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Matters of Fact

Retracing Robert Frank's road trip; the Hotel Chelsea's grand ghosts; salt in Venezuela

In the mid-1950s, a photographer named Robert Frank, lately emigrated from Switzerland, drove around the United States to see and to join his new country. He shot pictures. The results, or his choices among them, were published in a book of eighty-three photos called The Americans, which was an immediate and lasting success. The book was not only a unique way for a newcomer to learn about his new home: in some ways it showed a social candor that was as yet unusual in photography. In his introduction to the book, Jack Kerouac wrote: "Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film." We can still look over Frank’s shoulder and see that poem in the making.

Fifty years later, another European, the French photographer and director Philippe Séclier, retraced Frank’s footsteps--tire treads, really. In a film called An American Journey, Séclier travels to see this country today from the same vantage points as Frank: South Carolina, Montana, Louisiana, and so enticingly on. Séclier includes interviews with some experts, mostly modern curators of photography, who support his view of Frank’s pioneering in photography as social inquiry. It is hardly a surprise that almost all the people who were in the original shots are no longer around, but all the towns and cities have greatly changed, too. Séclier gives us the essence of Frank’s vision as understood by his own.

These days we are all so awash in photography that Séclier can add little to our knowledge of the way America looks. Essentially what he brings us is not news but difference--why and how the mining town of Butte is not the same, why Frank’s sidewise view of a segregated New Orleans trolley is now a historical document. We find ourselves wondering what a comparable Séclier--equipped with what camera technology?--will see on a similar trip fifty years from now.

His work underscores an element that implicitly and sometimes visibly overwhelmed Frank: the size of this country. Frank, like many Europeans, was struck by the fact that in America, after you have traveled a long way, there is still a long way to go. Séclier found, almost naïvely, that to reach the Frank sites he had to move and move and move. His closing credit is "Directing and driving by Philippe Séclier." Most of the shots of auto travel in his film are slightly blurred, as if to signify that he was voyaging through a kind of outer space on earth. Thus, like Frank, he ultimately situates the places that he visits in vastness. It is part of the American Geist. He makes us remember the opening of John Ford’s version of The Grapes of Wrath, when Henry Fonda walks away from us into a wide landscape down a narrow road; and the very last line of the Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A.: "A hundred miles down the road"; and Kerouac’s own On the Road; and Frank’s highway shots of U.S. 30 in Nebraska and U.S. 285 in New Mexico. And look at Séclier’s title. He is revisiting Frank’s particulars in a continental cosmos.

Subsequently Frank had a substantial film-making career, most notably with Pull My Daisy, a sort of ballad of Beatniks written and narrated by Kerouac. But he never abandoned still photography. It is as if he refused to concede that cinema was an automatic improvement on it. Film always swaggers a bit over stills, perhaps because it glories in the delusion that it can really defeat mortality. The still photograph more quietly knows that it at least preserves one infinitely deep moment.

Back when the Underground was in the foreground of film discussion, Andy Warhol made a picture called The Chelsea Girls. It was shot in the celebrated Hotel Chelsea in New York, but it had much less to do with its setting than with Warhol’s attempts to reshape film form. Nonetheless, he felt a need to mention the place in his title.

Now, however, comes a concentration on the place--Chelsea on the Rocks, a documentary meant as memorial. The hotel has had a century-old reputation as a rather free-and-easy, convivial roost for all kinds of artists: it has now changed ownership, and this film was made as tribute to a landmark that may be changing. The director is Abel Ferrara, who made such numbers as Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, and is not especially known for sentiment. But he was drawn to this subject and has handled it with all the appropriate mist and chuckle.

The Chelsea, which has 250 rooms, was built on West 23rd Street in Manhattan in the late nineteenth century. It was first an apartment house, but was soon converted into a hotel. During the last century it was the owners’ pride that the atmosphere of the place did not change and that its business dealings with residents remained easy. It was determinedly impervious to all that was racing along in the city around it and stayed as late Victorian as it could. The lobby was festooned with the work of resident artists who were up-to-the-minute, but they, too, were glad that the place retained its quasi-historical air.

Names from Mark Twain on filter through the Chelsea air. Dylan Thomas was living there when he went out on his lethal binge. Tennessee Williams was a familiar for a time. Virgil Thomson, a longtime resident, wrote an opera there. Arthur Miller kept a haven there for years. Ethan Hawke remembers a funny conversation a few years ago with the famously congenial manager. As the years rolled on, stories about ghosts in certain rooms began to accrue. Through the years, drugs became more openly part of Chelsea people’s lives. (Drinking, of course, had always been there.)

Ferrara could have used more spikes, identification lines on screen, with more of his subjects. Most of what the many speakers have to say is interesting enough--in this context, anyway--but often, though we know that the speaker is some sort of artist, we don’t recognize him or her.

The film is decently shot and neatly edited, and it tugs a bit even at those viewers--most of us, of course--who don’t really know the place. The main interesting aspect of the hotel is that it survived as long as it did, that there were always some people who wanted a refuge from the world capital of Newness. Ferrara has fashioned a pleasant memento of a place that, in its looks and in its manner of being, was in itself a memento.

The term "documentary," as many have noted, is inadequate--too general, like the term “nonfiction” in the book world. Some documentaries are indeed reportage: many, though factual, attempt much more. Such a work is Araya, an extraordinary film about Venezuelan laborers.

It was made in 1959 and was shown at Cannes where it won prizes--it shared the International Critics Prize with Hiroshima, Mon Amour--but it was skimpily exhibited. About every ten years since, we’re told, Araya has been shown again, warmly received, then lost again. Now, on its fiftieth anniversary, a distributor brings it back once more. This time, we can hope that it will linger, at least with the fitful permanence that many more adequately recognized films have known.

Araya is the name of a peninsula on the northeastern coast of Venezuela. Fifty years ago a young director called Margot Benacerraf was struck by the facts of the place and saw that the facts were the surface of immensities. Fishing went on there, naturally, but the two gods of the peninsula were sun and salt. The sea kept washing up on the barren cliffs along the coast, and the sun kept burning the water down to its salt. The cliffs were covered with thick layers of crusted salt, and most of the men in the area lived by digging it up and, in long files, carrying it off to wagons and trucks. Some men even went out in boats and dug up rocks of salt from the sea bottom. At least all this was the case in 1959, and Benacerraf wanted to record a four-hundred-year-old way of life before it disappeared.

The scope, the antiquity of the work, the patient movement of the workers over and over again, obviously struck Benacerraf as a heroic struggle to wrest livelihood from the seemingly barren. More, she saw the almost balletic rhythms winding across and around this immensity. With a gifted cinematographer, Giuseppe Nisoli, she blended the two elements of struggle and taunting beauty. The black-and-white rendition of these lives brings a kind of welcome pang. We don’t want to slip into aesthetic rhapsody about labor--backbreaking work is backbreaking work--yet the nearly choreographed lines of these laborers keep moving past brute facts. It is much the same twist that I remember from The Pearl (1948), with Gabriel Figueroa’s exquisite cinematography of the hard lives of Mexican pearl fishers.

Benacerraf shows us all that we need of the salt miners’ homes and wives, of their children and their lovers, to complete the daily reality. But at the end a new reality invades: cranes and trucks arrive to take over the salt work and to change many lives. Some of the manual mining apparently continues, especially in the boats, but Araya is a record. Today, when we look at eighteenth-century spinning wheels, we see lovely objects, and we also are glad that the drudgery involved is now foregone. Araya preserves the same sort of ironic beauty.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.