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Thursday, August 7, 2008

“The Robert Frank Project” is an ambitious long term publishing program from Steidl which encompasses every bit of images the great Robert Frank created. Known for his photography, primarily with his book “The Americans” (first published in 1958 in Paris and then in 1959 with a text by Jack Kerouac), Frank also made many films, wanting to capture narratives further than he could with stills. Rare and legendary, some of these films reached VHS and the internet trading craze of the 90s. Finally all of his films are being released on DVD.

Volume One may be the most known titles. The experimental short Pull My Daisy (1959), made with Alfred Leslie, is a beat poet freakout, written and narrated by Kerouac, taken from the third act of a stage play he never finished (called Beat Generation). Starring Allen Ginsberg and other notables from the scene, poets question everything as they stay with their railroad worker friend. It results in both frustration and elation, somehow, and succeeds in appearing real and improvised when it was supposed very controlled.

Also on volume one is the undefinable Me and My Brother (1968). Innovative, the cult film holds up to its own myths. Co-written by Sam Shepard, Brother combines films within films, questioning reality and documentary as we follow Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter's brother Julius within a fictional framework. Julius is catatonic schizophrenic, portraying himself in some scenes and by actor Joseph Chaikin in others, who worries that people on the street may think he is Julius. The interaction between real and unreal is pumped up by color and black and white sequences, filming cameras that are filming, and trips to a screening room to discuss the film you are basically watching. It is strange and remarkable, foreseeing today’s hyper-reality world in TV and the net, adding as much mystery as it explores.

The other volumes are great as well, highlights being OK End Here (1963) on volume two, a thoughtfully crafted short about a relationship ending starring Martino La Salle from Bresson’s Pickpocket. The fabled Keep Busy (1975) is on volume three, a short written (with actor improvisation) by Rudy Wurlitzer set in the unpredictable weather and psychosis of a remote island. Also on volume three is eight minutes of silent super-8 footage of the Rolling Stones in 1971, displaying great moments of them and street car washers.

As you would expect from Frank’s photography, the cinematography is strong and beautiful in all the films. Black-and-white, probably 16mm, with evocative lighting and framing. The fiction films are well crafted but keep their sense of realism. The documentaries are flowing, at times haphazard, catching the action with notable lyrical moments.

Also as you would expect from Frank's stills, the subjects are varied characters making up our complex society. Wounded souls of hip youth and a stuffy older generation, neither as strong inside as they are on the outside. There are alienations of individuals (OK End Here, About Me: A Musical) and large movements of motivated groups (Liferaft Earth).

The packaging makes me feel nostalgic for working in a vault, and guilty for renting DVDs instead of buying. The boxes replicate film archive cardboard with a metal can for each DVD. It is that physical experience and bookshelf beauty that all DVD companies should learn from if they are looking for sales – especially with art films and movies once thought lost. These are more expensive than usual for discs, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.

Only jabs: the metal tins left a little mark on the PAL side of the disc, though they all played just fine. In all, the transfers of the films are beautiful and fresh. But a few titles had some video artifact lines, looking like a transfer glitch from PAL to NTSC. The PAL versions did not have this when I checked both sides, so I’m doing the math. Did not ruin my watching experience. Heck, I’ve waited years for these.

Future volumes will number up to 10, featuring every film Frank has made, including the cult classics Cocksucker Blues (1971, about a Rolling Stones tour) and Candy Mountain (1987), and shorts from the last few years.

Published by Steidl and distributed by DAP/Distributed Art Publishers (www.artbook.com) for $125.00 a volume.


# posted by Mike Plante @ 8/07/2008 01:16:00 AM Comments (0)

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