There’s a brief sequence in Robert Frank’s Home Improvements that, like so many defining moments in his work, seems to take leave of the context that’s been made for it: to exist solely on its own terms, the found revelation. Narrated by Frank, this 29-minute video shot in 1983 and 1984 begins in Nova Scotia, where Frank has lived since 1970. The movie is about family and terror. “Pablo, I promise you, I won’t give up,” Frank says flatly in a voice-over as he approaches the Bronx Psychiatric Center to visit his son, his only surviving child. In the hospital, Pablo Frank seems drugged, depressed, barely responsive. When Frank leaves, the camera tilts to skew the building where Pablo remains, and we hear Frank again: “It means a lot to him, when I try. I just don’t know how long I can do it.” You don’t want to go back to the hospital anymore than Frank does.
Then quickly the camera is on a subway train; a young black woman is moving from one car to another. As she approaches the connecting door, the camera catches the graffiti “SUCK ME” on the glass, as if it’s superimposed on her body. It’s just one more everyday humiliation; if she notices she gives no indication. Then in the next shot, the camera is at rest in a subway car and the image it captures is like a still photograph: the bottom of an advertisement reading “COLD SYMPTOMS,” with, directly below it, in a blank spot, another graffiti, “it WAS DARK.” Certainly these signs of violation and doom comment on the personal drama we’ve just seen; they also bear it away. A year or more later those graffiti may be all you remember.
Looking through Frank’s work—his ’40s and ’50s photographs, most famously of course those collected in the 1958/’59 The Americans, and his films from the 1959 Pull My Daisy to the 1989 Hunter and on from there—you might also wonder where these signs came from: were they actually found on the subway, or were they put there by the filmmaker himself? Not that it makes a real difference—but the apparent messiness of so much of Frank’s film work, its seeming aesthetic of haphazard and luck, and the blank aura of fate in so many of his photographs, the way they almost dare you to deny what they so plainly say, result in a sense of verisimilitude that is altogether misleading. They leave you with Frank as a fearless artist who is always watching, rather than Frank as a canny, determined artist who is always thinking, or arguing.
Most of the more disreputable incidents in Cocksucker Blues, Frank’s once-embargoed not-really-a-documentary on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour, were staged by Frank: groupie sex in the band’s plane, co-cinematographer Danny Seymour (his actor’s credit reads “Daniel Ceymore”) playing a “Junkie Soundman” shooting up, a TV heaved out of a hotel window. The Americans itself, a book that could easily have carried “THE AWFUL TRUTH” as a title and that after 35 years, can still escape its reputation, any of its pictures facing down any viewer as if for the first time, is also at times so contrived it verges on corn. By the time you reach “Covered Car—Long Beach, California” [pictured above], the mood of gloom, isolation, corruption, resentment, and tiredness is so strong that the tarp-covered car, neatly framed by two palm trees, feels like a corpse with a sheet thrown over it; turn the page, to “Car Accident—U.S. 66,” between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, and that’s exactly what you get. The true killer in The Americans, the picture that seals the cross-country journey Frank re-created in the collection, a picture so strong it can seem to close the book on America itself, is the last picture in the book: “U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas.” We see the right half of a car that’s pulled off to the side of the road, its headlights on; a woman is sitting in the front passenger seat, and her headlights are off. Her eyes are open, barely, but there’s no life in them, no desire, no anticipation, and nothing so powerful as anger or fear; the road goes on forever, but as far as she wants to know this is the end of the road. In the latest reprint of The Americans, though, a little triptych of photos follows the original ending of the book: three versions of this photographic occasion. We find out that the bereft woman is Frank’s then-wife, Mary Frank; we see her and the couple’s two young children, smiling eagerly through the windscreen: Daddy’s going to take our picture!
Watch Pull My Daisy, Frank’s 28-minute first film (directed with the painter Alfred Leslie), described by Frank as “a ‘Spontaneous Documentary of life among the Beatniks,” and The Americans begins to look very much like a beat book, which is to say a critique of American soullessness, even a cheap critique. Frank—who was born in Switzerland, and was already in his early 20s when he arrived in New York in 1947 to make his career—defined his ambitions for the pictures in The Americans when, in 1958, he introduced a selection in U.S. Camera Annual with a quotation from Andre Malraux: “To transform destiny into awareness.” Quoting that introduction in his book The Lines of My Hand, in 1972, he went on: “Young people and students picked up The Americans. They recognized and understood my language. They listened to voices that had no part in the ‘System.’ Aware of hypocrisy around them, dissatisfied with slogans from preachers and patriots, they began to question everything.” Fine—but for the actual subjects of Frank’s photos in The Americans, nothing in their faces, or the way they gesture, move, hold their bodies, suggests consciousness of the predicament that to the viewer is so cruelly evident. They’re all destiny and no awareness.
Which is, precisely, the pronouncement made upon the world outside the apartment where Pull My Daisy is set. Here in New York live Milo, a railroad brakeman (delightfully played by Larry Rivers), his unnamed wife (played by “Beltiane,” a.k.a. Delphine Seyrig!), and their son (Pablo Frank). Milo’s poet friends Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky arrive and busy themselves getting in the wife’s way and congratulating themselves on being poets until Milo gets home, just before the arrival of a “Bishop” and his mother and sister, whom the wife wants to impress and the poets mercilessly bait. Finally the Bishop leaves, the poets hang around, Milo and the wife get into a fight, and then Milo happily goes off with the boys, the band of brothers… Those women! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em! The format is a silent set, with music and a voice-over narration in which Jack Kerouac, improvising off the last act of his play The Beat Generation, delivers a long laconic sneer—at the ineradicable bourgeois tendencies of the wife, dragging her innocent, as-yet-unspoiled son off to school to rot his brain with nonsense like “astrono… megaly”; at the Bishop, who wants to be fussed over rather than roll on the floor in freedom like Allen and Gregory; and, most memorably, at what the poet sees when he looks out the window and into the street. What does the poet see? “He says, ‘look at all those cars out there. Nothing out there but a million screaming ninety year old men being run over by gasoline trucks. So throw a match on it.'”
This sense of America as a foreign land—or as a land that makes all men and women into foreigners—is present all through Frank’s best work, perhaps most tantalizingly in Me and My Brother, 1965-68, which is about Orlovsky’s catatonic brother, Julius. We learn Julius was working for the New York Sanitation Department when, in 1950, when he was 19, he was found masturbating on the job, resisted attempts to control him, was committed to a mental hospital, and given electroshock therapy; now released into his brother’s care after 15 years, he is described as completely regressed. It doesn’t take too many minutes of watching Julius Orlovsky’s blank but angelic face not to be surprised by a scene where he is questioned by a psychiatrist (played by John Coe), who reports in voice-over: “He expresses a new vision of today’s world… To me he’s like a saint, full of poetry.” Julius, the psychiatrist thinks, is like the hermits of legend, who live in caves, far from society; when supplicants reach their lairs, asking for the truth of being, the hermits say nothing. “Yes,” says the psychiatrist, “it’s difficult to be a saint here in New York”—and there you are, smack in the middle of “Howl.”
But then there you are in another subway train, where Roscoe Lee Browne, playing a documentary film director, is holding a transistor radio to his ear; he’s listening to the broadcast of a political rally. “BOB KENNEDY!” shouts an announcer (“Bob”?, you wonder); a Hispanic crowd goes wild with screams of “VIVA KENNEDY!” If you’re watching Me and My Brother today, from a distance of more than a quarter of a century, perhaps you mentally stop the scene to ask, Is this the 1968 primary elections? New York? California? Whatever you’re thinking, you’re not prepared for the mad rush of an impossibly crude live version of “Wooly Bully” washing over the crowd noise (At a campaign rally in 1968? God, how did I miss that?). The film cuts to a shot of a man rolling up a tapestry of John F. Kennedy. This is not a foreign country; this is a country Frank is trying to keep up with.
This scene, all contrived, all made up, plays with as intense a naturalism as the subway scenes in Home Improvements—which despite my questioning I assume were found, not made. Both, in their ways, carry traces of beat ideology, of cant truths about alienation, loneliness, the walking dead, the manipulation of our inner lives by powerful interests that mean us no good. But both also, in every way, encapsulate what might be the essence of Frank’s palavers with the world, whether in photography or movies: a bet that the whole of life can be found almost anywhere.In The Americans, that bet pays off not for the book as a whole but picture by picture. The book itself can be summed up and, even, beaten; you can win an argument with it. I cannot win an argument with a single one of the pictures as such. The photographs Frank has been taking since 1975, with a Lure-camera or a Polaroid—composite photos, or collages with words and pictures–and the best of his movies produce the same kind of hardness, though in instants, never from one end to the other. His signature ultimately escapes whatever social messages he might drape over it.
Just as for The Americans Frank meandered around the country–turning up perhaps his most perfect pictures in Butte, Montana, not an obvious point on anyone’s itinerary, unless you were paying homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest—so in Pull My Daisy, Me and My Brother, Cocksucker Blues, Home Improvements, and other films, as in many of his Polaroid composites, Frank meanders around rooms. Single rooms; nothing rooms. The camera is no fly on the wall, rather a fly looking for a place to light, and it doesn’t necessarily find one. Yet the drift of the camera—as the action proceeds, as people talk, as points are made—always pulls definitely away from the movie as it’s taken shape up to this point, whatever point this is. The room holds secrets. They are the same sort of secrets given up so readily in the subway cars in Home Improvements, but here they are occulted. You can’t find them, and the camera can’t, but it moves on, circles back, and you get the sense that the people who until a moment ago had the foreground to themselves—Ginsberg, Mick Jagger, Rivers, Pablo, etc.—really notice no more about where they are, where they live, than those cursed 90-year-old men Kerouac’s poet would have tossed a match on. At this verge—repeated, or retraced, again and again and again, from place to place, over the years—it matters very little of what country Frank might be a citizen, or a resident; where he might be a foreigner and where he might be at home. In these rooms, as in the specific moments frozen in the landscapes of The Americans, he is absolutely present, so he might as well be here.
Artforum, November 1994