Yesterday I went to a press screening at Cinema Project for a retrospective of short films by Robert Frank, who is probably better known for still photographs but considered himself a filmmaker first. Frank was a friend of the Beat Poets—Allen Ginsberg even collaborated on his first film, Pull My Daisy. But what I watched were Frank’s later video works, in which he's what you'd call a diarist.
In videos like 1985’s Home Improvements and 2004’s True Story, it seems as if he filmed his entire life for varying periods, and simply edited down the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of tape down to anywhere from five minutes to an hour and a half.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before, of course: a succession of mundane shots that the person behind the camera hopes will collectively amount to some kind of meaningful document – think of that paper bag spinning in the wind from American Beauty and you’ll get the idea. Frank's films are also eerily Lynchian for much of the time, as we are introduced to a lot of friends and family with their idiosyncrasies and uncharismatic charisma. But one inevitably feels unnerved witnessing someone who sees a lot of his life through a video camera viewfinder. Frank may be able to justify it artistically, but sometimes his commitment still seems kind of sad.
Curiously, it occurred to me on the bike ride home that the primary movie on my mind lately also happens to prominently feature someone whose vision either has or will become by way of video: Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. (I had planned to write about the movie in a separate passage to follow. It’s great, though!)
Even those who have yet to see Episode III (it comes out in five days) already know that the finalé includes Anakin Skywalker’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader. I’m referring for the purposes of this conversation strictly to the physical transformation here. As the mask goes on, there is a very brief point-of-view shot through Vader’s mask. And while watching it I, for a brief moment anyway, imagined all the future moments that will come in Darth Vader’s life as a Sith Lord and schoolyard bully for the Empire.
I pictured him strangling a rebel commander in the air with one hand at the beginning of the original Star Wars, snarling, “If this is a diplomatic mission, where’s the AMBASSADOR?” Only this time the screen was pixilated. I pictured Vader holding his hand out to Luke at the end of Empire saying, “Join me,” but with the synthetic glow of a screen as filter.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with seeing the world through a screen. And the situations Robert Frank and Anakin Skywalker faced were very different ones. For Anakin the screen was a necessity, and for Frank it was by choice. I wrestle in particular with Frank’s decision, because as an amateur photographer and filmmaker I sometimes when I have a camera in my hands I forget to take a good look at the world beyond what I can capture. But at the same time, the camera prompts a heightened attention to your surroundings—you’re always searching for a compelling image.
Yet that image is not the same thing as the reality. After all, that’s why Vader ultimately chooses to remove his mask in order to see Luke in person for the first and last time.