Driving from New York to San Francisco, Robert Frank couldn't have foreseen how his photo essay The Americans would define both him and his adopted country. This short documentary is one of several tributes this year marking the 50th anniversary of that landmark book. Frank, a Swiss Jewish immigrant, arrived here in 1946. The Americans was shot by a newcomer, an outsider attuned to the faults of his new home: poverty, racism, injustice, cities tipping into urban decay. Yet there's also dignity and respect for those riding at the back of the bus, those on the short end of the stick during the booming Eisenhower years. A few critics, curators, and colleagues of Frank say the same to French director Philippe Séclier (Frank wouldn't be interviewed), who otherwise retraces the photographer's original route. His documentary is more an act of tourism than examination. Finding and interviewing some of the subjects—now aged—whom Frank portrayed tells us nothing about the people or the photographs. The funniest (and oft-repeated) anecdote from Frank's original itinerary is his being detained in rural Arkansas for being "possibly in the employ of some foreign power," according to the police report. That's the kernel for a comedy—starring Paul Giamatti as the suspected Commie—that might better serve the dour, reclusive artist. We know his images, but not the man behind the camera.
The jacket of Franks original 1959 book.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Dec. 18–Thurs., Dec. 24. Not rated. 60 minutes.