Monday, June 18, 2007

Robert Frank's Me and My Brother

As a part of Steidl’s 5 year plan of Robert Frank releases, they have just published a book to accompany the film Me and My Brother.

First the book:

The book is fantastic. Period. It has a lo-fi production feel, made to look like an aged film script. In keeping with Frank’s aesthetic, it is an assemblage of typewriter written pages and hand trimmed photographs hastily pasted into place by rubber cement.

The text is the entire script of dialogue from the film originally written by Robert Frank, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. The photographs are mostly stills taken directly from the film but I did see several images that were either production stills or frames taken from footage that hit the editing room floor.

The printing fits the tone of the book (and film) perfectly. The choice of materials and book construction is also without flaw. The real bonus with this book is that in a plastic pouch on the inside of the back cover is a copy of the film on a DVD in both NTSC and PAL formats.

Now the movie:

Robert Frank has been known as a seeker of truth. In photography, his pursuit led to the creation of arguably the greatest book to grace the medium. Me and My Brother was his first feature length film and it too broke from traditions and set off to establish its own cinematic storytelling language and form.

As a viewer I always wonder how much one might want to read into a film or body of work. In Me and My Brother I found a wealth of topics that I picked up upon after a few viewings. Admittedly, the first time I saw this film I left the theater a bit stunned, excited and bewildered by the 85 minutes I had just experienced. There seemed to be so much content but it is presented in way that was temporarily beyond my comprehension.

What I am about to describe might be better left to read after you view the film for yourself if you have not yet seen Me and My Brother. These are my readings of what the film ultimately represents so in the possibility that you do not want me to poison the well of your thinking (so to speak) with my interpretations and observations, go buy or rent the film and see for yourself. I will only say that it is a great film experience when given the patience it deserves.

For those still reading…here are some things in the film that prompted thought.

The story is centered on Julius Orlovsky, a catatonic who is being cared for by his brother Peter. It is a film within in a film that uses both black and white and color. Color is the choice when describing the false reality of the film that is being made within Frank’s black and white film. Frank’s main interest is questioning the nature of truth and his relationship to truth as a filmmaker. Can film ever really show truth?

Throughout the film Frank shows how we are always “acting” in one form or another. Having a “style” is a form of acting. Having “personality” is in essence, a form of acting too. For Frank, Julius (the real Julius), seems to be held up as a representation of pure truth. He is a man stripped of all artificial personality and intellectual self creation.

Frank comments cinematically on this difficulty with dealing with reality. In the beginning of the film, an actor is introduced to play the part of Julius because according to the director, Julius is too difficult to work with. He doesn’t want to act or perhaps cannot be easily directed. Therefore, since the director cannot distort the reality of Julius in the manner he wishes for the film, he brings in an artificial reality to portray actual reality. Enter Joseph Chaiken, who in the color sequences of the film plays Julius. The director is portrayed by Christopher Walken speaking with the dubbed voice of Robert Frank. (Interesting fact: Me and My Brother was Walken’s first film role)

This questioning of the role reality plays in film is reinforced at many points. In a scene towards the end of the film, Chaiken playing Julius, faces the camera because he has “run out of things to say.” Just as Frank directs him off camera to “say something to the camera”, a baby in the room starts crying loudly. Chaiken, faced with the reality of the crying baby momentarily tries to comfort the infant and when he fails, he leaves the room to inquire about what role he is to play next.

This is an interesting moment as we witness Chaiken the actor, when faced with reality, cannot deal with it and instead, redirects his attention towards finding a different false reality to work within. This avoidance of reality is one of the main themes of the film. As Frank mentions on the cover of the book, “At times most of us are silently acting because it would be too painful not to act and too cruel to talk of the truth that exists…”

Although I am not sure that this wasn’t part of the script, the scene I just described seems so spontaneous that I think it was a bit of real life slipping into the film. Frank’s instincts have been honed enough to allow these moments happen and to create their own meanings. In essence, it starts as an idea and the result winds up transcending that idea into something greater and more meaningful. (Interesting fact: The photographer Ralph Gibson was an assistant on this film and one image from the set appeared in his own body of work as seen below)

Similar to the scene above, the notion of redirection of attention or distraction from reality is also expressed in a scene where the real Julius remembers accompanies a young child on a trip to an aquarium and the seashore. First they are caught up in examining how the world works according to nature with observation of the fish and the shoreline of the beach. Then their attention is diverted by symbols of how the world works according to man through the fascination with a snow-globe by the child and a dollar bill for Julius.

Frank takes a poke at several issues relating to acting and even documentary photography.

Chaiken playing himself and commenting on actors relates his distrust of his profession.

As a separate comment on the distrust of actors, Frank also seems to prod at Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio practice of teaching “method acting” as in one scene, an actress dons an Actor’s Studio t shirt while off the film set and in her everyday life. Perhaps again, commenting on the inability for actors (or people in general) to escape some kind of acting even in their everyday lives. That would, after all, be an example of method acting carried to the extreme.

In terms of symbols, John F Kennedy makes several appearances in the film as his face is embroidered onto a small blanket or throw rug that gets unfurled at two different moments in the film. John Kennedy is perhaps the example of an image that is created mostly in the minds of the individual that remember him. He was one of the first presidents that the cameras and television loved in terms of his image. His assassination seemed to create a sense of mythic stature of his image, character and memory.

The topic of documentary photography gets address (and trampled) with footage of Roscoe Lee Browne “shooting a documentary” of the Orlovsky brothers and Allen Ginsberg while a woman off screen states: “OK, you’re a documentary photographer. Or maybe you’re like a reportage photographer. You know – that’s a strange thing, you know, because like some guy is killing a woman right in front of you – and like – you’re taking a fucking picture of it. You’re not helping a woman save her life – you’re getting a story. I mean – where’s your one to one relationship? That’s what I want to know. You’re a creep. You are some blackmailer. Wow. Because you’re always watching the privacy.”

I found it interesting that Frank does not take a swing at television. Considering that TV was still young yet very influential. Perhaps, beyond the numbing qualities of TV, Frank identified with its power of influence in matters relating to the Vietnam War which by 1968 (the year the film was finished) was raging and appeared nightly in the homes of viewers. Or maybe it is too obvious a subject at which to line up his sights. Regardless, its presence is never felt in the film.

There is one segment that does seem to be a small tribute to image making, cinema and in particular, the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. It is a series of shots taken on the street of intersections busy with cars and some pedestrians crossing in front of the camera while the voice over of a woman says: “Forget the film – throw away the camera – just take the strip – wouldn’t it be fantastic if you didn’t have to have a piece of celluloid between you and what you saw? If the eye were its own projector instead of its own camera? I am a camera. That’s a beautiful title – I am a camera too.”

In a 1923 manifesto, Vertov wrote "I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye, I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you."

In fact, if there is precedent to the cinematic language Frank is engaging for Me and My Brother, Vertov would be that precedent from his own use of montage and nontraditional means.

“Kino eye uses every possible means in montage, comparing and linking all points of the universe in any temporal order, breaking, when necessary, all the laws and conventions of film construction.” – Dziga Vertov

Franks cinematic approach and camera work is rough. He virtually pushes and shoves the viewer into scenes and jump cuts seemingly to confound. On first viewings this film is difficult and exhausting. It challenges you to tease out its meaning while at the same time tripping you up to easy conclusions. In fact, he starts the film with a Do Not Enter sign that flashes a preliminary warning.

This is perhaps the only way he could make a film that is about questioning the notions of image reproduction and reality. Had he followed traditional filmic ways, it would have been a pointless endeavor.

Interestingly, the avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas in a 1969 review of Me and My Brother complained about Frank’s editing and the film’s final form by writing: I found Me and My Brother too clever, like trying to tell something, and play five records at the same time, and maybe stand on your head, and wiggle your toes, and do a few other things at the same time – instead of doing it plainly and to the point.

In the same article he declares: No filmmaker really shows us life as it is: all filmmakers show us their inner states.

Frank was obviously quite aware of the reaction this film might receive and pokes fun at the film and perhaps himself as during the opening titles, he shows an audience at a film screening yelling at the screen and ultimately walking out before the film even starts. Only a couple people stay seated and one man turns to the camera and states excitedly: “This is a wonderful movie. It’s great. I really like it.”

It is safe to say that I do not know enough about cinema or experience cinema on a complex enough level to challenge Jonas Mekas on his statements. But for me, in my world, I second the notion of the man in the theater that turns excitedly to the camera …

“This is a wonderful movie. It’s great. I really like it.”

Maybe you will too...

Book Available Here (Me and My Brother)