Not even ten minutes into director Gerald Fox’s 2004 documentary Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank, the legendary photographer-collagist-filmmaker, then turning 80, explodes when the camera runs out of film again and he’s asked to do another take. “Well, look, forget it! Look, I’m not an actor, you know? I can’t go through this shit, you know? I mean, there’s no spontaneity in this; it’s completely against my nature, what’s happening here. So, if the crew can’t get it together with the film, let’s go out to Coney Island . . . let’s look at the landscape with my photographs, and see, this man is looking at something he did 50 years ago. Can you tell me, is that guy still around? I mean, this is shit, you know? I can’t do it!”
Whether he is upset over working with amateurs, or all too aware that he’s in the final quarter of his storied life (perhaps both), the next cut is to a much less irascible Frank, as he roams the streets of Coney Island looking for a location that he shot 50 years ago, asking passersby if they can help him. His face reflects a mixture of fatigue, bewilderment, and nostalgia for the postwar New York that he so loved, remnants of which are rapidly fading from view as the city gentrifies. Fox’s film, which debuted 15 years ago on the British ITV series The South Bank Show and had been out of circulation at Frank’s request ever since, is finally in theatrical release. In this expanded version, Frank, best known for his seminal photographic work The Americans, shot on the road in 1955 and 1956, is presented as one of the last remaining artists of the restless Beat generation. He’s surrounded by ghosts and mighty wearied by the past.
Standing near his Bleecker Street loft in Manhattan, Frank grouses, “The yuppies, they have a right to live too, but I don’t want to live amongst them. I don’t even want to live next to them, but I have no choice.” Well, actually, he does, as he lives part of the time with his second wife, artist June Leaf, at his remote cabin in Mabou on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. But home has always been a problematical construct for Frank, who grew up in Zürich with his mother and father, a German-Jewish refugee rendered stateless by anti-Semitic laws. Switzerland, then as now, was Dullsville, so Frank emigrated to the U.S. in 1947, soon landing a fashion photography gig at Harper’s Bazaar. Before long he drifted toward more essay-style subjects that took him to Paris, London, and Wales.
When he returned to the U.S., Walker Evans and Edward Steichen encouraged Frank to apply for the Guggenheim fellowship that would underwrite the cross-country tour that produced The Americans, a collection of on-the-fly portraits of all strata of society. The book, published first in France in 1958, then the following year in the U.S., was roundly lambasted by American critics who objected to what they saw as an unwholesome depiction of our country; one of the jarring missteps in Leaving Home, Coming Home are the irritating, histrionic voice-overs by actors reading a number of high-dudgeon pans. It was only much later that the book was acclaimed as changing American photography—the website LensCulture, for instance, praises it concisely: “This is the photo book that redefined what a photo book could be—personal, poetic, real.” But well before that and other plaudits, Frank, stung by the book’s initial negative reception and also soured on commercial photography, had moved on to filmmaking.
The Gene Siskel Film Center has paired Fox’s documentary with Frank’s debut short film, Pull My Daisy (1959), codirected by Alfred Leslie. Better than Leaving Home, Coming Home, Pull My Daisy situates the viewer in one of Frank’s most creative decades, with a cast of who’s who among the Beats. Written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, who adapted the third act of his play, Beat Generation, the movie stars poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso as high-spirited merrymakers; artist Larry Rivers as a railway brakeman whose flat they visit; French actress Delphine Seyrig as his wife; art dealer Richard Bellamy as a visiting bishop; and artist Alice Neel as the cleric’s mother. With no plot to speak of and sections of nonsensical narration concatenating like something out of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” the short was meant to seem improvised, but if you look closely at Ginsberg and Corso’s faces, you can tell that Kerouac was trying to match his scripted narration as closely as possible to their moving lips. Anita Ellis (who dubbed Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda) vocalizes the surreal song that plays over the opening title.
With the exception of Ellis and composer David Amram, all the performers are gone now, including Robert’s son, Pablo Frank, the little boy in Daisy. Some 25 years after filming, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, around the same time that Robert’s other child, his daughter Andrea, died in a plane crash. Families are fragile in Leaving Home, Coming Home: we never learn what happened to Frank’s first wife, Mary, but get several clips from his 1969 documentary-drama hybrid Me and My Brother, about Orlovsky and his catatonic sibling, Julius. There’s also a snippet of Life Dances On . . . (1980), a short Frank made from outtakes from earlier films that’s a memorial to both Andrea and to Frank’s departed friend Danny Seymour, who disappeared at sea.
In scenes at Mabou, Frank talks about the graphic art and collages he made there to commemorate Andrea, because it’s a place where he can get that kind of contemplative work done. Then it’s time to get back to New York to see what people are doing, and find new inspiration. The shifts back and forth between his two homes, between the past and present, between one medium of creative expression and another, between the living and the dead, provide a good approximation of an artist’s process, but director Fox let his subject lead too much of the way, and the film’s resulting stream-of-consciousness shapelessness could easily confuse any viewer who knew little or nothing about Frank and his works going in. Toward the end of Leaving Home, Coming Home I found myself hoping for the camera to run out of film again, so that I too could say “enough.” v
Correction: An earlier version of this review erroneously described Delphine Seyrig as Belgian, not French.