The Beat Spirit of Film: A Robert Frank Retrospective

Robert Frank: Me and My Brother, 1965–68. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


“I’ve never been successful at making films, really,” the photographer Robert Frank said during a symposium at Wellesley College in 1977. “I’ve never been able to do it right. And there’s something terrific about that. There’s something good about being a failure—it keeps you going.” It’s a typical statement from Frank, who has often been critical about his own work. But his lack of success—personal, artistic, or financial—has never been a determent. The more problems he faced with his films, the more reason to attempt to solve them.

Frank’s film work—which began with the making of Pull My Daisy (1959), a collaboration with the painter Alfred Leslie, and has continued roughly until the present day—has long defied any type of easy categorization. A consistent feature is a probing self-reflexivity, carried over from the Beat writers who provided early inspiration for both his photographs and films, and whose modus operandi he still cherishes, as seen clearly in some of his more recent video work. His oeuvre, which may have seemed messy and confused in the moment, can be viewed, in hindsight, as an exceptionally radical and widely influential series of films and videos, all of which will be shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music beginning August 4. A comprehensive series like this one has the potential to shift art-historical narratives. By providing access to work that is rarely screened, it reveals Frank as a filmmaker of remarkable vision whose work prefigures that of many contemporary artists.

When Frank finished The Americans (1958), his monumental book of photographs taken on road trips across the country, he felt that the camera offered no more challenges. He had accomplished what he had wanted with the series of images—his most revered work to date—and the still frame of the photograph began to feel like a cage. Frank was looking for spontaneity and action, something closer to what the Beats were doing with literature and poetry. He found inspiration in the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unproduced play The Beat Generation. Due to copyright issues, Frank settled on the title Pull My Daisy for his loose film adaptation. The action was shot silently, with Kerouac offering freewheeling, manic bursts of dialogue recorded over the images in post-production. Since its release, there have been differing accounts over how much of the film was scripted, but the reality of its creation is almost beside the point: Frank and Leslie’s film was heralded immediately as something fresh and exciting that, as Jonas Mekas wrote in his “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice, “clearly point[s] toward new directions, new ways out of the frozen officialdom and midcentury senility of our arts, toward new themes, a new sensibility.” After the release of Pull My Daisy, the new sensibility could be encountered in the wildly diverse underground movies of Jack Smith, Ron Rice, and Ken Jacobs, or the deadpan-cool of Jim Jarmusch’s early work, especially Stranger Than Paradise (1984).

In his subsequent films, Frank worked with scripted material—as in The Sin of Jesus (1961), based on a short story by Isaac Babel—and the loose narrative constructions used in the marital drama O.K. End Here (1963). The first of many stylistic breaks in Frank’s film work came with Me and My Brother (1968). Developed over four years, the film weaves together a complicated series of documentary scenes involving Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and his catatonic brother Julius, alongside scripted material featuring actors (Christopher Walken plays Frank at one point and Joseph Chaikin takes on the role of Julius). But what are we watching exactly? Is it a documentary, a film within another film? The central theme of Me and My Brother is the search for truth. Told from the perspective of a character whose sense of reality is distorted, the film questions the veracity of the characters’ experience and, more generally, of the medium itself. “Does truth exist?” Frank asks the real Julius at the end of the film. “Well, I don’t know,” he responds, hesitating. “Maybe it’s just a theory.” The question frames the purpose of the experiment; the film’s dense formal assemblage disorients more than it provides answers. 

Mekas, once Frank’s champion, harshly criticized Me and My Brother in two columns, and Frank would later say that the film was too complicated. But the questions the work poses about the medium of moving images and the combination of documentary and fiction are more relevant today than when the film was made. One can see Frank’s self-reflexive impulse in the work of artists such as Ben Rivers, Oliver Laxe, and José Luis Guerín, whose work exemplifies a hybrid fiction-documentary genre. Rivers’s first feature, Two Years at Sea (2012), is particularly analogous, with its conflation of documentary motifs and focus on marginal figures.

Conversations in Vermont (1969), the final film Frank produced in the 1960s, introduced the intensely personal self-reflection that would become a major component of much of Frank’s work over the following decades. In the opening frames of the film, Frank appears for the first time as himself, sorting through photographs—family snapshots and published images alike. He uses them as a jumping off point for a conversation with his children, Pablo and Andrea, about their lives and relationship to him. But throughout much of the film, Frank is not sure what, if anything, these conversations will yield. “This film is about the past and the present,” he says twice, as if repeating the phrase will make it true. Just as quickly, he switches gears: “Maybe this film is about getting older.” He’s not sure, but he hopes the film will provide a solution.

For much of the rest of his career, Frank’s films would become more startlingly personal, mournful, and openly diaristic. There are a few notable exceptions—Cocksucker Blues (1972), his tour documentary of the Rolling Stones, banned by the group for revealing their hard-partying lifestyle; Keep Busy (1975), Energy and How to Get It (1981), and Candy Mountain (1988), among others—which harken back to his earliest work with a greater emphasis on performance. But the death of his two children—Andrea in a plane crash in 1974, Pablo from suicide in 1994—would facilitate a confessional turn in his work, one that was encouraged by the advent of video technologies, which he embraced. Home Improvements (1985), shot on half-inch video, features direct messages to Pablo, who was then staying at a mental facility in the Bronx, and footage that resembles a home movie. The camera becomes an appendage to Frank’s thought process. The Present (1996) and True Story (2004/2008) address both his family trauma and his past work, which he is remembering, and doubting, and maybe trying to forget. Frank often speaks in voiceover in these films, narrating, commenting, and questioning. His words are frequently bursts of half-finished thoughts. These late works reveal film as a source of constant challenges for Frank that helped stave off loneliness, and keep moving forward.