sensibility is even there in a lovely, understated 2002 short video, “Paper Route,” that finds him riding shotgun with a newspaper delivery man through Mr. Frank’s adopted hometown of Mabou, Nova Scotia. For 23 minutes he keeps his eye on this world’s barren beauty through a cracked windshield, which is about as perfect a metaphor for his persistence of vision as I can imagine.
“Mapping a Journey” runs through Nov. 16 at Anthology Film Archives, 32-34 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village, (212) 505-5181, anthologyfilmarchives.org.