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Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

October 4, 2016

Unpacking Robert Frank at Cornell Cinema: Art within Art

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Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, showing at Cornell Cinema this Wednesday, tells the story behind a photograph. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in his lifetime Robert Frank, named by his former employer, The New York Times, as “the world’s pre-eminent living photographer,” captures the unusual and the unseen. If you’ve never heard of Robert Frank, Don’t Blink will make you fall in love with him. If you’ve heard what critics say about the eccentric artist, Don’t Blink will have you discredit every insult.

The film frames Robert Frank as a man eschewing all expectations — or, in other words, fulfilling his stereotype: that of a frustrated artist. He’s expressed his creative urges for 70 years by freezing time, and yet he can’t stand still. During one interview in 1984, he answers the question: “Why do you hate interviews?” with “Being told to look into the camera… I’d like to walk out of the fucking frame, you know?” And that’s the primary rule of Frank’s work — freedom. Despite his rationalization that he “pins people in front of the camera” and he “doesn’t want that” for himself, I’m convinced that he’s never told a subject quite what to do. Frank is immensely modest and scornfully endearing. Laura Israel, the film’s director, either sees an often undiscoverable friendly side of Frank, or everyone else misunderstands him. In Don’t Blink, Frank is everything he and all his critics says he isn’t: kind, funny, considerate, patriotic, happy, philosophical.

Robert lives like his photographs. There’s more to him than first appears. He poses as if he follows directions. After all, Frank claims he merely took on his father’s career — following “the instruction manual.”  Yet, he breaks away from economic confines, societal pressures to succeed and his father’s yearnings for wealth. His father wrote in a short personal poem: “What did I give to the world?/ I made money, I digested and I forgot.” The younger Robert Frank nears the same level of cynicism, but with an obvious satirical second sense. He believes in his work, in his life, in his worth; his unfailing humor makes him just too cool to admit it. He looks into his father’s ancient Daguerreotype camera and sees a different story. Laura Israel captures just that.

Don’t Blink unpacks like a Russian nesting doll just as it peels back Frank’s many layers. Don’t Blink captures the film inside the film inside the camera film. Israel reveals Frank’s genius and his personality while compiling itself into a work of art. The product is simplistic and minimalist in a way that beautifully captures Frank’s being. His photographs become a tribute to his personality. Through Israel’s lens, Frank’s eyes become his camera. His every blink takes another shot, and each reel unwinds his complexities. The film’s trajectory, although not chronological, follows Frank’s developments as an artist. Frank’s work shifts, from season to season, with his human inconsistencies. Like his long winters spent with his wife in Mabou, Nova Scotia, Frank’s work progresses with his changing direction, emotions and causes. Despite Frank’s trying to “get pictures that captured the character of the people,” Israel shows how, when placed together, his photographs model his own nature. And just as Frank says that “a photograph is just a memory… take it out and put it back in the drawer again…” Israel proves even he isn’t convinced by his seeming ambivalence. Frank remarks that “people change when they prepare themselves to be photographed.”  And maybe his subjects do, but when approached by Israel’s lens, Frank doesn’t waver in his unaffected self. The film debriefs both Frank’s harsh critics and his apathetic attitude. In Don’t Blink, Frank’s photographs are worth a thousand words and his words merely distract from the subject.

Making a film about a renowned photographer and filmmaker would intimidate me. But Israel expertly captures life in the same nonjudgmental, uncompromised light as her protagonist. She cuts out nothing of Frank’s hapless remarks, keeping even his midway remark: “now this should be the ending…” She shoots Frank like he frames his nonconformist models — honestly. Just as Frank rejects the bossiness of a photographer, Israel similarly dissociates from her role as director — giving remarkably little guidance to Frank. She frames her interviews with him against his films running on a projector in the background. In Don’t Blink, Frank falls back into his photographs and Israel’s documentary flows into his portfolio.

Don’t Blink works inside out, undoing every disparaging critic’s remark and each satirical remark Frank makes to the public. For a skeptical viewer, the film raises questions: who’s the real Robert Frank?  Is he his critics’ victim, or an aging man regretting his stubbornness to the admiring public?  Has he changed, was he continually wronged by his reviewers or is he acting out a role?  Frank says, “When someone is aware of the camera it becomes a different picture.”  So is Frank posing for Israel?  For my part, I believe that the evidence is too convincing. Each photograph brings light to Frank’s compassion. Israel shares her concept of Frank’s story but, by using his own artistic input, she makes her argument determinedly truthful. Israel’s work too closely mirrors Frank’s own genius to settle for ingenuity. It seems that the pair would agree that “usually the first picture is the best one.”  Like Frank’s photographs, Israel’s film appears as an untainted impression, a glimpse, a blink.
Whether the photographer needs his name cleared of critic’s harsh words or not, Israel makes her viewers fall in love with his Frank: the photographer, the filmmaker, the personality. In black and white, with bits of music, satire and thoughtfulness, Israel’s film exposes a powerful human consciousness throughout Frank’s artistry. The documentary appropriately reflects Frank’s life through the pictures he’s taken. This praise-worthy photo montage reflects Frank’s expansive career and his works’ journalistic function to his personality. It’s beautiful in a scruffy way just like Robert Frank. It’s powerful in its honesty that recognizes life for its simultaneous harshness and compassion. Don’t Blink compiles Frank’s photographs into a disorganized and clear human life.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank is showing at Cornell Cinema this Wednesday, October 5, and Friday, October 7. 

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jmc628@cornell.edu. 

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