An effective outsider's look at America

An American Journey

on October 02, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Nobody wants to admit that apple pie is fattening and steroids won’t stop superstars from playing baseball in the majors. American pastimes are caked in muck. Yet it takes an outsider to rip open the scars that hide contusions. Swiss-born immigrant Robert Frank is an inquisitor who, post-WWII, took to the freshly paved highways with his camera and captured snaps of uncensored Americana. In his pictures society’s shallowness, its inequality and uncharted beauty became real and in-your-face. Steady-handed documentarian Philippe Séclier mapped-out Frank’s photo quest and with his film camera found the original subjects of the photos six decades later—some deceased, others alive and well. Many unaware they were framed as a determined photographer’s momentary muse. The film’s incredibly understated with its depiction of a tarnished land of the free and promises to captivate Europeans and venturesome Americans willing to subject themselves to a bruised utopia. Still, financial prospects are small scale; it’s New York exclusive release not boasting any expansions.

While wheeling through McGehee, Arkansas, Robert Frank got intercepted by the law. His foreign accent, photo equipment and smart aleck tone didn’t sit right and he was taken in under suspicion of espionage. After all, a Guggenheim fellowship meant nothing in the rural South back then. And even today, the Police Chief admits post-9/11 there’s no certainty Robert Frank wouldn’t be sniffed-out as a potential threat with his photographic weaponry. “We tend to be a suspicious nature.”

At elbow’s length, Frank rumbled with swaggering bikers; engaged newlyweds who were, for a few moments, the happiest creatures in the universe; and caught oppressive segregation on a trolley going by in New Orleans. Ditching the tripod, Robert Frank dug in and got inside the psyche of what makes this country tick and talk. A good eye himself, Philippe Séclier wound through many economically depressed boom-or-bust mining towns to map Frank’s tour; in their heyday these specks on the map carried the auspices of greatness. America after the war was roaring with industry and prosperity. But deep within were some seedy grains.

Purposely out-of-focus, Séclier’s camera trains on the cars on the desolate roads in places like Butte and Jay, New York. The zig-zagging brights to pale grays contrast with the dancing hexagons weaving in and out of New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. The filmmaker pitches his one-man tent at various museums and interfaces with curators who flip through one of Frank’s original prints of The Americans. One classifies the tome as an object itself; the textures and condition of the collection are “dirty and beaten-up.” The fishing expedition continues to personal friends and sidekicks of Frank’s—fellow photographers and printers who admire his bravery, his passion and purpose. Painter Ed Ruscha acknowledges how so few of us can see and translate the auguries of iniquity. “It takes an outsider, really, to show us what’s it all about,” he says. “We don’t know ourselves.”

Through his own reenacting of Frank’s tour de States, director Séclier must feel his own alienation. He lands in small towns where his camera catches more than a few willing to gab about the past but not so keen on their present day blemishes. Some don’t seem to know or care about Frank’s book, even though they themselves were in his photographs. One man, who is seen at a Fourth of July parade as a tot, seems ambivalent about being featured in the book. Conversely, a woman featured by Frank on the back of a Harley gets a chance to wax romantic about her deceased leather jacket, badass husband who was a jokester and loved life.

Giving a voice to the subjects in the photos crosses a line into fantasy that many photographers and artists rarely cross. You capture the photo and want it to serve as the beginning middle and end; there’s no life afterward. The subject(s) live there forever frozen in time, right? Maybe not. Life and its wrinkled ways steals that ageless thunder if you look long enough and keep rolling. In this way Philippe Séclier is playing with fire. But it’s a game he plays quite well.

Frank did not appear in the film (it would feel wrong, somehow), but you do feel his spirit and most of all his intent by seeing the book’s pages flipped again and again by past subjects, from deep in the heartland to the urban wastelands. As an artist, Robert Frank was willing to adopt this country as his own, and in turn its people and its history soared because of his fearless contribution.

Distributor: Ad Vitam
Director: Philippe Séclier
Producers: Judith Nora
Genre: Documentary; English and French-languages, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 58 min.
Release date: September 30 NY

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