From its opening minutes, “Don’t Blink — Robert Frank” establishes itself more as a collage than a simple documentary. It starts with quickly strung-together shots of the legendary Robert Frank, now 91 years old, and his apartment. The Mekons‘ “Memphis Egypt” blares in the background. Directed by longtime collaborator Laura Israel, the film is about a fascinating man — an outsider from Switzerland, now considered one of America’s most influential photographers. His spirit is indomitable and his love for photography and capturing life is truly quite contagious. But in embracing the disorienting quality present in Frank’s work, ‘Don’t Blink’ is but an abstract portrait, muddled by a jarring messiness.
Through the first few images presented (from Frank’s most famous work, 1958’s “The Americans,” which captured society all across the nation in its sordid reality with 83 pictures), it is clear that the film’s perverse sensitivities were made to match that of its subject’s. In an early scene, Frank, while seated, expresses a very strong hatred for interviews. “I’d like to walk out of the fucking frame, y’know, come back, get a little bit of life into the thing,” he exclaims. Israel and the film take this to heart, and it is understandable why the film is so frenetic as it breathes life into the stillness of photographs with its rapid-fire editing and loud score, conjoining aural and visual senses.
At times the vivacious aesthetic is overwhelming. Frank’s Swiss accent and low mumbling is difficult to understand when forced to share the soundscape with such intense music, and the film’s title — ‘Don’t Blink’ — is practically a demand, for doing so would mean missing a picture or a moment in its brevity. Such quick-paced editing, which prefers montage over reflection and generally leaves few seconds between each cut, creates a formidable sense of rhythm, though it sacrifices coherence in the process.
In acting unapologetically chaotic and resembling much of its subject’s work, ‘Don’t Blink,’ though certainly never boring, is a confounding jaunt. At some point, one must question the film’s motives: Many of the insights it offers into Frank’s life are impenetrable, and its style makes it very difficult to properly reflect upon his work. After 80 minutes of attention deferred, big revelations remain indeterminable.
Halfway through the film, archival footage of an NYU lecture in 1971 depicts Frank responding to a commenter who deems his films “schizophrenic” and “disjointed,” not entirely unlike the criticisms presented in this review. Frank responds, stating that he creates chaos in order to look for something, and that he is just happy that he is looking. Though this is a noble notion and a triumphant concession, it is not one that translates well into documentary, a genre which enjoys greater success when things are already “found.” [C]