Thursday, March 27, 2008

Robert Frank: Zero Mostel Reads a Book & Pull My Daisy

Judging from the tone of the recent Vanity Fair article on Robert Frank, the master at 83 may not be long for this earth. Charlie LeDuff's opening paragraph describes Frank after he collapsed in a Chinese soup shop as looking "like something from a Kandinsky painting-slumped between a wall and stool-sea green, limp, limbs akimbo. It would have made a good, unsentimental picture: a dead man and a bowl of soup. Frank would have liked it. The lighting was right." LeDuff continues, "Frank had not looked well even before the soup arrived. He was lumpy and disheveled, his eyes rheumy, the lids bloated. He carried the general form of a man who had been pummeled senseless with a feather pillow." Reading this article cast a morbid shadow over the recent exhibition catalogs and reissued books. It is as if the record of his working life is being written late in the final act.

Steidl is continuing to release new versions of many of Robert's book and two more -- Zero Mostel Reads a Book and Pull My Daisy -- are now available.

Zero Mostel Reads a Book was published in June of 1963 by the New York Times "for the fun of it" and is dedicated to the American booksellers. It opens with a brief account of the authors running into Zero Mostel, the actor and comedian, on the street while on their way to a bookstore. Mostel, after finding out their intended destination proceeds to tell them "about books." What comes after this introduction of purpose is a humorous sequence of 36 photographs by Frank of Mostel in various states of "reading."

Mostel, who was probably best known for his role as Max Bialystock in The Producers, was a master at conveying a multitude of personalities and infusing them with a comic twist mostly through the use of his eyes in tandem with his mussed comb-over. Who can forget the hotel scene in Martin Ritt's The Front in which Mostel plays Heckey Brown, a stage comedian whose career was destroyed by the 1950s HUAC blacklist?

In Frank's pictures, Zero takes on the personalities of various bookworms such as; a reader who turns the pages with dainty touch, the public orator, a man frightened by what he reads, the insomniac who finally drifts off with a bed full books and many others. Obviously playing for the camera, Mostel's creations are wonderfully infectious. For Frank, this must've been one of the more enjoyable photography jobs of his career.

Compared to the first edition the only real difference is a change to the arrangement of the typography on the cover and introduction and to the weight of the paper stock. The trim size remains the same and the new printing mimics the original very closely.

Pull My Daisy was originally published by Grove in 1961 two years after the film was completed. I do not own the original to make a direct comparison to this new edition but this version opens up with the poem Pull My Daisy by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac followed by a brief introduction by Jerry Tallmer and a transcript of Kerouac's voice over narration. The rest of the book is made up of 16mm film stills and behind the scenes set photographs shot by John Cohen.

Larry Rivers, who plays the character of Milo, recalls in his autobiography What Did I Do, "I never understood this goofy little masterpiece as it was being filmed, but it was pleasurable playing the part of the stoned train conductor and carrying and kerosene lamp in the company of such beat luminaries. Pull My Daisy was made by Al Leslie and Robert Frank, who had been arguing for 30 years over the rights."

One interesting note about this film is that the actor who plays Milo's wife, credited as simply Beltiane, is Delphine Seyrig who would go on to star in Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad.

The original edition of this book was in trade paperback format and is in no way worth the current prices it is commanding on the rare book market. This edition is in hardcover and similar to Zero Mostel Reads a Book, the paper stock is much heavier than the original.

Lastly, there is a small catalog on Robert Frank entitled Words from the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano and Ediciones Lariviere in Argentina. This exhibition was curated from work in the collections of the Fotomuseum Winterthur and the Fotostiftung Schweiz. For Frank aficionados there might be only one or two images that have not been reproduced many times elsewhere so I wouldn't advise driving yourself crazy trying to track down a copy. The work is set chronologically opening in Switzerland in 1944 and progresses through Peru, Paris, The Americans, and the Polaroid work. It contains approximately 50 photographs into 64 pages in length. The design and printing is adequate but on the whole it seems a bit cheap.

Buy Pull My Daisy at Steidlville

Buy Zero Mostel Reads a Book at Steidlville