Between 1955 and 1956, Robert Frank, armed with a 35-mm Leica, made a series of cross-country road trips that resulted in his landmark book The Americans, now regarded as a definitive, candid photographic portrait of the Eisenhower-era U.S.A. In An American Journey, journalist and documentarian Philippe Séclier retraces Frank’s path five decades later—like some of the scholarly interviewees, he’s only an aural presence on the soundtrack—but the resulting hour-long DV valentine shifts uneasily from meditation to history to idle travelogue. (The contemporary Frank, at 84, does not participate.)
Many of Frank’s critics and colleagues testify to the great themes of class, race, and music long identified with the work, but Séclier does little hand-holding for the uninitiated: Of the 83 photos from the book, about half are seen, and very few in detail; and there are none of the slow pans and zooms of a reverent Ken Burns TV tribute, only a number of frustrating glimpses over the shoulder of a curator or historian leafing through a hard copy of The Americans. Close scrutiny of a handful of the pictures, such as Frank’s July 4th picnic shot of kids frolicking in front of a giant threadbare flag in upstate New York, is paid primarily when the filmmaker tracks down the aged subjects, who generally have little to say about their slice of immortality.
Connecting interviews and photo location visits (a hotel window in Butte, Montana; a Detroit lakeside beach; now-integrated New Orleans trolleys) with soft-focused highway footage meant to double for a ‘50s driver’s POV, Séclier permits his own attempts at mimicking Frank to frequently clutter the film’s vision, such as a roadside Lady Liberty holding a cross aloft, echoing the book’s shots of strident fundamentalists. While some of the context, particularly an account of Frank’s arrest in Arkansas when the local police found his Swiss immigrant’s accent and dozens of film rolls reason enough to expect him of possible “communist affiliation,” adds depth to understanding The Americans as the “initiatory journey” of a soon-to-be-naturalized postwar citizen, American Journey works only sporadically as a supplement to the cultural moment it chronicles, and the passionate, serendipitously intimate breadth of Frank’s lens.