Photography and Literature
An Introduction to Pull My Daisy--A Triptych by Robert Frank
© 2000, 2015 William Anthony Nericcio
is an unknowable odyssey that characterizes our movement into the world
of life and consciousness. We are born--torn from the comfort of a
dark and profound penumbra and thrust into the sharp shock and
of a brightly lit operating room, our eyes take on a life of their own,
and what they communicate to us and how they communicate to us over the
years begins to shape the contours of what we call our psyche, when we
are talkin’ prettyfancy, and merely our self when we
silent sacred moments each morning before the mirror wondering who, or,
what that thing is, that sentient organism with the curious eyes,
back at us from the reflecting glass.
The pandemonium of this remarkable light--the cacophony of its lucid intrigues is what our photographers help us to adjust to in the worlds of their remarkable art. We turn to photography to adjust to the light, to remind our eyes or retrain our vision so that just maybe we will actually see what transpires in front of our eyes. The old truism about blindness and insight isn't very far off the mark and it is a very amazing and rare thing when we actually can see the forest and the trees.
But tonight I want to talk less about photography proper and more about the relationship between photography, film and literature. In the remarkable triptych one encounters in the work of Zurich-born Robert Frank, the worlds of photography, film, and literature come together in a way that allows us to learn more about these dynamic art forms. Triptych are three-paneled canvases--articulated artifacts that are always already in conversation, always already conspiring with hermeneutical intercourse, exegetical intra-course. As we learn from the work of a Hieronymous Bosch or a Max Beckmann, readers of triptych's must develop the interpretive and multi-valent talents usually only associated with hermaphrodites and ballerinas in the world of sexuality. It is a case of creative contortionism, for which art form will rule the center panel: Photography, Film or Literature? Roland Barthes reminds us of photography’s paradoxical enigma, "that which makes of an inert object a language and which transforms the unculture of a ‘mechanical’ art into the most social of institutions." The mechanical and technological advances that bring us first still photography and next motion pictures changes forever the dynamics of philosophical meditation and questioning as more and more artists turn to the voyeuristically addicting medium of the printed plate.
The next panel of the triptych is film, and lastly we have Literature. With Robert Frank's work we are asked to confront all three. Noted for his association with Beat Writers in our Post-World War II American literary renaissance, Frank's photography comes to fame as a result of a Guggenheim sponored journey across the United States by car in the early 1950s with camera in hand and small family in tow. Walking slowly through the exhibit rooms in this exquisitely designed museum, one is made aware of the ironic density of Frank's work, and the ironic profundity of the United States, a nation we intelligentsia are used to critiquing, but never quite actually fathom--Frank's alien eye, su ojo estranjero, aided by its prothesis, the camera captures a diverse, sometimes decadent, United States of America, a country obsessed with automobiles, beauty spectacles and itself.
A close look at the images reveals a Robert Frank who is obsessed with the idea of America--American flags, American movies, American presidents, parades, children, cowboys and ministers. Which brings us to the second idea pulsing through the veins of the exhibit, and that is the domain of the sacred, of the spiritual, of that quest to find or make Gods in this always transient world. Kerouac writes in the film we are about to see that the Beat poets diaries are portals in which "their sacred naked doodlings do show" and at once the mirror on the wall reveals itself to be the material doppelganger of these innovative poet’s journals, both oddly sacred altars for the worship of the self.
At a party in New York City, Robert Frank photographer, runs into Jack Kerouac, Beat-god, muse, koolCat and all around genius and genius meets genius and their worlds, and our worlds are never the same again. Kerouac agrees to write the introduction to the book and their stars ascend into the cultural mythology of the 1950s. In this coming together of literature and photography, two panels of our triptych conspire to educate us--the jazzy poetics of a Beat author's writing enfolds the grainy visual odyssey of a European-born photographer's prints, the idiosyncratic and irony-drenched wisdom of Franks photos frames the playful, twisted chaos of Kerouac's words, and we begin to get a sense of why the one was drawn to the work of the other.
Here’s a taste: The humor,
the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness of these pictures! ... --Long shot of
night road arrowing forlorn into immensities and flat of
America in New Mexico under the prisoner’s moon--under the whang
Hoboken in the winter,
platform full of politicians all ordinary looking till suddenly at the
far end to the right you see one of them pursing his lips in prayer
(yawning probably) not a soul cares."
The New York Institute for Photography Photographer's Spotlight on Robert Frank reveals that, "While he was assembling his ground-breaking book, Robert Frank ran into his Beat generation buddy, writer Jack Kerouac, at a party and showed him his photos. Kerouac was very impressed and was promptly commissioned to write the introduction for The Americans. Frank traveled cross-country in 1955-1956 shooting over 28,000 images, 83 of which were selected for his book. Going against the tide of perfectly focused and lit images, Frank's photos are grainy, sometimes blurred. Frank became a fly on the wall and photographed people in the most private and public places"
Frank and Kerouac, Swiss lensman and American wordsmith together once again here on this page with you and me.
And then, quite suddenly, they decide make a film together--and so we now turn to the reason we are gathered here tonight in this beautiful room under the shiny ersatz stars. Here tonight, the center panel of the triptych is Film, as we will be screening Robert Frank and Alfred Leslies’ outrageous short subject film, Pull my Daisy
Ray Carney’s critical overview succinctly documents the work that went into the production: "Pull My Daisy was praised for years as a masterwork of free-form "blowing" before Alfred Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 Village Voice article that its scenes were as completely scripted, blocked, and rehearsed as those in a Hitchcock movie. The film was shot on a professionally lit and dressed set. The cast worked from a script, and shooting proceeded at the typical studio snail's pace of two minutes of text per day. All camera positions were locked and all movements planned in advance. As many takes and angles were shot, and as much footage exposed (30 hours) as for a Hollywood feature of the period. Probably more. Even Kerouac's wonderfully shaggy-baggy narration was actually written out in advance, performed four times, and mixed from three separate takes. (Though, in defense of the man who made "first thought, best thought" a Beat mantra, it must be added that he is said to have objected when his narration was edited.)"
In my background study researching the origins of the outrageous spectacle you are about to watch I stumbled across a Mr James Campbell’s "Birth of a Beatnik" in England’s Richmond Review, forgive me quoting it at length, but it provides a motherload of tasty background bits about the making of the film: "A desperately ironic reversal of the original ethos of beat took place around the alternative title for On the Road, "Beat Generation". Over the course of a weekend in 1957, Jack Kerouac had written a three-act play, for which he had used his own old favourite title - since his novel was finally settled, he decided to call the play "The Beat Generation". The substance of it was drawn from an evening at Neal Cassadys' home in Los Gatos in 1955, when a visit of the local bishop and his elderly mother and aunt coincided with the unexpected arrival of Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.The visit turned into a nightmare for Carolyn, Neal Cassady’s wife. After tea had been served, Ginsberg sat between the two elderly women and asked brightly, "Now, what about sex?" Caressing a bottle of wine, Kerouac slouched down on the floor by the bishop's legs and fell into a drunken sleep. As Carolyn endeavoured to carry on a normal conversation with her guests, Kerouac would wake up now and then, look at the bishop and say, "I love you", then go back to sleep. When Neal arrived home from work, he took the part of his wild-man buddies over that of his wife and her clergyman. In 1959, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and some Greenwich Village friends hatched a plan to make a short film, using the third act of Kerouac's play, which dramatized the bishop's visit, as the central event. They wanted to call it "The Beat Generation". However, it was discovered that MGM had copyrighted the title, and were about to give it to a B-movie featuring a rapist on the run from the police. When not terrorizing women, the villainous hero of the film The Beat Generation hangs out in espresso bars and at beatnik parties, where strange dances are performed by men with goatee beards and dyed-blonde beat-chicks to the rhythm of the bongo drums--[allow me to interject here that one of the more interesting aspect in watching this film is to see how Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky are already reacting against the popularity and celebrity of Beat, commonly misnamed Beatnik Culture]. Campbell continues: "The alternative film went ahead. It was called Pull My Daisy, a title borrowed from the early poem by Ginsberg which had appeared in the magazine Neurotica. The director was the Swiss photographer Robert Frank. Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Corso were given parts, the former pair to play themselves, and Corso to move between himself and Kerouac...the technique and spirit of the film were improvisatory; it was a jazz movie, a boy-gang reunion, a homage to the still imprisoned Neal Cassady, and a jeer at his wife....All the essential elements of the boy-gang are there: anti-authoritarianism, jazz, bop-prose narration, girls-in-dresses-better-left-at-home spilling into misogyny, boys' adventure spilling into homosexuality. It is the emblematic Beat Generation film." The irony of all this is that though Kerouac wrote the screenplay and provides the narration he was barred from the set by Director Alfred Leslie, for, as Barry Miles puts it in King of the Beats "arriv[ing] inebriated expecting to party, accompanied by a particularly smelly, drunken bum he had found in the gutter in the Bowery [of New York City].
So what are we about to watch; I want to do as much of my commentary as we can before we watch the film, so that we can plunge into a discussion after the lights come up. So here are some key things to watch for or questions to think about as we screen the movie.
What is the connection between Robert Frank’s work as a photographer and his work as a cinematographer and film-maker? Although Alfred Leslie directed Pull my Daisy, it was Frank’s lens and Frank’s eye that pulled the focus and framed the scenes, so this gives us a great oppportunity to watch a gifted artists working across two technologies.
Here it is a question of identifying visual motifs: are there representations that figure dominantly in both works. I think there are at least a couple and I am willing to wager that many of you are going to run across many more; but just for starters, let me throw out one idea that fuses two Frank motifs together, and that is the idea of the SACRED, the sacred as it relates to the ideas of organized religion, and the sacred as it relates to the idea of the state--hence it comes as no surprise that crosses, flags, politicians and bishops run across the prints and screen in each of Frank’s works, The Americans and Pull My Daisy. "What is holy, What is sacred" you will here Kerouac intone just before the only sequence of the film where he finally shuts up and gives the stage over to Robert Frank and his camera--this narrator-less sequence, one of the more interesting vignettes within the film represents something I call "la quiebra" in my own writings, the site where the rules of the game of narrative break down into bankruptcy, what "la quiebra" means in Spanish, and the work calls itself into question--ultimately what is holy here is the image, Frank’s images as the cinematographer’s poetry silences Kerouac’s rambling commentary.
Other things to think about:
In 1957, Robert Frank’s mentor, Walker Evans, had written that Frank’s photography was a "far cry from all the wooly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood," and that what was its value was its "irony and detachment." It is without question that Frank’s is a master of irony we can see this in his immortalization of Washington and Lincoln in a Detroit bar,
his juxtaposition of Political Campaign posters with a billiards table, exposing the endless routine of strategy and power intrinsic to both,
the South Carolina television that goes on and on without an audience to take in its ubiquitous monotony....
But do these representational tactics, this optics of irony, play as well in his cinematography? And a further complication to complete the triptych, are these ironies to be found as well in the Beat literature and poetry that Franks body of work spans? I think the answer to this long question is yes, and I’ll just give you a peek at a quick example: in the midst of a soliloquy on the nature of what is holy, Frank, here both cinematographer and film editor, gives us a snapshot of an alka seltzer container, anticipating Andy Warhol in his expose on the sanctity of commercial culture for Americans, and revealing I think as well, that the Beats drank a lot and probably needed the stuff every morning.
One last thing to note and then I will release your ears and eyes and give them over to Frank, the Beats, and this mad film you are about to watch. Watch the mirrors in the film and watch the windows in the film and think about the use of windows and mirrors in Frank’s photography--here’s one example from a shot Frank took in New Orleans. The windows are portals for air and breezes, but they become frames and viewfinders as well: frames for portraits that we as spectators consume and viewfinders for these urban dromedaries, wandering across the landscape of urban Louisiana. The most complex mirror sequence of the film comes when we hear Kerouac say, "Cockroach of the eyes, mirror, boom, bang, dream, Freud, Jung" and at some deep level the concerns for representation central to Kerouac and to Frank converge in word and image on the screen.
Let us now move to our silver screen with the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts premiere screening of Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie and Jack Kerouac’s 1959 opus, Pull My Daisy.
As with Buñuel and Dali's
surrealistic classic Un
Chien Andalou (1929), cinematographer Frank, writer Kerouac,
Alfred Leslie and crew play it fast and loose with reality in this
tale of fastdrinking, fast-talking BEATpoets, their annoyed, un-named
and a rather peculiar preacher named "Bishop."
bene: Unedited Reading Script from a Public Lecture @MoPA,
San Diego, October 5, 2000--QUOTE AT YOUR OWN RISK!
The images that appear in this essay are the property of the original copyright holders and are not for reproduction without the direct authorization of those individuals. Here, the Internet is at one with our biological domain--in short, reproduce at your own risk. On 6, September 2008; I was asked to remove the images reproduced here by attorneys for Robert Frank's estate; I have asked them to leave the essay intact citing fair-use copyright laws.