Review: Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

7.5 out of 10

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank is a documentary that has been completed since 2004, but it’s only seeing the light of day this year. Despite considerable and gregarious input from famous photographer, filmmaker, and subject Robert Frank, Leaving Home, Coming Home boasted an “unauthorized” status and left director Gerald Fox’s film in a state of perpetual limbo for decades, making it yet another film either featuring or created by the artist that would becoming notoriously hard to view. Frank, who’s currently 94, and was in his 80s during the production of Fox’s documentary, has understandably slowed his output in recent years and recently gave the greenlight to the release of Leaving Home, Coming Home, hot on the heels of another documentary about him, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, which came out a couple of years back. While Don’t Blink still might be a better, more thorough representation of Frank’s life and work, Leaving Home, Coming Home is more like unearthing a deeply personal time capsule. Frank isn’t pulling any punches or holding back with Fox, even if he says he would rather not talk about certain aspects of his life and work. On a personal level, I can see why Frank was uncomfortable with people seeing Leaving Home, Coming Home, but it’s also valuable bit of insight and a well made documentary.

Born in Zurich to Jewish parents who stayed behind in Europe during World War II instead of fleeing to safer pastures, Robert Frank emigrated to the United States in 1947 and began his career as a photographer. More a naturalist than a formalist, Frank was best known for capturing the daily lives of Americans in raw, candid fashion. He would go on to publish his most famous collection of photographs, The Americans, a work that some would laud as a breakthrough and others would deem as being unpatriotic thanks to its unvarnished and unfiltered look at life in the United States. His work would endear him to the beat poets of the 1950s and 60s, and from there Frank would dabble in avant garde and documentary filmmaking.

Fox presents his subject with a double edged sword. Early on in Leaving Home, Coming Home, Frank loses his cool with the Fox, and not just because the director’s 16mm camera keeps running out of film. When Fox asks his subject to talk about his early years and some of his best known photographs, Frank chastises the filmmaker because simply reciting and reshooting facts for the sake of the audience is the last thing he wants to do. Although Frank is a great conversationalist and a surprisingly unpretentious sounding guy given his past works, doing reshoots and explaining things in lengthy detail runs counter to everything he stands for. He’d much rather be hitting the pavement with Fox and talking about the sites of some of his most notable pictures and telling stories about how life in his Bleecker Street neighbourhood has changed over the past decades.

Fox obliges with Frank’s requests, and captures some pretty great interactions between Robert and everyday New Yorkers (especially from a Yeshiva teacher who geeks out when he sees the photographer on the Coney Island boardwalk), but that natural approach forces the film’s subject to let his carefully cultivated guard down and get somewhat personal. Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank still wants to dwell more on the work of its subject rather than his early years growing up, but what audiences will take away from Fox’s documentary most of all is the realization that a lot of these photographs and movies were deeply personal. Maybe not his legendarily suppressed Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues – which Frank finds uninteresting on the whole and dismisses the controversy surrounding it as “pathetic” – but in having a grander story or anecdote to tell behind almost all of his pictures and films, Frank offers viewers some insight into his work.

Frank didn’t take pictures hoping that they would conform to some greater meaning that he was searching for through his lens. He valued spontaneity, honesty, and always wanted the viewers to ask “How does it feel to be here?” There’s something innately personal in the way that he would take pictures while riding on the bus or his admission that he hasn’t had an idea for a large scale project since the 1970s. Leaving Home, Coming Home also looks at the relationship he has to his current wife, June Leaf, a visual artist that he loves and admires deeply, and shares footage of his son, Pablo, who passed away in 1994 after considerable mental health struggles. He even allows viewers into his other home in Nova Scotia, which sounds a lot like Frank’s place to go when he wants peace. By talking about the personal nature of his art, Leaving Home, Coming Home eliminates some of the questions Frank probably wanted patrons of the arts to answer for themselves, but in their place Fox leaves plenty of detail about who the artist is as a human being and what makes him value reality over artifice.

Even though Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank looks naturally dated by this point, it remains a fresh and vibrant depiction of an artist in their natural habitat. Frank might be leaving his comfort zone by even slightly opening up to Fox, but there’s still a conciseness to the stories being shared that doesn’t betray the photographer’s deeply rooted ideals. Some of this might’ve cut a bit too close to the bone for Frank, but it’s nice to see that he has finally found some value in Fox’s work. It might not be the absolute best look back at Frank’s career, but it’s certainly the most personable and uniquely detailed.

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, August 2, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.