Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Frank, RIP, and So On

Let me start in by saying that I think The Americans is pretty great. I've seen a lot of weird commentary about it over the last few days, "now everyone shoots like that, but then, wow it was something" being among the weirder statements. I have also seen a little of "Ah, but I like The Lines of my Hand better" which strikes me as pure insider doofus chatter, the cry of someone who wants to be seen as having more refined taste than YOU.

There is also the inevitable discussion of his films, which everyone seems to agree are iconoclastic and fascinating and so on, but nobody seems willing to step up and say that they're good. Reading commentary on them, it becomes quickly clear that they are in fact pretty weird and inaccessible.

Frank suffers from the same problem Harper Lee does. He was an artist who had one thing in him. One very very good thing. That's it. He did a lot of things before and after, kept busy, presumably kept food on the table and whatnot. I'm certainly not saying that I am a better filmmaker. But these things Frank made are more or less the ordinary product of an ordinary worker.

Harper Lee stands as a giant of American literature, and there are those who would argue that she is indeed the giant. Her almost posthumous second book dims that bright light some, but cannot really obliterate it.

In the same way, this somewhat mad desire to make out Frank as not merely a genius, but a prolific genius, likewise ends up dimming his light.

The Americans is a monumental achievement. An artist needs no more to be mighty. Let it stand.


  1. That's pretty much my take on it (though I mentally compared his creative trajectory to J.D. Salinger, for some reason).

    After The Americans he became another lost hippie.

    Who knows if he had kept at it (still photography), he could have made some kind of encore, but motion pictures weren't really his forte, not even close.

  2. This is all down to a matter of opinion, to what you like and what you don't like rather than critical analysis, but I wouldn't be as harsh to say that Frank's career was insignificant besides The Americans. I think Lines of My Hand is genuinely great, and when I and other people say this we are not simply trying to sound knowledgeable (or at least I hope so -- maybe a few effete assholes really do use artworks as fashion accessories). His recently published "London/Wales" is also pretty amazing and highlights the thing that Frank was exceptional at (and what made him move to motion pictures, I believe): a really good sense of how to sequence images to have an impact that is larger than the single photos.

    While I don't know his motion picture career that well (I have only watched parts of Candy Mountain) I do have a feeling that Frank became a radical after the success of The Americans. From interviews and other biographical works about him you could tell that he felt very uncomfortable with his success, and then went out of his way to make very oblique, very hard to relate works almost as an opposition to this newfound popularity.

    I think ultimately he not only did not give a shit about other peoples praise, but he also actively tried to do things that would alienate those who previously liked his work. I have a feeling that he was very rebellious to popular and specialized consensus, and just shunned "fame" altogether.

    Had he stuck around and made more photography like The Americans, or moved on to movies that were easily accessible, he would be able to sustain the fame and adoration that he got. I think he knew exactly what he had to produce to get peoples praise and adoration, but he consciously chose to not do so because of his anti-establishment sensibilities.