Archival Spaces 238
A Film Curator does what?
Uploaded 13 March 2020
I have been seeing the verb to curate with increasing frequency in the unlikeliest places, e.g. I was recently on a Delta Airlines flight where you can now purchase a Delta vacation with “the world’s best hotels and curated experiences.” Apart from the fact that my word processing program tells me that “curated” is underlined in red, i.e. misspelled, I wonder what is a curated experience? I didn’t really think much about the Delta pitch or other weird examples of the usage, until I read a New York Times published article (March 3, 2020) last week by Lou Stoppard, complaining that “Everyone’s now a curator.” According to the author, curating is the trendiest term around today, and curators are the new lifestyle superstars, curating food, wardrobes, restaurants, travel, Instagram feeds, even cheese. Having been a real curator for much of my life, I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own, from the front lines, so to speak, which put into context Stoppard’s comment that calling professionals who organize exhibitions curators is a new phenomenon.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “to curate” in fact doesn’t exist; as a noun, a curate is one entrusted with the cure of souls or a spiritual pastor, which doesn’t exactly fit here; a curator has several meanings says OED, but the operative one is: “the officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, or the like; a keeper, custodian.” This definition is relatively broad and doesn’t really specify the duties of a curator in an institution that houses collections of books or works of art, regardless s of medium.
So let’s get specific. My first job at George Eastman Museum back in the 1980s was as Associate Curator, Department of Film; I was promoted after three years to Curator of Film. In that position, I was responsible for both the care and preservation of the film collections, which included physical films in various formats (35mm, 28mm, 16mm, 8mm, etc), as well as film stills (photographs), film posters, and other paper documents, like the personal and corporate correspondence of filmmakers. The latter paper-based documents constitute the material culture of cinema, and are pertinent to any writing of film history. This curatorial work was essentially that of an archivist who must facilitate the long-term survival of materials under his/her care. In the analog era, that meant preserving the original materials as best as possible through proper archival housing and climate control, i.e. proper storage, and in the case of obsolete film formats, copying materials to newer, chemically more stable film materials. In the digital age, it now means moving from a culture of objects (films, paper-based images) to one of digital files, which are created by digitizing original materials. Thus, the curator’s job now entails keeping track of digital files in cyberspace, while still holding on to the original analog materials for as long as possible, in order to facilitate the making of more sophisticated digital files in the future.
But my work as a film curator at Eastman involved not just archival work, as it is traditionally defined. I was also responsible for programming film series at the Museum’s Dryden Theatre. Film programs were curated both from the permanent collection of films at the Museum, as well as from other sources that make films available for projection, either other museums and film archives, or film distributors, film collectors, etc. Putting together such film programs was not only a matter of organizing and scheduling film prints in a rational sequence, but also of research in film historical texts, biographies, newspapers and magazine, film reviews, online websites, and numerous other paper and digital sources, because film programming has to make curatorial sense, educate and entertain. Furthermore, film programs were accompanied by brochures and other publicity materials that explicated a program’s rationale, as well as providing descriptions of individual films shown.
Even before taking my position at Eastman, I had co-organized an exhibition, “Film and Photo in the 1920s,” a reconstruction of a famous 1929 avant-garde media exhibition, originally conceived by Constructivist artists, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Hans Richter. Shown in Germany at Stuttgart’s Kunstverein and Essen’s Folkwangmuseum, as well travelling to museums in Berlin, Hamburg, and Zurich, “FiFo” included both a film program and a wall exhibition. Not surprisingly, then, given the paper collections at Eastman Museum, the job of film curator included developing traditional exhibitions in the museum’s galleries. Thus, we opened the new museum building in Rochester in January 1989 with “The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood’s Golden Age,” a major exhibition which introduced the Warner Brothers film stills collection that had been in deep storage at Eastman since the late 1950s. The exhibition was accompanied by a Warner Brothers studios film program, and a catalog. Writing and editing that catalog, which made a contribution to film history was also a work of film curatorship.
Finally, given the realities of the non-profit status of museums in America, curators in recent years usually have to develop strategies for fundraising, in order to finance any part of the job described above. That is usually hard work in and of itself. I’ve had exhibitions fall through for lack of funding, despite great concepts. But film curatorship means there’s never a dull moment.
Archival Spaces 237
Hunters. Season 1 (2020, Amazon Prime)
Uploaded 28 February 2020
I have to say that I was put off by the first episode of Hunters, Amazon Prime’s new television series, because the opening in which Under-Secretary Biff Simpson (a member of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet, we later learn) murders his whole family, some neighbors, and guests at poolside, because one of the guests recognizes him as a former Nazi war criminal, seemed too cartoonish, given the subject of the series is a Simon Wiesenthal hunt for Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. My European parents, one of them a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor, never allowed me to read comic books as a child, and I never have since, although I have watched a couple of recent comic book movies. I did read Art Spiegelmann’s brilliant graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, ironically opening in 1978, one year after the Hunters’ story takes place, which is why I gave the show a second chance, binge watching season 1 in two days. I also remembered that mixing comedy and the Holocaust, i.e. popular culture and the most horrific event in the 20th century, has often brought down the wrath of high brow critics, as Lubitsch experienced when he made To Be a or Not to Be (1942), now considered an absolute classic, or, more recently was the fate of Jo Jo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi).
Hunters is indeed consciously structured like a comic book with numerous references to Batman, and the hunters themselves being an Avengers type crew, while also being a post-modern mash-up of tv commercials, game shows, movie genres, animation, popular songs, stereotypes, over-the-top violence, melodrama, outright sentimentality, garish color, and purely metaphoric images. But it also visualizes for present day audiences – at a time when not more than a handful of victims and perpetrators are among us – the actual history of the Holocaust, including the “selection” process on the ramp at Auschwitz, life in concentration camp barracks, the KZ orchestras, the extreme cruelty of the SS (the human chess game is however a complete fabrication), the medical experiments, the Kindertransports, the cooperation of Swiss banks in hiding Nazi pillaged Jewish wealth, and maybe most importantly, the complicity of the American government in “rescuing” over 1,600 Nazi criminals after World War II (code-named Operation Paperclip), so they could participate in our country’s atomic/chemical weapons and space exploration programs, giving us a leg up on the evil Communists in Russia. Finally, the film consistently addresses deeply moral dilemmas about whether vigilantism is justified for a righteous cause in a seemingly corrupt world, without providing easy or pat answers, in particular through its central protagonist, Jonah Heidelbaum, who is likened to Batman and works in a comic book store.
“The boy,” as the other hunters call him, is barely out of his teens, when he witnesses the murder in his house of his grandmother, Ruth, herself a Holocaust survivor and his only living relative. Through a series of clues among his “Safta’s” things he finds Heinz Richter, a Nazi war criminal running a Manhattan toy shop and attempts to kill him, but fails, and must be rescued by Meyer Offerman, the leader of the hunters and a survivor. Like his Old Testament namesake, Jonah fails this and subsequent tests throughout the narrative, when he is asked to kill Nazis, often accompanied by Ruth’s ghost who warns him that he will become like them, if he does so. In the Bible, Jonah is sent to the utterly wicked city of Nineveh by God to announce their destruction, if they do not repent, but Jonah flees, only to be swallowed by a whale, where he realizes his duty and travels to the city to reveal the difference between good and evil. Not surprisingly, each episode of Hunters is described on the Amazon website in quasi biblical language: “And on the second day, God created The Hunters, who at the behest of Meyer brought Jonah into their tribe….” In Hunters, though, Nineveh is the symbol not only of the whole community of Americanized Nazi war criminals, but also of the present day United States itself, which under Trumpism has revealed its previously sometimes hidden racist heart.
In a black and white television skit, a very young black girl and Lonny Flash, an unemployed actor and one of the hunters, ask the question: How do you recognize a Nazi? Yolanda answers: 1) By the raised arm salute; 2) white people; 3) white people; 4) white people. Lonny corrects her and says that all white people are not Nazis, but she insists that all Nazis are white people. And indeed, the Nazis, whether German war criminals or their young American followers, are white people who inhabit a world of “America First,” Confederate flag-draped Fourth of July barbecues, alt-right meetings, right-wing Republican fundraisers, Aryan Nations-dominated prisons, trans-national corporate capitalism or segments of the American government. Time and again the Nazis respond, “But we are Americans just like you.” When a Jewish couple is separated from their child on the ramp at Auschwitz, we cannot help but think of INS’s immigration policies on our Southern border. The central plot revealed in the latter half of the season involves the genocide of America’s brown people by feeding them a sugar substitute, just as some African-American critics have long contended that white America flooded the ghetto with drugs in another attempted genocide
Thus, the most striking aspect of Hunters may be that this Holocaust story is chocked full of African-American characters, and not just because Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. Two of Jonah’s three best neighborhood friends are black – he is sweet on the young woman. Also an African-American is the female FBI detective, Millie Morris, who is on the trail of both the hunters and the Nazis, but has trouble admitting her sexual preference to her deeply religious family. Several other black Americans become victims of American Nazis. And finally, the hunters themselves are an inter-racial group, including a young black woman with an Angela Davis Afro, an Asian-American Vietnam war vet with PST, a middle aged Catholic nun, another elderly couple who survived Auschwitz, as well as the aforementioned Jewish actor and group leader. In fact, in their color-blind racial harmony, the hunters represent an inter-racial utopia that also finds expression in a joyous dance sequence on Coney Island to a Bee Gees tune from Saturday Night Fever, and in the general image of New York.
Some critics have complained that the last episode’s major reveal stretches credulity, but series author David Weil probably lifted the idea from Edgar Hilsenrath’s satirical novel, The Nazi and the Barber (1971), the black comedy that demonstrates that even racists, like their human forefathers in Nineveh, may have the capacity to repent and are then deserving of mercy.
Archival Spaces 236
F.T.A. (1971, Francine Parker) Restored
Uploaded 22 February 2020
On Saturday February 15, 2020, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association sponsored a series of restoration screenings, including the seldom seen anti-Viet Nam War documentary, F.T.A. (1972), screened at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre. The film was introduced by Jane Fonda and after the show, Jane, Holly Near, Len Chandler and other cast and crew members participated in a Q&A, while Robin Menken, one of the play’s original authors, participated from the audience. F.T.A.. was an acronym for “Free the Army,” or “Fuck the Army,” or Fun, Travel, and Adventure, the Army’s own original acronym, and was first presented as a vaudevillian anti-war stage show around American Army bases, a kind of reverse engineered Bob Hope style U.S.O. Tour, that eventually travelled to numerous sites on the Pacific rim, including Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Japan. The documentary, which includes interviews with numerous servicemen either on their way to or coming from the Viet Nam battlefield, got a review in the New York Times in July 1972, but was then pulled from distribution by American International after only a week, ostensibly a reaction to Jane Fonda’s infamous trip to North Vietnam that same month. According to director Francine Parker, “calls were made from high up in Washington, possibly from the Nixon White House, and the film just disappeared.”
Shot in a raw, off-the-cuff style in 16mm, the stage show starred Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, as well as Peter Boyle, Holly Near, Michael Alaimo, Rita Martinson, Len Chandler, and others. In various combinations the actors present skits and sing anti-war songs, with Fonda at one point calling a Vietnam battle as if it were a sports event, while Donald Sutherland at another point reads a passage from Dalton Trumbo’s novel of a World War I quadruple amputee, blinded survivor, Johnny Got His Gun (1939). Like the show itself, the film is a bit disjointed, but certainly reflects the passions and energy of the times. At two points the camera strays to capture militant Okinawan, anti-military occupation protestors and a Filipino pro-democracy rally, suggesting that the American left’s struggle is part of a larger struggle of Third World people, a common rhetorical trope. One of the dramatic highpoints comes when the troupe are denied entry to Japan, because they have tourist visas, but are planning to perform, i.e. work.
Having participated in the anti-war movement as early as 1968, when I was a high school student, and going to Washington DC in November 1969 for the country’s largest anti-war demonstration ever, the show brought back a flood of memories. Two things stood out for me. First, I was surprised by the feminism of many of the sketches, headlined by Holly Near and Fonda, reflecting the P.O.V. of a group of military women (Mostly nurses) talk about the fact that their male superiors expect them to “service” the troops. That feminist point of view can be attributed to the writers and director, who’s only feature film this would be. In 1971, Parker, who had kicked around Hollywood as a television director since 1950, was only the eleventh women to join the Director’s Guild of America, but her career, like that of most women in the industry at that time, never really got off the ground.
Secondly, the film confirmed my belief that Jane Fonda and her compatriots were extremely sympathetic to the plight of ordinary soldiers who had often been drafted against their will to fight in an unpopular war. Indeed, most of the stories about “treason” surrounding Fonda’s trip to North Vietnam have been proven to be myths, according to https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/jane-fonda-pows/, but have nevertheless dogged her for decades. At one performance a group of conservative soldiers in the audience begin to heckle the performers, but the troupe does not verbally abuse them, rather they are gently lead off stage, so that the show can continue. Meanwhile, the film continuously cuts away to interviews with African-American, Latino and Caucasian soldiers who express their frustration with the government, the pain of their experiences clearly visible on their faces, and, in some cases, wounded bodies.
The new digital copy of the film was produced by Sandra Schulberg’s IndieCollect, an organization that has done wonders for film preservation in the last couple years, with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Jane Fonda. Schulberg had initially tried to find the film’s original materials by contacting Docurama, the video streaming service for documentary films, since they had released the film on video in 2009, but came up short. However, she then contacted Ed Carter, the documentary film archivist at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood, and he told her they had both a negative and an inter-positive (IP). However, since the negative was incomplete, Schulberg’s team used the IP to create a new, color-corrected digital master, which will hopefully now go back into distribution, almost 50 years after its suppression.
Archival Spaces 235
Larry Clark’s masterpiece Passing Through
Uploaded 15 February 2020
On February 13, UCLA’s Melnitz movies screened Larry Clark’s thesis film Passing Through (1977) with Larry Clark in attendance,. I tws the first time I had seen Larry since we restored the film for our L.A. Rebellion film program back in 2011 and the first time I’d seen the film again since that time. Like the first time I saw it, I was bowled over by the opening precredits and credits sequences, a free jazz symphony and red and blue that can hold its own with any avant-garde film, and not just because Pat O’Neill handled the continuous multiple exposures of musicians jamming. Wall-to-wall jazz music led one French critic to call Passing Through “the only jazz film in the history of cinema.”
The film’s reception in the mainstream press was mixed, because no one quite knew what to make of its use of Hollywood blaxploitation tropes in a film that clearly spoke the language of black power and Third World liberation aesthetics. Larry Clark theorizes in Passing Through that jazz is one of the purest expressions of African American culture, embodying the struggles of generations of Black people going back to slavery times but now co-opted by corporate interests that brutally exploit jazz musicians for profit. The opening seven-minute credit sequence is accordingly an homage to jazz and jazz musicians, beginning with a list of names and then featuring carefully orchestrated layers of images of musicians performing. Indeed, the notion that the jazz tradition has been disrupted is underscored by Womack’s first attempt to improvise with his band, when the spiritual aftereffects of prison keep him from connecting. The film repeatedly returns to scenes of various musicians improvising jazz, as well as flashback scenes (in black and white) in which Poppa Harris (the great Clarence Muse) teaches Womack to play saxophone. Jazz is seen as part and parcel of the cultural heritage of African Americans, yet as one musician states, “Niggers haven’t controlled the music scene since the drum.”
Returning from prison, Womack learns that the mobsters still control the business by paying some musicians with heroin. Like in numerous Blaxploitation films in which white mobsters run the drug or pimp/prostitution trade, Clark constructs a narrative in which white mobsters ruthlessly exploit musicians. When Womack suggests that his band free themselves from their music industry contracts and form their own recording and distribution company, the other musicians sympathize but back out, because they fear retaliation through blacklisting.
Unable to effect any change, Womack’s anger at white corporate powers only increases after he learns that his friend and fellow musician has been murdered by the mob. When Poppa Harris, seemingly from beyond the grave, tells Womack “to slay the dragon,” he springs into action. In a scene most heavily criticized by Clyde Taylor as unnecessary “Blaxploitation,” a female accomplice feigns a broken-down van to get the attention of the mobsters, who leer at her body. When they step out of their vehicle, they are gunned down by Womack and two colleagues who have been hiding in the van. The scene ends with a self-conscious freeze-frame of the fleeing gangster boss in the moment he is hit by bullets, thus implying that this scene may be a Hollywood fantasy, an expression of desire rather than an actual killing.
Clark’s construction of the gangster’s demise can potentially serve as a cathartic release for African American audiences, happy to see the white mobsters get their due at the hands of black justice. As in other Black themed films of the time, the vigilantism of the African American hero or heroine is legitimized through claims to higher moral values than the corrupt system around them, as if fulfilling the false promise of American justice in the Constitution. The moral righteousness of Womack’s actions is legitimated through association with various African and African American liberation movements. The film’s apotheosis is a montage of photographs beginning with Malcolm X and continuing with Nkrumah and numerous other African independence leaders, captured in an iris, itself an archaic and self-conscious device. Clark also inserts a filmic montage of the rise of the Black Panthers out of the ashes of the 1960s urban uprisings, using various newsreel and audio documents. Finally, the struggle against the white mobsters in the music industry is connected to Third World liberation movements through the character of Poppa.
It is the Africanism of Poppa Harris, as the spiritual center of Passing Through, that ties together black American jazz and the liberation movements of Africa and North America. In the early flashback sequences in sepia, Poppa Harris appears in African dress and teaches saxophone under the sky. Poppa’s funeral ceremony includes many individuals in African dress, while after his death he sends Oshun Bey (named after an African deity) as his medium, a Jamaican woman, who tells his fortune through cards. During this encounter, Womack tells Oshun that Poppa, who is perceived as a legendary jazz performer, taught him that the music comes from the soil, from the earth, leading him to bury his saxophone to improve his playing. The film’s final montage incorporates shots of African revolutionary leaders with a close-up of Poppa’s eye and close-ups of a Black hands holding the soil. Thus, through visual symbolism the film connects jazz, Africa, and the earth in one mystical union and arguably, by extension, justifies the liberation of oppressed lands through popular struggle, whether in Africa or Los Angeles.
It has been Larry’s choice that only live audiences can see his film, since it is not and will not be available on video. Given the film’s breath-taking colors, I understand that choice, yet at the same time, I’m sorry it remains inaccessible to younger audiences of color.
Archival Spaces 234
Uploaded 10 January 2020
Ivan Passer (1933-2020)
The Czech New Wave writer and director and later émigré to Hollywood, Ivan Passer, died yesterday at the age of 86 years in Reno, Nevada. Many Czechs consider his one and only feature film in Czechoslovakia, Intimate Lighting (1965) to be the best film to come from the Czech New Wave, although he also gained prominence in the West as the co-scriptwriter for Miloš Forman’s The Loves of a Blonde (1965), and the Oscar nominated Fireman’s Ball (1968).
For a brief period in the mid 1960s, Czech cinema was on top of the world, its Nová Vlna directors winning prizes at numerous international film festivals, at least until the Soviet invasion put an end to the so-called “Prague Spring” in August 1968. Among the most prominent directors of the Czech New Wave were Miloš Forman, Vĕra Chytilová, Evald Schorm, Jiří Menzel, Jan Nĕmec, Juraj Herz, Jaromil Jireš, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juráček, Ester Krumachová, Juraj Jakusbisko and Dušan Hanák, as I noted in a recent blog on Fireman’s Ball (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2019/08/30/revisiting-firemens-ball).
Ivan Passer was born on July 19, 1933, the son of middle class parents. He attended the King George boarding school in Central Bohemia, along with Miloš Foreman, Václav Havel (the first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic), and the Polish filmmaker, Jerzy Skolimowski. While Forman enters film school in 1950, two years after the Communist putsch, Passer, a self-confessed member of the bourgeoisie, remains at sea in the 1950s. Both his background and his high school grades keep him from attending university, finally entering FAMU, the state film school, in the mid 1950s, after he fakes his transcripts. When he is finally caught three years later and expelled, he has already started working as an assistant director for several older generation directors, like Zbynek Brynych and Vojtech Jasný (When the Cat Comes, 1963), as well as writing Forman’s first short feature film, Audition (1962), and acting as an assistant director for Forman’s Black Peter (1964). The same year, he directs his first short fiction film, A Boring Afternoon, based on a short story by the Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal, a favorite of the Czech New Wave, whose Closely Watched Trains (1966) won an Oscar for Jiři Menzel. A closely observed comedy of manners among ordinary people whiling away the hours in a tavern, A Boring Afternoon is almost completely plotless, as is his next directorial effort, Intimate Lighting. The latter feature is a tragicomicobservation of two musicians who meet ten years after they attended school together, when both attend a funeral. It won the National Film Critics Award in 1970 in America, but by that time had already been banned by the Communists.
As Passer noted in an interview at the Kalovy Vary Film Festival in 2016, when a restored version of Intimate Lighting was premiered: “I believe that the Party was worried when they saw ordinary people, with all their weaknesses and strengths, depicted on the screen. I think they also preferred to be attacked directly rather than to be ignored completely.” That focus on situations, rather than stories, observing the details of life with a deeply Czech melancholy, while finding humor in human foibles, characterized the work of Forman, Passer, and their co-writer, Jaroslav Papoušek, and won praise for all three from Western film critics. Ironically, Czech New Wave directors were severely attacked by Jean-Luc Godard in his severely Maoist phase for producing bourgeois fantasies, leading Passer to counter in an interview with Antonin Liehm: “… when people like that contend that our films are bourgeois, I get the feeling that I know where it comes from: everything that doesn’t stink of blood and gun powder deserves the epithet ‘petty bourgeois’ – except, who knows if it isn’t the other way around.”
When the Soviet bloc troops invaded Czechoslovakia, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer drove across the border to Austria without an exit visa, thanks to the fact that the border guard liked Forman’s films and let them pass without further questions. Three years later, Passer completed his first American film, Born to Win (1971), a comedy-drama about down and out junkies in New York, starring George Segal, Karen Black and a young Robert DeNiro (pre-Mean Streets). His next film also played in New York: Law and Disorder (1974), starred Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as ordinary New Yorkers who join an auxiliary police force, in order to rid their crime infested streets of criminals. The film, came closer to the feel of his Czech work than anything else he would produce in America, but both films received mixed reviews and a tepid box office.
After two more Hollywood projects, Passer directed what is considered his best American film, the film noir, Cutter’s Way (1981), starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges, as a Viet Nam vet and playboy, respectively, who together try to solve a murder. Unfortunately, United Artists botched the original release of the film, leading to its commercial failure, although it has since clawed its way from cult status to acknowledged masterpiece. Passer spent the next twenty plus years making mostly TV movies, including the bio pic, Stalin (1992), starring Robert Duvall, which won Emmys and Golden Globes for his actors and technical crew.
I met Passer a couple times in Hollywood in this century, after he had retired, and he told me that while he was happy that his country now once again enjoyed democratic freedoms, he was happy living in Los Angeles. Like many of his characters, he seemed melancholy, but not bitter about his fate as an exile. R.I.P. Ivan Passer.
Archival Spaces 233
This is the first blog on my new website, but is a continuation of a blog I have been writing for over ten years. I started it on an Ithaca College website in 2009 at the invitation of my colleague Patty Zimmermann. In 2011, I moved it to the UCLA Film & Television website, when I became Director. This obituary was written in September 2019, but was not published, because I left UCLA. I offer it now on my own site.
Robert Frank (1924-1019)
One of the greatest American photographers of the 20th century, Robert Frank, passed away on September 9, 2019, at the age of 94 in his home in Nova Scotia. Born in Switzerland, Frank came to the United States in 1947 and toiled for more than a decade without recognition. When his book of photographs, The Americans, was published in 1958 in Paris (no American press would touch it), it was savagely attacked by critics, but is today considered one of the masterpieces of the century, its unvarnished look at America influencing all subsequent generations of photographers. An American edition was published in 1959 by Grove Press with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, and it was with Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg that Frank made his first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), now considered a classic document of the Beat Generation. The general public probably remembers Robert Frank for his long banned Rolling Stones film, Cocksucker Blues (1972) and his photography on the album, Exile on Main Street.
I met Robert Frank a couple of times in the late 1980s/early 1990s, while I was curator at Eastman Museum. At the time, I wrote a long essay on Robert Frank’s film work, “Daddy Looking for the Truth: The Films of Robert Frank,“ which was initially published in Afterimage (1989) and then revised for my book, Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema(1997). I was shocked to hear Frank himself quote the title of my piece in his one hour, one take video, C’est vrai (1990), and then noticed that in a revised edition of his book,The Lines in My Hand, Frank had written under a frame enlargement of himself holding the camera from Home Improvements(1985): “Daddy looking for the truth.” I don’t know whether Frank was being ironic or not, because like all artists he hated definitions, as I note in an excerpt from my piece:
Frank’s films, like his photographs but in a more direct and personal sense, continually decry the intolerable schism between the outside world, the physical realm of real life, that portion of the universe which is beholden to the physics of light, optics and photo-chemistry and the inner world of the spirit, of human emotions. Frank keeps hoping that there is a connection, that the meaning of images can be read as semaphore of the soul. At the same time he documents their failure to communicate, their opacity when the concerns of the father are to be articulated to the off-spring. Frank’s desire that photographic images function as memory is continually thwarted, because the past is a foreign place, because the father’s narrative of history is perceived by the son as a means of controlling the present, of defining power relations.
In all of his film work, Robert Frank, the artist, the husband, the father, is the subject. Although he never appears in the scene, he is omnipresent through the surrogate, through the camera eye. A number of critics have remarked on the “rather self-obsessed group of autobiographical films.” Marita Sturken). But are they? Are we getting the real Robert Frank, or only his image? A screen persona, an aesthetic construction, a fetish? Frank remains an enigma, an image, undecodable, forever trapped on the other side of the lens. He resists interpretation, definitions crowd him, like just so many armored tank traps at the Swiss border in 1940. “It’s the misinformation that is important,” Frank once said in reference to Brookman’s biographical video on Frank, Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank (1986). For all their autobiography, Frank’s films are not consciously revealing. He keeps the audience at a distance, just as he uses the camera to keep his distance from those around him. Being close and yet keeping distance is the key to Frank’s voyeuristic gaze, as Christian Metz has pointed out: “The voyeur is careful to maintain a gulf, an empty space between the object and the eye, the object and his own body: his look fastens the object at the right distance…”
Referring to Frank, Jonas Mekas once asked: “Where does this morbidness come from? From this world, you fool…” But it is not the world, it is rather an obsession with images of the world, silent, incommunicado, which give his films their nihilistic tinge. In Home Improvements (1984) Frank notes, while his camera is pointed at a window of his house, allowing him to film his reflection, filming the artist:
I’m always doing the same images. I’m always looking outside, trying to look
inside. Trying to tell something that is true. But maybe nothing is true. Except
what’s out there. And what’s out there is always different.
As he speaks the camera pans away from the window to a completely empty landscape, then to a barren, wintry shot of the same scene. Inside/outside, a world of reflections in which everything is an illusion, because emotions are by definition as fleeting as the images which supposedly capture them. Inside/outside, Frank positions himself as subject in a voyeuristic spectacle, where his desire depends on the continual pursuit of an absent object, the camera a permanent barrier between himself and the object.
R.I.P. Robert. Your journey is done.
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