What Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the nation, presenting the post-war United States with an X-ray of its soul, the free-form, intensely personal films he started making a few years later did for New York City. Watching a charismatic character in one of those movies in Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, the photographer-filmmaker says, “I don’t know people like them anymore.” Maybe not, but he seems to have known just about every artist who passed through mid-century New York, and he distilled the rebelliously ragged genius of people like a young Allen Ginsberg and a skeletal William Burroughs in films like Pull My Daisy and One Hour. As a result, Laura Israel’s documentary is a portrait not just of the Swiss-born artist, but of his adopted city, especially during the Beat era that was his heyday.
In his recent profile of Frank for the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Dawidoff described a “tough” man with a lifelong habit of cultivating people, then deciding they aren’t so special after all and cutting them off. The Frank of Israel’s documentary can indeed be prickly, as when he critiques a question he considers obtuse during an interview instead of answering it. But Israel, who’s edited Frank’s films since the 1980s, has a privileged insider’s perspective that informs and warms her film. Openhearted and surprisingly funny, her friend Frank is delightful company, as emotionally transparent and offhandedly insightful in person as he is as his art.
Israel introduces The Americans at the start of the film, hitting the highlights before moving on to give equal time to less celebrated, if not necessarily less noteworthy, flashpoints of Frank’s long career. These include the vivid captions he scratched onto some of his negatives and the Polaroids he began taking in the 1970s, an inspired medium for the unstudied, literally from-the-hip, often partially blurred or askew style of shooting he has always favored. Israel used a similarly improvisatory approach in shooting Don’t Blink, waiting for its shape to unfold as she and Frank looked at his photos and films or drove around the city together.
If Israel seems to have gathered her material a bit haphazardly, it’s been shaped expertly. Comments from Frank’s wife, June Leaf, a few old friends, and the artist himself provide some insight, but the man’s essence shines through thanks mainly to well-chosen footage of his work and shots of him moving through the city, always on the lookout for idiosyncratic strangers; burrowing through piles of postcards and old photos in his apartment; or playing in the snow at his second home in Nova Scotia, a modest frame house perched on a windswept hill that looks, as June points out, just like a Robert Frank photo. Like the work it illuminates, the doc feels formally impeccable yet utterly unstaged, a vivid distillation of a distinct and precious life.