The USA According to Robert Frank

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In 1958, the Paris-based publisher Robert Delpire had the foresight to release Robert Frank’s sheaf of plainspoken, black-and-white images, The Americans. Delpire insisted, however, on a cover of Saul Steinberg’s pencil doodles, a fact presented in An American Journey, Philippe Séclier’s documentary which retraces the 15,000 miles that the Swiss-born legend drove to create the book.

Opening today at Film Forum, it’s more of a soft-focused supplement to the current Frank-ophilia in New York, with the Met honoring the artist through a retrospective of his filmography (which includes the Beat portrait Pull My Daisy and the pumice-stoned Cocksucker Blues) and a stunning exhibition of his enduring, mid-century documents of life in the land of the free. After the jump, watch the Jack Kerouac-narrated short Pull My Daisy, which stars Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

For the hour-long Journey, Séclier pictures the loneliness of the roads-less-taken as an impressionistic blur, with pit stops to interview contemporaries, critics, and even those caught in Frank’s 35mm-Leica viewfinder in the ’50s. The locations of a few photographs, like Butte, Montana, are also revisited to mark the march of progress and time — or lack thereof.

Artist Ed Ruscha and photographer Raymond Depardon appear briefly; Sarah Greenough of DC’s National Gallery of Art, on the other hand, tries to lasso the breadth of his handiwork: 767 rolls shot for 27,000 images, of which he developed thousands to select 83 indelible frames. Although there’s a thought-provoking if fleeting look at a Chinese exhibition for Americans, Séclier’s tribute comes across a bit like Jno Cook’s, the creator of The Robert Frank Coloring Book: he’s enthusiastically outlined the photographs, but it’s missing soul.

Closer in extempore spirit is the preceding In the Street, a 1948 silent of Harlem thoroughfares packed with little rascals in idle and at play. Made by photographers Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb along with the one and only James Agee, the hidden cameras offer a rich, compassionate portrait of the tenements and its inhabitants. Of course, after The Americans, Frank took up the film camera to lens truth at 24 frames per second. In 1959, he debuted with Pull My Daisy, a playful chronicle of an upright dinner party that’s mussed up by the beatniks.

Jack Kerouac, who wrote the euphoric introduction to Americans, provides a gleeful, freestyle narration as well as the voices for a cast that includes poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers, French beauty Delphine Seyrig, and Frank’s son Pablo. Although he shared a co-directing credit with Alfred Leslie, the image of a bishop draped in the American flag is trademark Frank.

You’ll be able to catch it on the big screen with the autobiographical Conversations in Vermont at the Met next Saturday. Each Saturday thereafter features a special Frank film, including the rare and aforementioned Blues, his Beat-inspired feature-length debut Me and My Brother, and the Tom Waits-starring Candy Mountain. The photographs and contact sheets of Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans stay up until January 3rd of next year.

"Funeral - St. Helena, South Carolina," 1955. Photo credit: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"

"Charleston, South Carolina," 1955. Photo credit: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"

"Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey," 1955. Photo credit: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"

"Trolley - New Orleans," 1955. Photo credit: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"