Laura Israel's documentary offers an exhaustive and somewhat exhausting portrait of the famed photographer and director.
The title of Laura Israel’s “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank,” a biographical portrait of the famed American photographer and director, refers to its subject’s persistent dedication to capturing life in all its unkempt, impromptu glory. It also, however, seems to allude to the sheer pace of Israel’s documentary, which employs an unconventional editorial style involving rapid-fire collages of Frank’s still photos, his later avant-garde movies, and recent footage of the artist (as well as of friends, colleagues, and his wife, June Leaf). It’s a unique, associative blend of sounds and images that aims to convey details as well as underlying truths about Frank’s life. Unfortunately, it also often leaves one feeling aesthetically pummeled to the point of exhaustion, and portends only limited commercial appeal for the project outside die-hard Frank aficionados.
Israel has been collaborating with Frank on experimental film and video works since the ’90s, and her intimate knowledge of his artistic process is reflected in “Don’t Blink’s” confident assemblage. The photographer’s black-and-white photographs are spliced together to the beat of scuzzy rock music, and complemented by contemporary snapshots of Frank working in his office and talking about his career in front of an apartment wall featuring projections of his films. The result is an immersive blur through which Israel not only pays tribute to his images’ beauty and power — specifically those that focus on the faces of everyday people in spontaneous moments — but attunes her documentary to the creative rhythms of Frank, a man driven by let’s-try-anything daring and a conviction that, in both work and life, a man should always be moving forward.
Amid this medley, more traditional biodoc details emerge in something resembling chronological order: Frank’s early years as a Swiss boy inspired to take up photography by his father; his initial time in New York and his formative trip to Peru; his groundbreaking creation of “The Americans,” a 1958 collection of evocative, socially and racially charged stills that pioneered modern photography techniques; and his subsequent segue into alternative cinema, first with 1969’s “Pull My Daisy,” and then with a series of less-known efforts rooted in his interest in outsiders — as well as his own family, and particularly, his daughter Andrea, who tragically died in a plane crash at the age of 21 in 1974, and his mentally ill son Pablo, who passed away in 1994.
“Don’t Blink” covers that vast array of material with feverish jazziness, so that snippets of information appear and disappear in a virtual flash, accompanied by a few textual notes — on title cards, or superimposed onto archival footage — that provide a tidbit here, an anecdote there. Thus, topics ranging from “The Americans’” widespread influence on the photography world at large, Frank’s collaboration with the Rolling Stones on the 1972 doc “Cocksucker Blues” (and “Exile on Main St.,” for which he provided the album cover), or the reasons he separated from first wife, Mary Frank, and, with his second wife, relocated to a remote shack in Mabou, Nova Scotia, are all glossed over so quickly that the film seems at once dedicated to dutifully addressing the big points of Frank’s life, and disinterested in seriously considering any of them.
“Don’t Blink’s” wealth of commentary from Frank himself (in both past and present chats) helps communicate his humanistic fascination with everyday experience, as well as his desire — further cultivated from his time with Beatnik legends like Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, the latter of whom wrote “The Americans’” intro and “Pull My Daisy’s” narration — to constantly seek new modes of expression. Unfortunately, by its midway point and beyond, Israel’s kindred attempt to create a novel form for her biography becomes tiresome.
That’s partly due to the fact that her film fails to make the case for Frank’s own movies (such as 1971’s “About Me: A Musical,” 1985’s “Home Improvements,” and 2004’s “True Story”) as particularly revolutionary, or for that matter, noteworthy. But ultimately, it’s that, while her editorial acumen is undeniable, her methods bestow the proceedings with an assaultive punk-rock quality that, like punk itself, is only sustainable in short bursts, causing “Don’t Blink,” even at a scant 82 minutes, to wear out its welcome long before its finished.