Reel Life: Robert Frank's quest for identity | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Reel Life: Robert Frank's quest for identity


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There are no self-portraits in Robert Frank's 1959 landmark photography book The Americans, a black-and-white study of anonymous citizens--politicians, cowboys, bikers, gamblers, mourners--across the country. The last shot in this beat-era document depicts Frank's wife Mary and their kids Pablo and Andrea. They look half asleep in the front seat of their 1950 Ford coupe parked on the side of a Texas highway. One of the car's headlights beams starkly at Frank's camera.

After finishing The Americans, Frank began to rely more on family and friends as subjects, and even turned the camera on himself. He became interested in filmmaking when he borrowed a friend's Super-8 camera while vacationing in Provincetown, and in his first films--Pull My Daisy (1959) and The Sin of Jesus (1961)--Pablo was cast as the son of beatniks, and Mary and Andrea played angels. Over the next two decades his films dealt with personal tragedies, including Andrea's death in a plane crash and Pablo's hospitalization for depression (he later committed suicide). Several times Pablo complained on camera about his father filming him.

Frank's inquiries increasingly became a quest for identity. He returned to his native Germany in 1989 to film Hunter, inspired by a Franz Kafka story. Frank plays a peripatetic character who chats with a cook, a banker, a punk, a prostitute, and a vendor in a gift shop that sells figurines of Elvis and Hitler. Nobody in the "new Germany" seems to remember "Comrades in Arms," a military tune from his childhood.

Last Supper is staged in an empty lot in Harlem where an old author, whose latest tome is titled Self-Portrait, never shows up for his own book signing. His friends recall his traits, which uncannily match those of Frank. There's even a Pablo-like character who insists: "I don't want to be a part of his art."

Two triple features of Frank's films--the second program includes Hunter, Last Supper, and Energy and How to Get It, a movie with William Burroughs--will be shown this Friday at 6 and 7:45 PM at the Film Center, Columbus and Jackson; admission is $5 per show. Call 443-3733 for more information.

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