This special Free Screen retrospective devoted to the legendary photographer and filmmaker includes an ultra-rare screening of the notorious Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues.
"Since being a filmmaker I have become more of a person. I am confident that I can synchronize my thoughts to the image, and that the image will talk back.... That eliminated the need to be alone and take pictures. I think of myself, standing in a world that is never standing still[:] I'm still in there fighting, alive because I believe in what I'm trying to do now." — Robert Frank
The publication of Robert Frank's photo-essay book The Americans in 1958 was a milestone in twentieth-century photography. The result of a year-long, Leica-accompanied sojourn across the US which Frank embarked upon shortly after emigrating from his native Switzerland, the book offered a raw, unvarnished portrait of an America that many Americans did not want to see. This record of Frank's road trip (featuring, appropriately, an introduction by Jack Kerouac) formed the seed for his inimitable style: a rough-and-tumble documentary view infused with a deeply personal subjectivity. The handheld aesthetic and fluid immediacy of Frank's photography (one got the sense that Frank aimed and shot in one breath) lent itself naturally to filmmaking, a practice that Frank embraced fully a year after the release of The Americans.
As with his photography, Frank's filmmaking had an immediate impact on the art form. Featuring a narration by Kerouac and appearances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Frank's first film Pull My Daisy (co-directed with painter Alfred Leslie) gave cinematic form to the literature and poetry of the Beat Generation and, along with John Cassavetes' Shadows of the same year, galvanized the nascent New American Cinema movement, which would soon see filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, Ron Rice, Jonas Mekas and others striving to create a truly independent cinema beyond the commercial province of Hollywood. Frank would return to the countercultural milieu of Pull My Daisy throughout his filmmaking career: Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs were frequent presences in his films, and he would also make documentaries on writer, activist and one-time Merry Prankster Stewart Brand (Liferaft Earth) and, most infamously, the post-Altamont Rolling Stones (the legendary Cocksucker Blues).
Frank's penchant for subjective documentary soon saw him taking a more inward turn, introducing more autobiographical elements as he sought to "mingle the private aspects of my life with my work, which is public by definition". The most moving and, eventually, heartbreaking films are those devoted to his two children: his daughter Andrea, who died in a 1974 plane crash at the age of twenty, and his son Pablo, whose psychological struggles took him in and out of institutions throughout his life. Marked by Frank's rough-hewn style and gruff, no-nonsense presence, Frank's films with his children, and the later videos he made at his rural retreat in Mabou, Nova Scotia, are both memento mori and vibrant celebrations of life: lacerated and worn like his late-period photographs but offering glimpses of astonishing beauty and power, a poetics of loss and memory as rendered by an outsider "trying to tell something true."
— Chris Kennedy
All films courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
Hold Still – Keep Going: The Films of Robert Frank screens as part of The Free Screen series, which is committed to bringing experimental film and video art, hybrid documentaries, essay films and other personal expressions to a curious and engaged audience. The Free Screen is always free. Tickets are available at the Steve & Rashmi Gupta Box Office on day of screening.
We wish to thank the following for making this edition of The Free Screen possible: Blaine Allan; Mike Hoolboom; Eli Horwatt; Marian Luntz & Tracy Stephenson, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Pace MacGill; Andréa Picard; Mark Toscano, Academy Film Archive.