Monday, September 28, 2009

On Photography: AMERICAN JOURNEY and IN THE STREET make Film Forum debut

If the new, off-the-cuff documentary, An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank's "The Ameri-
cans," by French journalist Philippe Séclier (shown, left) simply renewed our interest in a great photographer, Robert Frank, that would be enough. But there's more. Watching the hour-long film makes one practically slaver to see the new exhibit, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, which recently opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as to find a copy of the photographer's famous book, which I had heard of and from which I seemed to recognize certain photos without having been able, until now, to attribute them to their proper source.

Séclier's film is an odd one, as might be expected from a filmmaker who credits himself as "director and driver." In the documentary, he drives around America, somewhat as did Frank on his original journey, retracing steps and trying to finds the locations -- and even the people -- that the photographer originally used. (Surprisingly, some of each remain, though not untouched by time.) He talks with other photographers and friends who who knew Frank: a German Jew whose family moved to Switzerland to survive WWII and afterward came to the USA.

Along the way we learn a lot of interesting tidbits: Frank never seemed to need contact prints, photographer Wayne Miller notes, because he had such certainty of his photographic choices; what happens to American flags when they grow old and tattered; and that phone call a new bride made to her father, immediately after being photographed by Frank. As artist Ed Ruscha notes, "It takes an outsider to come here and show us what it's all about." Frank sure did -- poverty, racism, and a certain self-satisfaction, among other things -- and so the man was not initially popular in his adop-
ted country. In one of the most charming moments, photo teacher Jno Cook shows how he created, with a push from his young son, the first (and presumably only) Robert Frank coloring book. Mr. Cook also comes up with perhaps the most interesting and trenchant observations about Frank's work and the unusual ways in which his shots connect to each other. This is fascinating stuff.

The film ends with an relatively recent exhibition in China (shown below). Only 23 photos from the book are included in the documentary, and some of these but glancingly. Anyone hoping to get a movie-theater-size-screen look at the man's work may come away disappointed, but that work is perhaps better seen in the Met Museum show or via the book that started in all. Séclier's film is best used and viewed as an enticing appetitzer.

Along with the 58-minute main feature, Film Forum is also presenting an exquisite little short called In The Street that features moving pictures taken during the 1940s in NYC's Spanish Harlem by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee (and here we thought the latter was just Walker Evans's writer/sidekick). The opening credits advise us that the poor quarters of great cities are both theater and battleground; the short film then proceeds to bear this out. The scenes captured here in black-and-white are simply wonderful, particularly the little boy around six or eight who is, for whatever reason, wearing a dress. The filmmakers come back to him several times, as he prances, jumps for joy, busses a girl -- and then slugs her. Oh, those guys -- how early they learn!

Though this was the fashion for female bodies at the time, how overweight most of the adult women appear still surprised me. We see cats grooming each other, kids playing in open fire hydrants, folks walking their dogs, and children, adults and the elderly all connecting. The sometimes grainy but always beautiful images, such as the one above, are a pleasure to view, set as they are to a tinkling jazz piano score. If the Séclier/Frank film offers information on some marvelous photography, this fifteen-minute short features the cinematography itself.

The double bill of An American Journey and In the Street opens at Film Forum Wednesday, September 30. The schedule is here.

(Photo credits, top to bottom:
Courtesy of Lorber Films
Philippe Séclier by Liza Bear
©John Cohen, courtesy of Deborah Bell Photographs, New York
©John Cohen, courtesy of Deborah Bell Photographs, New York
Courtesy of Lorber Films
Photo by Helen Levitt)

No comments: