Robert Frank’s photos of Americans captured ordinary people in extraordinary ways and established him as a gifted observer and artist following World War II. The power of the renowned Swiss photographer’s black and white photography is evident; it allows his subjects to slip into shifting worlds, at first ephemeral and then captured, timeless. His photos represent a cross section of American common people in mostly unstaged moments in the pre-Kennedy U.S. Frank collected his pictures in the 1958 book The Americans, introduced by Jack Kerouac, and the pictures are as vivid and alive today as they were then.
Frank observed that he “stands in a world that’s never standing still”. So it wasn’t long before he immersed himself in moving imagery. He made his first film in 1959, the 30 minute short called Pull My Daisy. It featured leaders of the Beat Generation – Larry Rivers, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other hugely important cultural figures of the day – and served as a documentation of their time and place. It’s the story of a Bishop visiting a man whose friends push all boundaries.
Frank’s next film, Me and My Brother (1965) is a documentary about Ginsberg’s experiences with his lover’s catatonic brother who became part of Ginsberg’s speaking tours. When the man wanders away Ginsberg hires an actor to take his place. Christopher Walken has a small role.
Frank’s 1972 behind-the-scenes documentary on the Rolling Stones’ U.S. concert tour was renowned for its bracing title. Cocksucker Blues follows the Brits on their sojourn into the heart of America in a sobering and exhilarating few weeks. The title shocked me deeply as an impressionable youngster. When I saw it a couple of years later I enjoyed its wonky, raw and insider freshness.
From inflight sex shows to sombre moments observing America’s failures close-up, Cocksucker Blues is unabashedly decadent. Today it would not have the same punch but in ’72 it was an eye opener. Mick Jagger reportedly loved the film but stated that if it was shown in the U.S. the Stones would never be allowed back. The band would likely be subject to criminal investigation.
Today the film is at the centre of a lawsuit that makes public screening nearly impossible. Its appearance at TIFF is a rare opportunity, maybe the last for some time, to see what the fuss was all about.
Two more film collections round out the retrospective. Frank’s later life inspired more sombre works, as he mourned the death of his 20-year-old daughter in a plane crash and his son’s mental health struggles. Home Improvements: Videos From Mabou examines a different world he inhabited in Nova Scotia, as space and memory defined his work. Increasingly ageing took precedence.
Frank’s collected works are hugely influential. He is considered one of the best observational artists spanning two mediums. He continued to make films until 2009 and currently divides his time between New York City, where he may still observe Americans, and Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Hold Still – Keep Going: Films by Robert Frank runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox January 17 – 20. All screenings are free. For more information, visit tiff.net.