For practical purposes, I should note that I didn’t know who Robert Frank was before watching Laura Israel’s film. And I confess that Don’t Blink: Robert Frank is perhaps not the ideal place to start. But the film does stimulate you through its sensory detail and persuasive, beatnik energy. For a film centered on a nonagenarian, Frank is surprisingly spry and flighty, enthusiastically engaging with Israel and her crew as they casually go about Frank’s history and photography. There’s not much in the way of structure, no introductory elements that clarify or contextualize images; it’s a largely experimental effort that engages its audience through stark imagery and audial delights (the soundtrack featuring Charles Mingus, The Rolling Stones, and The White Stripes is exceptional).
Don’t Blink is most engaging as a text on the kind artist that comes to the United States expecting to be in awe of its beauty only to come to grips with the loneliness it provokes. Coming from Switzerland and making it through World War II with the threat of Nazism looming, Frank’s photography demonstrates a kind of loneliness that only foreigners seem to understand. It’s reminiscent of what you see in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, which in itself is an extension of the sort of isolated images of America that you saw in films like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider. Frank’s photography is a precursor to what you see in a lot of those films: an America where the ubiquity of isolation is captured in every frame.
Israel sparingly looks into Frank’s pioneering photo-development techniques, which lends itself to overexposure and etching on the negative itself. These brief asides are complemented with a collage of images and sequences, from archival footage of Frank giving interviews to simply capturing Frank at a boutique inquiring about postcards. It’s all laid-back and nonchalant, moving so swiftly that it threatens to undercut the merits of Frank’s achievements. Don’t Blink’s shapelessness is clearly part of its charm, but at times it comes across as simplistic, careless, and messy.
Israel thankfully avoids the reverential awe that is so often associated with documentaries of this type, but this whole effort struck me as the kind of thing that should accompany pre-existing knowledge on Frank rather than as an introduction. It’s a steep learning curve nevertheless that is expressed through some mesmerizing visual montages – for Frank novices, it’ll inspire interest in his work. And Israel possesses a formal acuity that’s refreshing for a documentary filmmaker. It’ll be interesting to see what she does next.