Robert Frank – The Man Who Brought Avante-Garde Filmmaking to Nova Scotia

by Ron Foley Macdonald

Robert Frank is arguably the most important photographer of the post-WWII period. First published in France in 1958, then in the United States in 1959, his seminal work The Americans changed the course of twentieth-century photography. Less well known is the key role he played in the development of the Nova Scotia film community.

Born in Switzerland in 1924, Frank was a legend of the post-war avante-garde by the time he came to Nova Scotia in 1969 as part of a wave of world-class artists who have lived in the province, off and on, more or less ever since (some of those artists include sculptor Richard Serra, screenwriter and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, actor and playwright Sam Shepard, and composer Philip Glass).

The arrival of these artists helped change Nova Scotia’s heretofore provincial artistic view of itself into a much more international outlook, influenced particularly by what was going on in New York City. 

Frank was a key figure in this transition. He had left photography at the height of his fame in 1959 to try his hand at filmmaking. His first film left an indelible mark. Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Jack Kerouac and starred a number of the leading Beat poets, played on a key double-bill with John Cassavetes’ indie breakout feature Shadows in New York City. It helped bring about a revolution in independent film creation and exhibition, led by an entirely new generation of studio-free auteurs.

Swiss-born American photographer Robert Frank puts his hand over his mouth in this portrait, 1958. (Photo by John Cohen/Getty Images)

Here in Nova Scotia, Frank taught a filmmaking class at NSCAD in the early 1970s, and any of those in the class formed the first rank of the initial membership for the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Cooperative. The workshop film created from the class is part of a small canon of Frank’s cinematic work that reveals his techniques of teaching, collaboration, and collective creation. 

He filmed many of the principals of the groundbreaking Mabou Mines Theatre company in his 1975 film Keep Busy, an absurdist story shot on the abandoned Margaree Island that is chock full of Beckett-esque moments. Other films and videos shot in Nova Scotia by Frank include the 2002 personal documentary Paper Route and the 1989 feature film Candy Mountain, which has an incredible list of hipster cameos. Tom Waits, Rita MacNeil, Dr. John, the Clash’s Joe Strummer, and New York Dolls lead vocalist David Johanson all made an appearance in a story that drifted between New York City to Glace Bay.

Frank’s influence on the cinema reaches around the globe, from Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley in the USA to the Finnish Kaurismaki Brothers, Aki and Mika. The legendary photographer and filmmaker has a seemingly offhand and organic approach to capturing images and stories that has both challenged and extended the purview of the narrative cinema. He charted a unique and entirely original course in the cinema, one that viewed film as a kind of continuous exploration and adventure, blended with memory and sense of personal revelation.

While Robert Frank’s extraordinary cinematic work can hardly be called mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, many of his techniques and attitudes still resonate within the more adventurous elements of the international motion picture community, including Nova Scotia, where he left an indelible mark.

Ron Foley Macdonald

Ron Foley Macdonald

Ron Foley Macdonald is a filmmaker, musician, author, and arts journalist who lives in Halifax, NS. He has written for such publications as the Halifax Daily News, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and Take One. He taught film history for 15 years at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and has also taught at Dalhousie University and Mount Saint Vincent University. For two decades he was the Senior Programmer at the Atlantic Film Festival. He is currently the curator of the film and video series at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, and the producer of the recent feature films Exit Thread and Roundabout.
Ron Foley Macdonald

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