In its day, Auguste Rodin’s now esteemed 1876 sculpture “The Bronze Age” roused the considerable ill will of art critics, most notably for the belief that it was cast from a live model. This (untrue) accusation was seen as sort of cheating — artistry ought to be apparent, leave its mark, not simply ape nature.
In Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, Laura Israel’s smart, able, and warm documentary about the legendary photographer, whom Israel has known and worked with since the 1980s, you might (if you’re generally cynical or suspicious like me) have the sneaking feeling that, while not reverential, the film is still too close to its subject, too imitate to it, too lenient, allowing Frank to set the boundaries of what is seen, said, and shown. In one scene, the now 90-year-old artist, his hair seemingly everywhere overlong and unkempt, gruffly shoots down a set-up where images of the current subject at hand (The Rolling Stones) are being projected behind him: I don’t like this, he says. And the plan is scrapped.
After his landmark 1958 photo book, The Americans, it might be Frank’s difficult nature that he is most known for. “We all respected Robert’s talent and ability,” photographer Elliott Erwitt says in Nicholas Dawidoff’s wonderful, recent New York Times Magazine article on Frank, “and knew he was difficult and fought with everyone — could be quite vindictive with some.”
Israel knows this and makes astute use of a deliciously combative interview of Frank by another would-be investigator, breaks off pieces into funny, revelatory bonbons that she scatters throughout her film. Media portraits of Frank are a junkyard of snubbed questions, a few film appearances, and inane, gonzo posturing, leaving interviewers playing the fool — to wit, Charlie LeDuff, who started an interview at Lincoln Center by playing the bongo and asking Frank, “How’s your asshole?” Israel’s comfort with Frank and his comfort with her, by contrast, are fruitful, winning, and actually interpersonal.
Frank is complicated and this is the Frank of Don’t Blink. He’s cantankerous, to be sure. But also witty, decisive, and creatively intuitive; adept at catching folks unaware while prizing his own privacy, hyperaware of watching, judging eyes. He hung out with Ginsberg, Kerouac — clothed amid their naked, stoned gatherings — and Harry Smith, who yelled “Heil Hitler” in Jewish restaurants and whom Frank considered ‘‘the only genius I ever met.” After the enormous but not immediate success of The Americans, which Don’t Blink gets out of the way early in the movie (noting that a representative critique was “It’s a sad poem for sick people”), Frank moved on to film, making challenging, often short, personal, movies, including the beatnik Pull My Daisy (1959), the personal Conversations in Vermont (1969), and the quasi-banned documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues (1972). “Why the move?” is a question perennially asked, but not here. Better the question not asked, sometimes. Or not asking the question.
Often Don’t Blink ambles and detours, or stays a while, hanging around as Frank works. In these “detours,” Israel finds insights into Frank’s life and work, and alternates scenes of visits from friends to excerpts from some of his 31 films to interviews with his wife, June Leaf, and a visit to an antique shop, where Frank looks for postcards of “lions, tigers, bears — something that can tear a man up.” Through this tour, film never gets lost. This second-time director has an expert sense for song and pace that evokes Frank, either by his own works or by atmosphere. A punk and rock soundtrack of Patti Smith, New Order, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Velvet Underground is apt and interconnected (Frank is friends with Smith and worked with Waits and New Order), if also a bit too by-the-numbers.
Gradually and patiently (and vindicatingly), elements of Frank come out, sprung from his movies and friends — and even himself. Ultimately, Don’t Blink’s gracious approach brings Frank out, casting a welcome impression of him. Where others pushed, Israel waited and invited and talked throughout three years of filming. Even so, there are corners unexplored — there are practically no critical or uncomplimentary voices in the film — and depths left undisturbed. Frank’s 1969 documentary Conversations in Vermont features conversations with his two children, Pablo and Andrea. He asks, essentially, if he was a good father. He was so driven by his work, it was hard for him to be both an artist and a parent. His children later died tragically, their losses enormous wounds on Frank, who doesn’t much talk about it. “You can’t always get what you want,” as Frank says in the film. It’s a joke, but as always with Frank, there might be more behind it — his relationship with the unseen is never fully resolved.