'Don't Blink: Robert Frank': NYFF Review

Don't Blink Still - H 2015
Courtesy of New York Film Festival
A provocative portrait of its equally provocative subject.

Laura Israel's documentary recounts the life and career of the famed photographer/filmmaker.

"I hate these f—ing interviews," declares Robert Frank, the 90-year-subject of Laura Israel's documentary about the venerable photographer/filmmaker. But while he may be annoyed by the interrogations, the legendary creator of the seminal photography book The Americans and such cult film classics as Pull My Daisy and Candy Mountain makes for a highly engaging commentator in Don't Blink: Robert Frank, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival.

That the director is a longtime collaborator of the photographer no doubt accounts for, pardon the pun, the frank portrait on display. Dealing with his life and career in a freewheeling fashion akin to Frank's own works, the film vividly conveys his passionate artistic spirit, defiant iconoclasm and lifelong aversion to compromise.

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Having emigrated from Switzerland in 1947, he made his name with the 1958 photographic essay The Americans, which is now considered a classic, but which upon its release received no small number of critical brickbats.

"A sad poem for sick people," declared one critic, while another opined that its creator obviously "hates America." The documentary includes copious samples of the book's stark black-and-white photographs, and they are no less powerful today than they were nearly six decades ago.

Featuring both contemporary and archival interviews with Frank, Don't Blink well illustrates his philosophy that "I prefer to walk on the edge rather than the middle of the road." In keeping with that ethos are clips from Beat My Daisy, featuring such Beat Generation luminaries as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and the rarely seen C—ksucker Blues, graphically documenting the behind-the-scenes activities of a Rolling Stones tour. The band suppressed the film's release, with Mick Jagger telling its director that if it was ever publicly shown the band wouldn't be allowed back in the country. Also featured are clips from Frank's many short films, including One Hour, Home Improvements and Life Dances, the last about his daughter's death in a plane crash.

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Although a bit too diffuse to fully realize its potential, the documentary is an evocative portrait of its subject who at one point comments, "I'm not a verbal man, I'm a visual man. It's all in the work, I hope."

Don't Blink: Robert Frank provides ample evidence that the hope has been greatly fulfilled.     

Production: Assemblage Films in association with ARTE France

Director/screenwriter: Laura Israel

Producer: Melinda Shopsin

Directors of photography: Edward Lachman, Lisa Rinzler

Editor: Alex Bingham

Not rated, 82 min.