With “The Americans” Robert Frank solidified his position among photography legends, as evidenced by the success the Met’s current exhibition of those 83 poignant, era-defining snapshots. Though decidedly less exposed, the Swiss-born artist’s film ventures were just as evocative, and caught their subjects off-guard in a way that idolizes and destroys them at the same time. In fact, viewers of Cocksucker Blues might not realize Frank was the man who shot the seminal Rolling Stones documentary, which was banned by the band for pulling the curtain back on their drug use and hard partying lifestyle. Frank also is near the source of the meta genre that Charlie Kaufman has come to embrace, with his first feature length film Me and My Brother. Co-written by playwright Sam Shepard and debuted at the 1968 Venice Film Festival to raves, the film revisits two of the Beat subjects from Frank’s 28-minute short, Pull My Daisy, on a cross-country campus book tour with Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, and Orlovsky’s catatonic brother, Julius, whom they signed out of a New York psychiatric ward in the mid-sixties. [Photo: Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother]
The film takes on a weird alternative reality after they lose Julius–he wanders off and literally doesn’t have the words to redirect himself to his brother–and Frank is forced to cast actors to fill the role of a psychiatrist, a dentist, himself (played by a spry Christopher Walken with Frank’s own voice dubbed over the speaking parts) and Julius (Joseph Chaikin), who presented to many directorial problems for Frank given his disabilities and drug regimen. They didn’t find Julius until years later, a paradox that Frank confronts in the film: the actual events are presented in black-and-white while his movie about making a movie plays out in murky color. It’s a stunning effect, only rivaled by the sheer madness of the plot, which calls into question the veracity of everything from method acting and the inherent truthiness of cinema verite and makes you question if there is any form of filmed media that can actually get to the heart of “the real truth” sought after in the film.
“It’s a film inside a film,” says Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met curator who assembled “The Americans” for the museum, which is hosting a rare screening of the 91-minute film in 35-mm this Saturday as part of their Robert Frank Film Series. “It’s about the poverty of truth and reality in Frank’s world, and it raises important questions about acting versus being, and Beat poetry versus pornography, which the medium was compared to at the time.” As summed up by a stuttering Julius (the actual one) in a rare aside, “Well, the camera seems like a, uh…a uh…a uh…reflection of disapproval…and disgust…or disappoint…or unhelpfulness…to disclose any real truth that might possibly exist.”
Me and My Brother at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Saturday, October 17 at 2:30pm, $15, www.metmuseum.org.