“Look out the window. Look out. More, more! What a nice window.”
– Robert Frank, The Present
Recently described by the New York Times as the world’s pre-eminent living photographer, Robert Frank is also one of the most important filmmakers to have emerged as part of the New American Cinema movement. His reputation was forged by the success of his 1959 film Pull My Daisy, co-directed with Alfred Leslie and featuring the involvement of writers and artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Alice Neel, Larry Rivers and Jack Kerouac. This was followed by a series of films located at the junction between new forms of documentary and styles of narrative experimentation influenced by the New Wave, such as Me and My Brother (1968), Conversations in Vermont (1969), Liferaft Earth (1969), About Me: A Musical (1971) and Keep Busy (1975). Paradoxically, the film from this period that has received the greatest amount of critical attention is the one that, for legal reasons, is least likely to have been seen in theatres: Cocksucker Blues, Frank’s searing account of the 1972 tour of North America by the Rolling Stones.
In 1987 Frank embarked on the production of the feature length Candy Mountain, written and co-directed by Rudy Wurlitzer. A few years earlier, he began exploring the potential of home video to establish a more intimate form of filmmaking grounded in the experiences that defined his everyday life split between his studio and apartment in New York and house in Nova Scotia. Commencing with Home Improvements (1985), video has served as the medium for the second key period in Frank’s career as a filmmaker. In Moving Pictures (1994), Paper Route (2002) and True Story (2004/2008), Frank uses the intimacy of video to construct first person reflections on his career and the personal circumstances that have affected his life. In these works, as well, Frank uses video to establish a dialogue between the methods and concerns that define his photographs and the storytelling requirements that drew him to the moving image.
Although the small-scale nature of these productions allowed Frank to forsake the requirements of working with a crew, their extraordinary impact is greatly aided by the collaborative abilities of Laura Israel, who, since the late 1980s, has worked as Frank’s editor. The following interview took place in New York City, as part of the research for Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank’s American Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2015 – see the forthcoming review in Senses of Cinema). The Present (1996) – arguably Frank’s masterwork in video – was the touchstone of our discussion, which covered the particular challenges and methods that characterised the production of this highly moving meditation on grief, memory and the struggle to keep working. By coincidence and design, the publication of this interview coincides with the release of not only Awakening the Eye but also the film Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, Israel’s own richly nuanced account of Frank’s career as photographer, filmmaker and video diarist, that recently premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival (the film’s theatrical release is imminent). I thank her for her generosity and willingness to share her insights about Frank’s work.
How did your collaboration with Robert Frank begin?
The first project was the music video Run (1989) that Robert directed for New Order. Michael Shamberg was the producer and director of a number of the band’s previous videos, and I had worked with him on a few of these. He liked pairing the band with different artists. We had fun doing that, and Robert lived right down the street from my studio on Broadway. So every now and then I would run into him. But he was mainly doing film at this point. I think Run was one of the first videos that he did. It was mostly shot on film, but we edited in video. I didn’t really know much about film editing, at this point. I was more of a video editor. The next time I ran into him, he said, “I’m doing a video for Moving Out.” [A retrospective of Frank’s career organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.] The video was Moving Pictures; so this was the next thing we worked on together. There’s no soundtrack. It was a series of moving pictures for the wall of the National Gallery. The interesting thing about the installation is that the video monitors were about the same size as the photographs on display. It was as if the video was a photograph on the wall alongside the other photographs.
Was it a single monitor?
There were two monitors. There was one in the middle of the show and one toward the end. There were a few other things that we took into consideration. We had conversations about the fact that when people encounter a video in a museum or a gallery they usually stop and get stuck on the video. So you tend to have people crowded around the video. By making the video the same size as a photograph you reduce the chances of it standing out and calling attention to itself. We also divided the video into two parts so that people would only be standing there for a certain amount of time. The other thing about the editing that we talked about is that we wanted it to be like wallpaper: there would be no beginning, middle and end; it would just keep going and going and it would be a series of images that were somewhat related in the same manner that the photographs lined up on the gallery wall relate to each other. It was not edited in a way that encouraged people to get hooked. Things were constantly changing, and we did that on purpose.
Did you do the written text that appears in the video? In Moving Pictures there’s a lot of words inscribed over the images.
Robert wrote it. After we put the images together, he wrote the text. But it was kind of funny because the text was often taken from objects already in the image. There’s one line that says: “I Love New York”. This line is actually taken from a bag that’s in the shot. But he did write the text afterwards, and then a friend of mine designed the font and layout.
This was done after you had assembled the edit?
I think it was mostly after. Maybe there were a couple of things that we played around with during, but it was mostly after. What we tend to do is form things together, and then Robert will construct a framework or add something that makes it more personal.
Before we talk about The Present (1996), let’s talk briefly about Flamingo (1996) and I Remember (Steiglitz) (1998).
It got to the point where I would walk past Robert’s house and drop a postcard through the door and then he would stop by my studio. It was also around this time that I became friends with June Leaf [Frank’s wife]. It was a different way of working with people that I hadn’t really experienced that much until then. It wasn’t just a job. You got to know people, and it was a little bit more about doing projects together. Robert gave me all his books, and I started to really understand who he was. So that became part of it, too.
I Remember (Steiglitz) is quite different to Moving Pictures in that there’s a narrative: the story of the visit. Did this change the way you worked with Robert?
Jérôme Sother went to Nova Scotia to visit Robert. When he showed up, Robert wanted to do this fun thing, and we also added these sound effects to further push it in a comical direction. So, it wasn’t serious at all. That’s a side of Robert that people don’t see. And June, too. The outtakes from that film are them just laughing and having a great time with this guy. So that was fun.
Flamingo is about the same running length as I Remember (Steiglitz). One of the striking things about Flamingo is Miranda Dali’s voice-over narration.
Well, Robert wrote the narration after it was shot. Because it was Super 8, we had no soundtrack. It’s deliberately made to look like a home movie… To have the offhandedness of a home movie.
So you edited the Super 8 for Robert?
Yes. I’d sit there with rolls and rolls of Super 8. And I think he shot the beginning of it after he shot the end. He shot all this Super 8 of the house. And then he wanted to say something about the house, so he shot the beginning and then also wrote the narration. And Miranda Dali, strangely enough, was Michael Shamberg’s girlfriend. There’s also a version of the video with the narration in Swedish because it was made on the occasion of Robert receiving the Hasselblad Award. The Swedish narration is quite beautiful, but it’s not screened as often. Sometimes he makes these films and videos because he doesn’t want to speak about himself; he would rather show something about himself.
I believe that Robert started working on The Present just after the death of his son, Pablo. Is that correct?
Did Robert talk to you about what he wanted to do with The Present, or did it proceed in a more haphazard manner?
We started by gathering footage. It was for something, but Robert didn’t really talk about what it was. We were just starting. When Pablo died, Robert sent me a note. It said: “Pablo’s died and I feel like I can’t go on.” The next time I saw him was when he stopped by my studio. He said: “I really want to do a film about not being able to do a film.” So The Present emerged organically out of these events. We sat and watched footage for a couple of weeks. He had compiled all this footage; it was more like a diary. At the time, he had this big book of writing and images that he was using as a diary, and the book was almost full. He only had a few pages left. So he said, “I’m done with my diary. I have all these videotapes that I’ve been shooting of my life and I want to make a film. But we have to sit and figure out what the film’s going to be about.” He was so sad, and he needed to do something about the sadness, but he couldn’t figure out what. So we just sat and watched footage for a couple of weeks. I think it was more than a couple of weeks, actually. I remember saying to him: “Well, how are we gonna do it…?” At that time, you had to transfer footage from a little DV tape and put it on Beta and then put it in the computer. Robert said: “Well, it’s fate. If we think we should use it, we’ll just take it. And if we don’t, then it’ll never exist.”
So The Present began as a collection of material that Robert had been accumulating, moving image footage, written text and photographs?
He wanted to make a video that was like the book diary or that reflected the same kind of feeling that he had in his book diary. He wanted to make a video diary, basically. He did shoot new footage; at the same time, we were looking at video that he had shot before.
Something that is very noticeable in works like Moving Pictures and True Story, for example, is the re-using of footage and material from earlier films. Robert’s method of working seems to be based on a process of accumulating material, putting it in a film or video, and, ten or fifteen years later, returning to that material and re-using the material in another project. So, it’s a process that involves accumulation, reflection and revision.
Diaries also have this open-ended aspect.
Yeah. I’ve also kept diaries. They help validate things. You can look back and say: “That really did happen,” or “So, that’s the way I felt at that time.” You are able to remember. For Robert, it’s all about memory – about being able to go back and revisit memories. But the other thing about Robert’s approach to editing that I gradually came to understand is that it’s also about the sequence and its relationship to the story that he’s trying to tell. In his photographs and videos it’s never just about the single image. I think he finds that really important, the sequence and the story that the images are telling.
So the particular combination or sequence that he constructs can change his feeling about the image… what it means.
Right, and then the story becomes a different story, a different reflection on the image. Basically, Home Improvements, The Present and True Story are a type of trilogy. I don’t know if Robert has ever said so. But for me, that’s how they feel. As we were making The Present, we talked about how one could make something that’s about a memory or about events in one’s life that span a few years, but not do it sequentially. It would be like opening a drawer and looking through old photographs, just rummaging through stuff and remembering things – almost like a journey, but one that involves sidesteps and backward movements. Robert said: “This is the way I want to edit it: there will be this story, and then there will be this other story. The two will run parallel.”
So, we have two storylines running parallel…
As in real life, there are things that are happening, now, in front of our eyes, and there are things that draw us away or make us look to the side – diversions or memories, I suppose.
Are both the storylines moving chronologically?
No. If you did it in a chronological order, it would be too literal. It would be a beginning, middle and an end. What we wanted to do with the diversions is to suggest that there is no end. I think that the most important thing about The Present is the ending in which Marty Greenbaum plays with a pair of dice. “I’ve lost,” he says. “But, so what?” That wasn’t me, at all. That was Robert. We didn’t know how to end the film, and he said, “Oh, I have it. I just shot this the other day with my friend.” And it made complete sense.
How long did it take once you started working on initial edits to get to that point?
I can’t remember exactly, but I think that it was probably a year. What happened is that I would get another job, or Robert would go off and shoot something. He’s always travelling. It became almost like a tennis game where I would put a few shots together and then he would bring in more material. It was a back-and-forth thing. I really looked forward to sitting down with him and showing him the little piece that I put together. It was interesting just sitting and watching everything with him and saying, “Okay, so the first thing that comes out of your head should be the next thing that you see.” There’s an element of free association.
Robert once said that the thing he found challenging when he switched from photography to film was being forced to communicate his thoughts to others: his actors, his crew. As a photographer, he could just walk around by himself, click the shutter and walk away. In one sense, working with video has brought him full circle. During the period of shooting, it’s often just him and the camera. But the necessity for communication returns during the editing process in the dialogue he has with you about how to create the associations and sequences of images.
Right. But he’s also very decisive. The great thing about Robert is that he’s very sure about the decisions he makes, and that really helps me a lot. But we have fun doing it, too. When I first worked in videotape, you’d have to rewind the tape and fast-forward the tape. What Robert and I used to do was use a little black-and-white Mitsubishi thermal printer. The images produced were not very good quality. But there was also something really interesting about them. What we did was to create a print of the head of each shot and use that image as a reference. This made the process of editing the video almost like that of editing a film. Editing on video is so much quicker than editing film, but video editing doesn’t have a tactile connection to an image. With the video printer, we were able to bring this tactile connection back into the process. Sometimes we even cut the thermal images so as to make a paper edit before we did the video edit.
If you’re able to anchor the process of editing a sequence around a still image, this changes how you think about the sequence.
Yeah. It’s not just a scene; it’s also an image.
This reminds me of Robert’s method of creating photographic collages by joining together strips of 16 mm film.
I guess it’s an extension of that. It’s about creating a different use for the image, so that it’s no longer just a film, or no longer just a photograph, or no longer just a video. Regardless of the media, it’s all part of the labour of recounting his life. That’s the thing. You’re not just talking about film or photography or video, necessarily. You’re also talking about his life.
In other words, there’s nothing purist in his approach to the image. He’s interested in how different types of images can cross paths and express certain obsessions and memories. If this means blurring the boundaries between individual media, whether it’s film or photography or written text, he’ll do it.
Yeah, why not?
Again, we come back to Robert’s diary. It makes sense that this would be the model for his method of working. It connects his films and videos with the work of filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, for example. In Lost Lost Lost (1975) the voice-over creates the impression of a diary written according to the two parallel lines that we discussed before.
Right. In a way it’s like a road trip, but just not on the road. [Laughs] Kent Jones said The Present was like walking through an empty house and finding scraps of letters and mementoes here and there…
Or like walking through a house that is emptied of people but full of the memories they have left behind.
That’s exactly what we were trying to do.
How did you come up with the title, The Present?
June thought of the title. After the video was edited we were trying to figure out what the title would be. Robert said, “Well, June suggested The Present.” It makes total sense.
It’s a title that could have been used with many of his previous films and videos. Was the voiceover in the video just what was picked up by the camera’s microphone, or did Robert go back and add things?
I don’t think he did that on this work. The only thing that we added is the commentary regarding the letters from Pablo. It’s mostly live commentary recorded on a Handycam.
His commentary captures the sense of a man walking around a room thinking aloud about what needs to be done. But by the time he made The Present, Robert had become very good at these sorts of narrations; they had become something of a signature.
I think he wanted to cut some of the voiceover. But I encouraged him not to. I think he was either a little embarrassed, or he was simply tired of his own voice. We talked about it. I really thought that a lot of what he had to say was information that people would want to hear. I wanted to hear it. Near the start of the video when Robert is moving around with the camera musing about how to start the story there is a shot of a small box covered with a cloth, on top of which are two ornamental fish. It’s never stated in the video, but inside the box are Pablo’s ashes. So when he’s talking, he’s not just talking to himself, but also wrestling with memories and events.
Although we are never told what’s inside the box, because the setting is Robert’s home and because it’s his voice speaking to us, it’s clear that these apparently random objects carry a significant emotional attachment.
They’re all souvenirs or gifts from people. I’ve stayed in that room when I’ve been in Nova Scotia. It’s full of books and images and objects. And there are windows on every side. Two of the front windows overlook the ocean. When you stay, there’s a wind that whips up… It’s an incredible place. You realise how the landscape can encapsulate a sense of loneliness. I’ve been there in November. Sometimes you can get snowed in and the electricity goes off and the ocean freezes and you see the water undulating underneath. The house is right on the cliff; so it’s an intense place in the winter. Robert said: “You almost have to make your own landscape.” You have to affect it in some way… with memories and souvenirs. I hope The Present captures that.
I’ve always been struck by the way Robert uses the video camera to point things out, things that we can reach out and touch: the flies crawling across the window or the postcards that he has stuck to the wall, for example. Although we might not know why, we do sense that he is pointing these things out for a reason and that these objects mean something. Sometimes, it’ll become clearer over time; at other times, we are left to guess.
I think it’s more interesting for the viewer to get these fragments and try to put them together. It doesn’t ever finalise. It’s like a process of unravelling rather than a process of building something by placing one thing on top of another.
Earlier, you said that Robert wanted to make a film about what was happening in his life at the time, yet he was unsure how to do it. This feeling of frustration seems to be what motivates his call toward the end of The Present to “Look out the window.” “More, more!” These invocations seem to have a therapeutic function: he’s forcing himself to look outside the room. For much of the video, he’s in the house, surrounded by souvenirs and pieces of paper. But he also wants to push out into the world.
Robert shot those lines specifically to put in the sequence about Pablo’s death. And I have to say I didn’t really understand it at first. I do understand it, now. At the time, I was thinking that it had some kind of reference. It’s the same thing as what appears earlier in the video: “Look outside; don’t look in.”
The tricky thing is that when he urges “Look out the window”, the image of the window is distorted because it is captured in a mirror…
The image is layered: it’s a window in a mirror.
You have mentioned the humour in Robert’s work. There’s a moment in The Present when he is filming the different views from inside of his apartment in Bleecker St and, for no apparent reason, he stops and chastises himself: “It’s just wasting fucking film.”
And just after this there is a shot of film students from NYU filming on the street below.
They just happened to be filming outside of the apartment?
Yeah. They happened to be there. But the “wasting fucking film” thing was Robert desperately trying to do something that he couldn’t do. It’s a moment, I think, of real sincerity. I can understand the feeling of sitting by yourself taking these pictures, and asking your self, “What am I doing? Why should I bother?” And outside the window there’s the opposite: a crew carefully measuring everything. It’s the contrast between two approaches.
He’s not scared to admit these feelings of doubt about his work. At times, he even seems to exaggerate these feelings.
That’s what the process is all about: discovering something about yourself or the world.
Through doubt. Through making mistakes.