Don't Blink is a semi-shambolic rummage through the life, art and career of Robert Frank. Which is to say it's the documentary equivalent of the life Frank has lived and the art he's made since immigrating to the United States from Switzerland in 1947 to become, as The New York Times Magazine augustly declared last year in a 9,000-word profile, "the world's pre-eminent living photographer."Israel, Frank's archivist and film and video editor for at least the past 25 years, doesn't plead that superlative by using some voice-of-God celebrity narrator or a roster of experts to wax earnest and eloquent on Frank's method, merits and meaning. Don't Blink is a friendly film by a friend – honest and historically aware, but almost unfailingly affectionate and attuned to the "spontaneous intuition" that, 92 years after his birth, still seems the governing principle of Frank's life.
If you're needing to be convinced of Frank's genius, Don't Blink is not the best place to look, arresting as it is. While there's a generous sampling throughout of the man's photographs, negatives, contact sheets and experimental films, they're here less to educate and edify than to illustrate an ethos and a sensibility. This is a film that loops between past and present, things seen and emotions felt, myriad varieties of black-and-white and colour, New York's Bleecker Street (Frank's main base for decades) and Mabou (the Cape Breton Island community where Frank has had a home since the early seventies).
At the same time, Don't Blink doesn't lack for memorable faces and interesting talk. There's plenty of that; first and foremost, of course, Frank's own grizzled, scruffy countenance and the Bronx-meets-Zurich adenoidal rumble of his voice.
Frank is, or at least was, famous for his irascibility, which Israel illustrates by including no fewer than 10 excerpts from a filmed interview he did in Montreal in 1984. "I hate these fucking interviews … to be pictured in front of a camera," he petulantly tells his interlocutor. "Because I do that to people [and] I don't want it done to me." By contrast, 30 years on, in the company of Israel and other pals, the fabled crotchetiness seems to fade as quickly as it flares and even when it does, it's almost sweet, in a twinkly-eyed, avuncular, lion-in-winter way.
Other strong presences include Frank's charming wife of 45 years, the artist June Leaf, poet pal Allen Ginsberg (represented by archival footage shot before his death in 1997) and Bobby McMillan (a neighbour of Frank and Leaf in Mabou and subject of a 23-minute video Frank shot in 2002 called Paper Route).
There's also Sid Kaplan, Frank's long-time darkroom technician who astutely notes the profound influence of Fox Movietone newsreels on the look of Frank's early pictures. Most poignant of all are the footage and photos of Frank's children from his first marriage – daughter Andrea, who died at 20 in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala in 1974, and son Pablo, who spent many years in and out of mental hospitals before dying at 43 in 1991.
Frank's fame rests, of course, on The Americans, that near-legendary book of 83 photographs distilled from the 767 rolls of film Frank shot during a 30-state road trip of the U.S. in 1955-57. Sixty years on, its imagery still punches from the page, and it does so on screen in Don't Blink. Initially, Frank tells Israel, The Americans met with largely hostile notices. One critic called it "a sad poem for sick people," sarcastically riffing on Jack Kerouac's now-celebrated declaration that Frank had "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film."
Ten years on, though, The Americans' greatness was all but incontestable – a fact Israel drives home by including a quick clip from a 2007 Christie's auction at which a vintage print from the book is hammered down for $550,000 (U.S.). Yet as potent as the pictures are, Don't Blink finally seems more interested in touting the significance of Frank's celluloid and video work. Israel features clips from almost 20 of Frank's funky filmic forays. Some are from well-known works such as 1959's Pull My Daisy, with narration by Kerouac and appearances by Ginsberg, Alice Neel and Larry Rivers, and Cocksucker Blues, Frank's semi-banned documentary on the Rolling Stones' 1972 tour of America.
But there are plenty of (relative) obscurities, too – 1971's About Me: A Musical (in which a woman plays Frank); 1969's Life-Raft Earth (featuring Wavy Gravy and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand); Conversations in Vermont, also from 1971 (Frank's first overtly autobiographical film). Frank, too, seems convinced of the superiority of the moving image. Watching an old film of his unspool on the wall of his Bleecker Street pad, he tells Israel how "it brings back the real scene" whereas "a photograph is just a memory … put in a drawer again."