Robert Frank’s Ugly Americans

Robert Frank is a prolific photographer and filmmaker, here I examine his two earliest films “Pull My Daisy” and ”The Sin of Jesus” and compare them against his photographic series “The Americans”. The common thread between the three works (made between 1955 and 1961) show how Frank constructed his own American mythology by revealing a darker side of American culture than the one commonly indicated by society of the time. Frank’s works show that he is a sincere storyteller who is tenderly observant of the world around him. 


Robert Frank

            Robert Frank was born in Zurich Switzerland in 1924, he immigrated to America in 1947 where he continued to advance his career as trained photographer working for the New York City based magazine Harper’s Bazarre. In 1955, after several assignments, photographic shows and two published works of his own Frank secured a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the first time ever offered to a non-American. With this grant Frank, with his wife and two young children in tow, would proceed to travel across the United States to document the American culture through the eyes of a photographic journalist. His scrutiny of the cross-section he examined in the finished published document entitled “The Americans” (discussed further below) would meet with strong criticism from his contemporaries. Shortly afterwards Frank would set his still camera aside and begin exploring the avenue of filmmaking, a role he continues to pursue today.

            In 1959 Frank co-directed and shot the Beat cinematic digest “Pull My Daisy with the primary engineers of the movement Alfred Leslie (Avant-Garde filmmaker) and writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky. This 27 minute long film launched Frank’s career into the New American Cinema where he continued to explore American cultural mythology, and experimental documentary.

            Since his foray into the world of filmmaking Frank has produced only a few more photographic essays but none so acknowledged as “The Americans”. After the deaths of both children Frank and his second wife, sculptor June Leaf , moved to Mabou, Nova Scotia., they currently split their lives between there and New York City.


 The Beat Movement

     The Beat movement had its initial following between the 1940’s and the early1960’s where it later evolved into the Hippie movement spanning from the late 60’s into the 1970’s. The primary founders of the Beat movement were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs whose writings were a culmination of drug experimentation, rejection of mainstream American values, and sexual freedom.

     The term “beat” was coined (in retrospect) during an interview of Kerouac by fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, author of the first accredited “beat” novel, “Go”. In the interview Kerouac describes the ennui and general dissatisfaction of his counterparts and contemporaries, a group of “lost children” so to speak who have been “beaten down” by their government, community and culture. This expression described the general sentiment of these poets who in the early 1940’s cultivated their roots at New York’s Columbia University. Here Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs met through an assortment of students and professors and whom they collectively began to move away from as they developed their own unique styles of writings and ideas. The University’s formal and conservative structure was the anti-thesis of the casual, relaxed, free-flowing structure of narration that is evident in Kerouac’s “On the Road”, Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Burroughs “Naked Lunch”.

     The end of World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, segregation, alienation were all issues that the poets of the Beat Generation focused on, it was these same issues that Frank documented in his travels across the country in 1955 and would later reflect in his films “Pull my Daisy” and “The Sin of Jesus”.


“The Americans”

Contemporary interpretations of Frank’s photographic chronicle “The Americans” indicate that the harsh criticism of the past has been relinquished and that recent views argue a positive value to the collection. Critics of the past argued that ‘The Americans” was offensive to America’s values some decried it as “a wart-covered picture of America” and “a sad poem for sick people.” (Strickland)  Frank’s series of photographs offered an outsider’s view of the American culture of the 1950’s. Born in a Federal parliamentary republic, which has consistently been ranked among one of the world’s top cities for its quality of life, Frank must have been shocked by what he observed while traveling cross the country. Segregation of race, alienation of people from society, strong religious overtones, extreme poverty, strict cultural definitions and blind patriotism had powerful influence the subjects Frank chose to photograph. This does not mean that Frank regarded America with any less esteem, on the contrary what Frank in fact does is hold up a mirror to reflect the scars of a nation too quick to deny its imperfections. The criticism of “The Americans” therefore was not about the subject matter or the photographs themselves but “it evoked negative experiences that are part of the experiential repertoire of American life….The Americans offers a portrayal that was largely incongruent with prevailing social rhetoric about  America, and that this rhetoric was fraught with idealism.” (Nesterenko and Smith. 568)

The mythology of Frank’s stories are rich with the many colors of American life at the time of its publication, and he is in fact “credited with establishing the ‘narrative ability of the photographic sequence’.” (Nesterenko and Smith. 567) Fear of the other, fatigue from war, hopelessness, poverty and an unequal distribution of wealth were the silenced problems facing American society of the day, Frank saw this, he captured it on film; the hubris of a society that envisioned itself as pure and perfect, which in reality was as imperfect and human as that which Frank captured through his lens.


“Pull My Daisy”

            Frank’s first film written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, “is the major cinematic document of the Beats in their relative prime.” (Santes. 30) “Pull My Daisy” was the first film of its kind to portray the free –spirited existence of the Beats, a nomadic lifestyle within which they “self-consciously set themselves against the postwar push against normalcy” (Reno. 29) the suburbanite illusion of the American dream. The Beats decried this living as creatively stifling and not at all in tune with the American psyche. What “Pull My Daisy” did was paint a picture of the freedom of form that the Beat poets had begun to explore.  “Rolled-up creative energies that formed themselves, as it were, into a work: A self-presentation of the still young Beat generation in harmony with their categorical imperative of elevating existence through jazz, drugs, religion and radical politics. Jonas Mekas described Pull My Daisy as ‘free improvisation’ and its creators as ‘the true independents , the conscious rebels who reject every type of compromise’.” (Miebgang. 86)

            The story of the film was based on an actual event that happened in the home of Neal Cassady, a Beat follower whom Kerouac based his character, Dean Moriarty from “On the Road” after. Neal comes home one day to discover his wife has invited the neighborhood bishop over for lunch, however a few of Neal’s poet friends also show up (as was customary) including Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. The poets proceed to make themselves the center of the dialogues thereby distressing Cassady’s wife and alienating the bishop. Since the writing and re-telling of the story first in screenplay form by Kerouac in his unpublished play “The Beat Generation” and Leslie and Frank’s adaptation in “Pull My Daisy” the mythology and the story have coagulated into a poetic mixture of hyperbole, bebop rhythms and astute accounts of everyday existence. “Pull My Daisy” tells a brief account in Beat form of the existence of man, a mythological existence of poets and musicians, in his article entitled Verite Vaudeville Stefan Grisseman writes “Pull My Daisy – a home movie in every (and also the best) sense of the term – thus remains pro-grammatically in the inner space: inside its characters, for whom and of which the film speaks; and inside the rooms that these characters inhabit. Kerouac, the demiurge of the narrative, synchronizes and melodiously describes the goings-on in a ‘spontaneous prose’ that is omniscient and motivating, affectionately distant.”

“The Sin of Jesus”

            After “Pull My Daisy” Frank slipped into a darker genre, one of mysticism and lonely despair. The film is based on a short story by Russian novelist, Isaac Babel and centers around a pregnant woman who runs a chicken farm alone in New Jersey after her husband abandons her. The setting of the film is bleak and melancholy, it takes place in the middle of winter, the location indicates a drafty domicile and detached barn, which are surrounded by barren field and forest. The young woman’s voice narrates, her monologue “day after day, winter, summer, winter” reveals the monotony and loneliness of her life. When her marriage eventually falls apart and she is alone Jesus appears to her offering her an unhappy angel, named Alfred, to be her husband for four years; a wedding is performed and she is pleased to have a companion once again. Contentment if not actual happiness fill the house as she and the angel go about the daily routine of being in love, her joyfully, him reservedly, however happiness turns to tragedy while in the midst of making love the woman accidentally suffocates Alfred. At first Jesus rebukes her, admonishing her for killing hi angel. The woman’s grief is turns against her God whom she cries has made her “body a burden” and her soul “lonely and stupid.” In the end Jesus appears to her again and asks for forgiveness to which the woman upon turning her back to him states, “I have no forgiveness to give.”

            Frank relies on a loose narrative structure to tell a story of American mythology. “The Sin of Jesus” depicts human isolation evident in “The Americans” and “Pull My Daisy.” A bleak and unforgiving landscape mirrors the introverted human emotions of the woman, “the tone swings back and forth between despair and whiffs of mysticism that slides into a raggedy kind of farce.” (Sante. 32)



“What unites the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the Black people and the White people in Frank’s photographs is their isolation.” (Taubin. 66)

            Robert Frank’s early works both his photographic series “The Americans’ and his films “Pull My Daisy” and “The Sin of Jesus” offered the world his view of a culture that was broken and oppressed.  Frank’s “anger in The Americans is directed, by and large, not at the people in the photographs, but at the hypocrisy of both commercial and art photography in refusing to expose the failure of the American dream.” (Taubin. 66) The resonance of the failed American dream continues throughout Frank’s early films as well, from Kerouac’s repetitive signals of American ethos (baseball, religion, patriotism, cockroaches, self-love and oblivion) in “Pull My Daisy” to the depressing, solitary existence of one woman in a world of loneliness in “The Sin of Jesus”. In his works Frank delivers a candid portrayal of a society who were no more at home in their own land than he was in theirs.

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