An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s “The Americans”
A key element missing from “An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” is the photographer Robert Frank himself. French filmmaker Philippe Seclier’s conceit for the documentary is that he retraced parts of the cross country car trips that Frank took across America in the mid-1950s in which Frank photographed people representing all levels of American society. The trips resulted in Frank’s seminal book of photographs “The Americans” (1959). For all that traveling why didn’t Seclier make a stop at New York’s Lower East Side, where the 84-year-old Frank lives, and interview his subject directly? How especially appropriate this would have been since “An American Journey” opens at Film Forum, not far from the Lower East Side, on September 30.
Until Frank’s work was published, documentary photographs were generally well lit, sharp and classically composed. Frank is credited with liberating photography from this formalism. Some of his pictures were grainy, blurry and muddy but they are pictures of real people in real situations taken without added lights or a tripod.
I think that this short, 58 minute, documentary might just as easily have been entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Somehow the idea of the Swiss born Frank driving across America to document his adopted country in black and white, in an earlier decade, is much more intriguing and inspiring than the dull, color, frequently out of focus road footage Seclier captured with his video camera while apparently attempting to drive and shoot at the same time. I hope he wasn’t talking on his cell phone too. At one point Seclier finds and interviews James Crowenshild who was in a photograph that Frank took at a 1956 Independence Day celebration and whose background is dominated by a large American flag. Crowenshild, now some 50 years older, unkempt and sporting an obvious protruding nose hair cannot remember anything about the moment in which the photograph was taken and is not a particularly pre-possessing subject, to say the least. So why include the interview?
Seclier also talks to curators, publishers and various people who worked with Frank. They certainly give insight into Frank’s working methods and standards but ultimately the documentary is just not that interesting.
My yard stick for a documentary is that it should be able to take a subject about which I do not have much interest, or of which I have little knowledge, and capture my imagination. While “An American Journey” obviously did not do this for me, a few days after seeing the film I walked into the St. Marks Bookshop and browsed through a copy of “The Americans.” I found the actual photographs that inspired this documentary to be infinitely more worthwhile.
“An American Journey” plays with “In the Street” (1945), a candid 14 minute filmed time capsule of people, mostly children playing, in east Harlem in the late 1940s. It was shot by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee.
An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans, director Philippe Seclier, 2009,
Lorber Films, 58 minutes, not rated