[28 August 2008]
In 1959 Cinema 16, Manhattan’s leading avant-garde film society, featured Robert Frank’s and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes’ Shadows on a double-bill that suddenly illuminated the contours of US independent filmmaking to come. Both films descended into the midnight existentialism of bebop and nicotine-stained neon revelries that defined a new generation of post-war urban youth that had defected from the televised promises of the suburbs. Yet the way in which each film pursued its approach differed radically.
Trained originally as an actor, Cassavetes prioritized performance over all else within his films. Shadows embodies his belief that narrative must be whittled away into a skeletal outline in order to allow for the necessary leeway to plunge into the psychic terrain of character. His actors provide the improvisational fulcrum that the camera pivots upon as their radiant performances are channeled into celluloid. As a result, Cassavetes noticed how the camera “followed them smoothly and beautifully, simply because people have a natural rhythm. Whereas when they rehearse something according to a technical mark, they begin to be jerky and unnatural, and no matter how talented they are, the camera has a difficult time following them.”
Frank, on the other hand, belonged to the experimental New American Cinema Group that held Shirley Clarke, Gregory Markopoulos, Émile de Antionio, Alfred Leslie, and Jonas Mekas as members. His training as a photographer caused Frank to disregard naturalistic acting for free-wheeling performance where character and actor, fiction and the quotidian blur into the crisp imagery of anonymous cityscapes and lost countrysides. Unlike Cassavetes’ films where everything gravitates around the acting ensemble, Frank’s dissect space where performances take place, as the opening shot of Daisy reveals with its slow pan across the apartment’s table, chairs, and walls that will soon serve as a make-shift stage for Beatnik hijinks.
Franks early work, represented within the three volumes released by Steidl, reveals his primary interest in documenting the people and the places of two related yet opposing groups: the counter-culture and the repressively status-quo. Pull My Daisy (1959) and Me and My Brother (1968) concern the Beats; Conversations in Vermont (1969), Liferaft Earth (1969), and About Me: A Musical (1971) address the ‘60s counter-culture and communal living; The Sin of Jesus (1961), OK End Here (1963), and
(1975), on the other hand, chronicle the shackled lives of the rural poor and the urban middle-class.
In general, Frank’s counter-cultural films are more compelling than his status-quo ones, since they contain an improvisation energy and unpredictability that the latter lack. This juxtaposition can most dramatically be seen within the visually schizophrenic OK End Here. The alienating framing of its first half— where the bodies of its male and female characters are dissected and dwarfed by the antiseptically, white walls of their apartment, their angular modernist furniture, and the imposing concrete buildings of the engulfing cityscape—weakly imitates the style of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. Uncommunicative and detached, the film’s protagonists could be the American equivalent of the emotionally-battered couple from La Notte (1961).
Yet just when all seems lost, the film veers into a French New Wave aesthetic as its couple enters a café. Not unlike an Agnés Varda film, the camera unmoors itself from its lead protagonists to drift over the faces and eavesdrop upon the tangled conversations of other customers. Fleeting glances, cryptic handshakes, and lost smiles populate the café’s space. Frank’s photographic instinct to capture the furtive moments of life surfaces here, reminiscent of his most famous book of photography The Americans where he travelled across country and “with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film,” as Jack Kerouac observed in his introduction to the book.
From Me and My Brother
Susan Sontag once claimed that Robert Frank’s work represented a new post-war trend in photography where the “camera eye is not piercing but democratic . . . intense and cool, solicitous and detached; charmed by the insignificant detail, addicted to incongruity.” This attitude often unpredictably sparks throughout Frank’s films like S-8 Stones Footage from Exile on Main St., rough Super-8 footage that Frank used to create his notorious Cocksucker Blues (1972), which the Rolling Stones banned due to its derogatory representations of them masturbating and using drugs.
The first half of its footage offers a percussive montage of the Stones posing, preening, and strutting throughout Greenwich Village to the narcissistic soundtrack secretly rattling through their heads. But as the camera grows bored with the band’s rote rock ‘n’ roll antics, it begins to coast to the homeless windshield wiper men who deftly negotiate city traffic like urban bullfighters using their rags as capes. We witness a deadly ballet as these men balance their lives against oncoming cars from narrow traffic lines, hailing down unlikely customers with a twirl of cloth. They transform the streets into their stage and, in turn, expose the Stones as out of their league, who have long since been jettisoned by the film anyway.
Performance is most dramatically and profoundly represented within About Me: A Musical, the best film of the set. Not only does it explore the way in which musical performance shapes our relationship to the world, but it also self-reflexively interrogates Frank’s own role as a filmmaker. Frank announces at the start of the film, “My project was to make a film about music in America.” After a dramatic pause, he caustically admits, “Well, fuck the music. I just decided to make a film about myself.”
But unlike the Rolling Stones who embrace their narcissism as Divine Right, Frank undermines his central role by having a female actor, Lynn Reyner, play his part. When Reyner poses as him during interviews, relating some of the important personal events of his life, we can’t help but question the very status autobiography as somehow “more authentic” than fiction: Just because Frank has someone else performing his life does it make the details any less authentic? Does Frank’s own performance of his life make the narrative any less contrived?
In many ways, these questions are not the most important since the film collectively embeds Frank’s life within that of others. The “autobiographical” element is constantly short-circuited and re-fused with documentary musical footage: temple musicians in Benares, India; a hippie commune in New Mexico; a group of African-American inmates in Texas; Allen Ginsberg and friends in Frank’s apartment. The medium of film becomes a central conduit to reveal how mutual creativity and passion tethers these diverse groups into a global community. As their music becomes a part of his film, his film becomes a part of their music.
This interpenetration between self and other is highlighted when the (female) Robert Frank looks to the viewer and asks, “Why not add something of your own to make it honest? I mean, why tell my story? Why not tell the pimps’, the whores’, the junkies’, the travelling salesman’s . . .?” The camera then descends into the street interviewing various people about the type of film they would make. Tellingly, the final image shows an old man exclaiming in heavy Brooklyn accent, “About myself!” He produces a slide whistle, announcing, “You ever see anything like it?,” and then proceeds to play, hopping up and down to a gypsy tempo, the camera rotating until we see the soundman lower his microphone and clap in appreciation before the film’s leader suddenly snaps into black as the distinctions of self and other, art and the mundane collapse under its weight.
From Pull My Daisy
Like many of his contemporaries, Robert Frank used independent cinema to explore the democratic vistas that its portability and accessibility pried open. In their manifesto, the New American Cinema Group charged that “the official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring.” At their best, Frank’s early films harness the energy of the counter-culture in order to resuscitate the utopian hopes that cinema once held when it was first discovered and caused Maxim Gorky to marvel: “this invention affirms once again the energy and curiosity of the human mind, forever striving to solve and grasp all.”
Steidl has provided a remarkable service in finally making these films available in NTSC and PAL formats. (It also plans on releasing the rest of Frank’s oeuvre in another seven volumes). Although the DVDs hold no extra features, the transfers are excellent. One can only hope that the avant-garde works by other members of the Group like Jonas Mekas, Gregory Markopoulos, and Shirley Clarke become increasingly available. After all, as Frank’s films incessantly reveal, a lack of access to avant-garde cinema is nothing less than a collective denial of a vital part of our selves.