During the month of January the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a series that spotlights new works of documentary films in a series called, Stranger Than Fiction: Documentary Premiers. For this month we will check out a couple of films including Mine, Prodigal Sons, and this week’s pick, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps.
Directed by Philippe Seclier, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps documents the filmmaker’s attempt to capture scenes from Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s seminal work The Americans. Published in 1959, the book first came under criticism before it was heralded as a body of work that portrayed a complex portrait of American life on the cusp of the 60s. Beginning his journey after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship Frank traveled 15,000 miles documenting a side of America that typically was not portrayed in photography at the time.
While meeting with friends and colleagues we get a better idea of how the artist worked. Primarily editing from contact sheets and often throwing away unwanted negatives Frank appeared to have an intuitive approach when it came to selecting his frames. A scene that really stands out in the film happens near the beginning when we get a chance to see the maquette Frank put together for the first edition. It’s worn down and dirty but the object almost feels as if it reflects many of the subjects within the series, humble, dignified, and underrepresented.
I have to give Seclier some credit, he knows how long to make a doc. Clocking in at only 60 minutes, the film, although filmed with a handheld (which I hate), quickly moves through the American landscape. It is unclear if he visited every location from the book but after viewing a handful it would be hard to show all without feeling repetitive. Although we walk away with small stories about Frank’s travel it is not a particularly powerful portrait of the artist. Instead, we are left with the notion of changing landscapes, urbanization, and mortality.
An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps will be playing:
Thursday, January 14th at 6:00pm
Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60601-3505